Carrot & Stick Misuse Watch

"Many [metaphors] are used without knowledge of their meaning... Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would be aware of this, and would avoid perverting the original phrase."
—George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (1946)
Although one does not see the term "hammer into anvil" very often anymore, there are still plenty of metaphors constantly misused in modern writing. The most common, and most infuriating, is "carrot and stick".

"Carrot and stick", of course, refers to the old method of getting a horse to pull a plow by dangling a carrot in front of his nose, which is attached to the end of a stick. The correct use of the metaphor would be to mean anytime when someone is motivated by promises of a nonexistent reward. This is almost never how it is actually used, however. Overwhelmingly it is used to refer to a situation where one simultaneously offers a reward and threatens a punishment; apparently the thinking is that one is standing there with a carrot in one hand and a stick in the other, and will give you the carrot if you're good and hit you with the stick in you're bad.

This is nonsensical, and annoying. Why should a carrot represent a universally-desired reward? Plenty of people dislike carrots. Similarly, getting hit with a stick is unpleasant, but I can think of worse things to deal with. My friend Derek suggests we substitute in these instances "delicious cake" and "sack of leeches" for "carrot" and "stick". To my mind, this is much more effective.

This site is an attempt to get people to quit misusing the "carrot and stick" metaphor by publicly humiliating them. Please feel free to send any examples not listed here to me at

"[Helmut Kohl's] chosen instrument of power was the carrot, not the stick; he preferred reward to punishment and deals to orders."
—Michael Mertes, "Helmut Kohl's Legacy for Germany", The Washington Quarterly (Autumn 2002)

"In these areas, carrots are more likely to produce results than sticks."
—Robert Orr, "Governing When Chaos Rules: Enhancing Governance and Participation", The Washington Quarterly (Autumn 2002)

"[The health insurance industry's] financial position was so dire...that the Federal Government was forced to introduce carrot-and-stick measures to save the private health sector from collapse. The measures included a 30% tax rebate on contributions, tax penalties on higher-income earners who did not have private insurance and the introduction in July 2000 of Lifetime Health Cover, which imposed higher premiums on people who did not take out insurance until after the age of 30."
—Beth Quinlivan, "Health-fund Relapse", Business Review Weekly, September 5, 2002

"The report argues that with enough international use of sticks and carrots, a viable peace agreement [in Sudan] could be achieved."
—Gail M. Gerhart, "Recent Books on International Relations", Foreign Affairs (September/October 2002)