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.]