The Language Perfectionist: A Metaphor to Avoid

Consider these passages, found via online search:

  • “Is it any wonder that there are so many problems in America today when there is such contradictory, schizophrenic behavior in our society?”
    • “Any vote would take place in a state where attitudes toward marijuana border on the schizophrenic.”

  • “David Letterman’s seemingly schizophrenic first 15 minutes of tonight’s Late Show spanned the spectrum from funny to serious….”

The word schizophrenic is frequently used, as in the above examples, to mean split, opposed, or contradictory.

But this metaphorical usage should be avoided. Schizophrenia is not synonymous with a “split personality,” as many assume. Rather, it’s a psychosis characterized by “incoherent, hallucinatory, delusional thinking,” as one psychiatrist defines it.

But that’s hardly what most people mean when they use the word to indicate two things that are different or in opposition. More appropriate words for this purpose are dual, dichotomous, and contradictory.

Finally, advocates for the mentally ill point out that schizophrenia is a serious affliction. They frown upon the use of the word in casual and trivial ways. The authors of a study on the widespread misuse of schizophrenic note that “these inaccurate metaphors in the media contribute to the ongoing stigma and misunderstandings of psychotic illnesses.”

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]