Metaphorical Usage and Scare Quotes

By Mark Nichol

Writers often mistakenly believe they are being helpful when, in the act of using a word or phrase in a nonliteral sense, they frame the term in quotation marks intended to alert readers, “This usage is not being employed in its original sense!”

However, because readers generally are able to make the cognitive leap to understand that the use of a word or phrase is metaphorical, such symbols—in this role called scare quotes—are almost invariably a distracting and even condescending device. As recommended in the discussions following each example and as demonstrated in the accompanying revisions, avoid such extraneous hand-holding except when coining a new metaphorical word or phrase.

1. In this regard, many companies are starting with a “clean slate.”

It’s clear from the context of this sentence that the businesses in question are beginning with no expectations, records, or some other factor or component, not with a writing surface that has just been wiped: “In this regard, many companies are starting with a clean slate.”

2. If a combination of these and other “red flags” are noted, the board should investigate them.

Brightly colored rectangles of fabric are obviously not under discussion here; the reference is clearly to abstract warning signs such as incongruous data or odd behavior: “If a combination of these and other red flags are noted, the board should investigate them.”

3. The board should be informed of matters related to financial reporting raised by “whistle-blowers.”

The reference to employment of a loud noise-making device is obviously an allusion to the desire of a person to get the attention of authorities and/or the media when he or she discovers institutional wrongdoing: “The board should be informed of matters related to financial reporting raised by whistle-blowers.”

4. Employees can be tempted to “cut corners” and act in an unethical manner.

It’s obvious that the workers under discussion face the temptation of figuratively, not literally, avoiding negotiating right angles as they navigate their way through the workday: “Employees can be tempted to cut corners and act in an unethical manner.”

5. Such policies are discouraged because they can create a “slippery slope” in practice.

Readers will understand that no unsafe inclines are implied by the use of the scare-quoted phrase; the wording refers to the potential difficulty of controlling or halting something once it has been allowed to begin or occur: “Such policies are discouraged because they can create a slippery slope in practice.”

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