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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.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.