I am familiar with the meaning of blank check as in carte blanche. Receiving a blank check, in this context, is quite a good thing for the recipient (though perhaps not for the issuer).

In a recent article, however, I encountered a negative connotation to receiving a blank check:

Attorney S. Lee Merritt said the family has not been satisfied with the information coming out of the district attorney's office. Nor were they pleased it took three days to charge Guyger when, in Merritt's view, the officer's admission she shot him was sufficient to merit an arrest on manslaughter charges, he said.

"The promise of transparency to this family has been a blank check," Merritt said.

What is meant in this context? Is this a regionalism, or perhaps a hyper-correction?

  • Although the sentence on its own makes sense to me, it doesn't really make sense to me in the context of the passage itself. The promise of transparency has been a blank check to whom? It seems as if the promise was broken anyway, because the family wasn't satisfied. In any case, something negative to one person can easily be something positive to someone else. It's all relative. Somebody is writing a blank check—and somebody else is filling in a certain amount . . . Sep 11, 2018 at 20:38
  • 1
    In the context of the full CNN article, the quoted sentence doesn't make sense to me. It seems as though the speaker really means something like "The promise of transparency to this family has been a bogus check"—that is, it promises something of material value but can't be converted to anything of the kind. The negative sense of "blank check" involves a lack of appropriate controls or oversight: if you give the police department a blank check (or more properly, "carte blanche") to handle complaints of police misconduct, you allow it to reach any conclusion it wants regarding the complaints.
    – Sven Yargs
    Sep 11, 2018 at 20:50
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    It's a wrong use of the idiom. A blank check means one without the amount of money written in yet; the amount will be decided by the recipient. It refers to a large valuable check, worth lots of money. But in this context, it means 'an invalid check', one without value or worth. That's just a mistake on the part of the author, and their editors. Sep 11, 2018 at 20:51
  • This is a district attorney's speech. He just can't express himself correctly. A blank check is usually a good thing. He meant: meaningless.
    – Lambie
    Sep 11, 2018 at 21:11
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    A good metaphor would have been bad check.
    – MetaEd
    Sep 11, 2018 at 21:49

2 Answers 2


The quoted attorney appears to have been reaching for a different check-related metaphor, and misspoke. As mentioned elsewhere, a blank check is usually a good thing to be given, as it allows the recipient to determine how much money to draw from the checking account (all linked definitions from Wiktionary).

In this case, I believe the attorney meant instead to refer to a bad check or bounced check. Both phrases refer literally to a check that can't be cashed because there are insufficient funds in the bank. In extended use, they can mean a promise that isn't kept.

This metaphor may be particularly meaningful in the context of state power and race relations. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "I have a dream" speech made extended use of this metaphor1, stating in part:

America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.” 
Martin Luther King, Jr., "I Have a Dream...", 1963

In this context, Merritt means that the District Attorney's office promised the family transparency about their decision making, but failed to live up to that promise. Like a bad check, the promise was worthless.

1 But see discussion in Philip Kennicott's article "Revisiting King’s metaphor about a nation’s debt", Washington Post, August 24, 2011, arguing that this part of the speech is largely forgotten.


"The promise of transparency to this family has been a blank check," Merritt said.

In the context of the article, the author made a mistake in using the idiom blank check.

Literally, a check presented to someone with the amount left blank, so that it can be written out for the desired total. Mom, can you give me a blank check so I can fill it out when I buy my school supplies? By extension, the freedom or permission to spend as much money or use as much resources as needed in pursuit of a desire or goal.

I shall attempt to correct said sentence:

"The promise of transparency to this family was one of falsity,"

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    Yes,for the explanation but I would say: was meaningless. of falsity sounds really too good for this D.A.
    – Lambie
    Sep 11, 2018 at 21:12
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    ... has been an empty one.
    – Jim
    Sep 11, 2018 at 22:25

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