A Salmagundi of Errors

As I create these columns, I often encounter interesting errata that don’t fit into a specific category. So here’s a potpourri of miscellaneous misuses:

• Recently, I read the obituary of a prominent Japanese mathematician. The subhead announced that he was “a curious man whose models are used in finance and biology.” I assumed that the deceased scholar was odd or eccentric. Then I read the text, which revealed that he “had an intense curiosity, whether focused on math theory or world affairs or shoeing horses.” The word “curious” has a double meaning, and my initial interpretation proved to be mistaken.

• From a review of a nonfiction espionage book: “Mr. Chapman was feckless and erratic but, in his own way, dependable. ‘Slowly at first, and with great care, Chapman began to build up a stock of secrets that would be of supreme interest to British intelligence’… .” The primary meaning of “feckless” is ineffective – a characterization that seems inapplicable in this case.

• In a letter to the editor: “Authors subjected to a critical review face a Hobson’s choice: [If] they complain they sound thin-skinned, but if they remain silent the reviewer’s judgments stand unchallenged.” The writer is describing a dilemma, not a “Hobson’s choice.” This useful expression means no choice or, more precisely, only one choice. As the story goes, a livery stable owner named Thomas Hobson (1544-1630) had a policy that the customer must take the horse in the stall closest to the stable door – or none at all.

The above examples illustrate several important principles of effective communication: Be clear. Avoid ambiguity. Check a dictionary. Be sure it’s right. Or to paraphrase Dr. Seuss’s Horton the Elephant: Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

[Ed Note: 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 recently published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

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Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.