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.

[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 that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

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.