Monday, May 03, 2010

The Language Perfectionist: A Chrestomathy of Misuses

Whenever I encounter an interesting linguistic error, I toss it into a folder. When the collection becomes large enough -- which doesn't take long -- I have the raw material for a column like this one.

Review the following mistakes, and you'll avoid committing them.

"We're in the halcyon days of smartphone growth, and it won't last forever."
The word halcyon (pronounced "HAL-see-un") means calm, peaceful, tranquil. The tech guru quoted here meant that phone sales are currently booming. Ironically, if sales decline precipitously, as he suggests, the market will then really be halcyon! (Some dictionaries sanction a secondary meaning of halcyon as happy or prosperous, but this sense is often criticized. In light of the ambiguity, it's best avoided.)

"In the 30 days allotted for public comment, this decision, and all of its permeations, must be fought for the sake of our students...."
The word wanted here is permutations, meaning changes or variations. The word permeation means a passing or spreading through, as a liquid permeates a cloth.

"The judge's decision had clearly extended the protection of First Amendment rights to online writings of a non-threatening manner."
Maybe the writer can get away with the word manner in this context, but a better choice would have been nature. Or, more simply: "First Amendment rights to nonthreatening online writings." The hyphen isn't needed.

"It's not a bad movie. But the plot meanders, development stagnates where it should've been moving forward (right around the middle, to be precise)...."
If the story bogs down around the middle, which indicates an approximation, it can't be precise.

Finally, two editorials recently appeared on the same day in a major newspaper. One included the comment "That is not a surprise, but it is still worrying." The second expressed the view that some recommended changes to textbooks "are very worrisome...."

The adjective worrying is a Britishism. In America, worrisome is standard. But the more serious problem here is that both words appeared on the same page. Most publications provide written guidelines regarding "house style." Writers and editors are supposed to refer to them to ensure consistency. In this case, that didn't happen.

By Don Hauptman

For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing

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