Unhelpful Metaphors

Using metaphors in prose can be a powerful way to convey complex ideas and subtle layers of meaning. Thoughtful use of images and idioms can enrich your writing and give shape to your authorial voice. But some metaphors contribute to social stigma and are best avoided.

Contemporary American English is so full of idioms and imagery that you may not even notice you’re using a metaphor. And if it’s a commonly used term or phrase, you may be unaware of the metaphor’s negative connotations.

In my work as an editor, I’ve found that many writers will use idiomatic and metaphorical language related to disability. For example:

  • “They followed their leader’s advice blindly.”
  • “He was schizophrenic in his approach to the problem, wavering between one extreme solution and its opposite.”
  • “She was deaf to their protests.”

In these sentences the disability term is linked to ignorance, instability, and stubbornness. These associations with people who are blind, who have mental illness, or who are Deaf perpetuate harmful stereotypes, even if the writer didn’t consciously intend to do so.

In fact, while metaphors can enrich prose and make it more appealing, using disability terms in this way may push readers out of the text, if only momentarily.

So what’s the alternative? Simply say what you mean. For example:

  • “They followed their leader’s advice unthinkingly.”
  • “He wavered in his approach to the problem between one extreme solution and its opposite.”
  • “She refused to listen to their protests.”

Sometimes being direct is best. In this case you’re ensuring that readers will not be distracted by an unintended meaning and instead engage with the content.

For further reading, see my blog post “Unintended Consequences.”

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