“Mutual” Admiration Society

Are the following two sentences correct?

• “The Minister of Public Security… signed last night in Washington D.C. a memorandum of mutual understanding with his American counterpart….” (The situation involves two people.)

• “A person met through a mutual acquaintance is often more easily integrated into one’s network than a person met on one’s own.” (The situation involves two people and their relationship to a third person.)

In The Careful Writer, Theodore M. Bernstein explains:

“Properly speaking, mutual connotes interaction or recognition between two or more persons or things. The meaning ’shared in common’… is not now considered good usage.” (That sense of the word was popularized by the title of Charles Dickens’s novel Our Mutual Friend.)

Thus, the first sample sentence above is correct, but, judged by the rule just cited, the second one is questionable.

Another language authority is adamant that mutual should be used only to mean “reciprocal.” Instead of “mutual friend,” he advises us to write and say “friend in common.” But that locution strikes my ear as awkward and clunky.

Bernstein agrees: “Because a suitable substitute is lacking, the tendency these days is to accept the phrase mutual friend or mutual acquaintance.”

Although I tend to be a traditionalist on language matters, I can be flexible. We need not blindly follow linguistic rules if they don’t make sense. This is one such case. So my verdict is that both of the sample sentences at the beginning of this article pass muster.

[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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