“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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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.