The first sentence is unambiguous. Is it correct or incorrect to interpret the second sentence the same way as the first? Put another way, does the structure of the second sentence allow for a description of the term a cynic without the quotation marks to make it clear?

One may read the second sentence and assume the writer is defining a cynic incorrectly, and should have written: "A realist is what an idealist calls a cynic". But is the second sentence wrong or just unclear as written?

  • There is a belief that grammaticality is chiefly what determines acceptability. But Gricean maxims are at least as important. 'Wrong or just unclear' begs the question. – Edwin Ashworth May 31 '18 at 21:21
  • OK, replace "Wrong or just unclear" with "incorrect, correct, or both depending on interpretation according to standard grammatical rules" – Dan Abarbanel May 31 '18 at 21:34
  • Are we agreed that a sentence violating a Gricean maxim (or a sentence manifestly ludicrous) must be judged 'incorrect' even if it is perfectly grammatical? Like 'It was wicked' or 'Colorless multicolored ideas sleep egregiously'? – Edwin Ashworth May 31 '18 at 21:44

This page from GrammarBook.com details the use of quotation marks for this type of purpose.

Rule 8a. Quotation marks are often used with technical terms, terms used in an unusual way, or other expressions that vary from standard usage.


It's an oil-extraction method known as "fracking."

He did some "experimenting" in his college days.

I had a visit from my "friend" the tax man.

As is, there are multiple ways to interpret this sentence:

"A cynic" is what an idealist calls a realist.

Without context, the inclusion of a in "a cynic" actually makes the sentence more unclear; it's possible the reader could interpret the sentence to be referring to literal name calling (e.g. using a code name).

An idealist may call a realist by the name "A cynic."

Alice, an idealist, sees Bob, a realist, walking by on the street. "Oh, hey, 'A cynic!' What's up?" she calls, as a friendly idealist would do.

Bob, a realist, notices Alice, and is confused by the interaction, as he is unsure of who Alice was referring to by the name "A cynic."

A simple change might help make things more clear:

"A cynic" A "cynic" is what an idealist calls a realist.

Or, if the author has privilege of word processing, they may be inclined to italicize:

A cynic is what an idealist calls a realist.

By emphasizing the single word cynic, it's very unambiguous that the author wishes refer to the idea of cynicism, rather than the simple act of calling someone by the name "A cynic." It also brings the first sentence's meaning much closer to the inferred meaning of the second sentence.

A cynic is what an idealist calls a realist.

To answer your question, this sentence isn't necessarily "wrong," but it definitely seems unclear without any emphasis on the word cynic. In the absence of context, it seems most likely to me that the author is referring to the idea of cynicism in the second sentence. If this is the intended meaning, the author may be able to get away with using this second sentence "as-is," but in written publication, an editor might choose to emphasize the word cynic to help clarify any ambiguity, if that is what the author intended.

If desired, it may also be appropriate to emphasize other parts of the sentence; however, the author should be careful to use this sparingly, as the effect is lost when overdone.

A cynic is what an idealist calls a realist.

And for your other version:

A realist is what an idealist calls a cynic.

  • Thanks for your answer. It all came up because a friend of mine said "A cynic is what an idealist calls a realist" and I said "I think you mixed up your terms." A hilariously long and loud argument ensued until we were able to convince each other of the ambiguity, but we wanted to take home victory over the written form. – Dan Abarbanel Jun 5 '18 at 4:37

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