February 23, 2021

I have argued that one of the most powerful and underutilized tools on the public writer’s workbench is the apt analogy.

A distant cousin to the metaphor and simile, the analogy is a gift from writer to reader. The writer takes something that might be difficult to understand and holds it up against something readers may already know something about.

In America, this speaks to the popularity of the length of a football field. A muscled-up golfer drives a ball 380 yards, the length of almost four football fields. A huge oil tanker is 380 meters, or 1,247 feet, or 415 yards; yes, greater than the length of four football fields.

The football field, like the distance to the moon and back, have become cliches of comparison. Good writers are capable of so much more, as I once described in this analysis of a Pulitzer Prize-winning story about measuring the power of earthquakes using the Richter scale.

How do we make sense of the enormity of 500,000 dead? One way, of course, would require a return to the football field, or in this case one of the largest football stadiums in America. Certain college venues hold 100,000 fans, so the math is easy, though the reality unthinkable, that the dead could fill such stadiums five times over.

Such an analogy, I would argue, lacks decorum.

More artful and appropriate in terms of language and message is the simple analogy offered by Julie Bosman in a New York Times story: “More Americans have perished from Covid-19 than on the battlefields of World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined.” While there are limits to the value of comparing a pandemic to a war, in this context it has an appropriate and sobering effect.

A dazzling digital graphic in The Washington Post, created by Artur Galocha and Bonnie Berkowitz, offers three visual analogies for the human dimensions of loss. 

To take a half million people on a bus tour would require 9,804 buses, a caravan that would stretch almost 95 miles, the distance from New York to Philadelphia. To honor the names of the dead on a memorial, you would need blocks of marble eight times taller than ones that honor the 58,000 dead from the Vietnam War. If you buried the dead in a single cemetery you would need one just as big as the one that exists at Arlington.

Such remarkable images of the enormity of loss can never replace the particular loss experienced by a particular family suffering the absence of a particular loved one, whose full life deserves a narrative of appreciation.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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