The Language Perfectionist: A Congeries of Misuses

Once again, it’s time for a selective roundup and analysis of mistakes in the news:

  • “It is ironical that the author of the book that accurately depicted the lives of China’s rural poor… was rejected by the revolutionaries themselves.”

The standard form of the word is ironic, not ironical. In a previous column, I discussed “needless variants”; ironical is a prime example.

  • “The use of diapers in particular is so engrained in Western culture that it’s almost impossible to imagine life without them.”

The word engrained isn’t wrong, but it’s obsolescent. The standard spelling is ingrained. It means firmly established, deep-seated, fixed.

  • Photo caption: “Sadly, Edith Wharton was born here but never lived to see it become a Starbucks.”

This is a quintessential misplaced modifier. The momentarily puzzled reader will eventually conclude that the sad event was not Wharton’s birth but rather that she didn’t survive long enough to order a Mocha Venti Chocolate-Chip Frappuccino. Rewrite: “Edith Wharton was born here but, sadly, never lived to see it become a Starbucks.”

  • In a profile of a woman who experienced a spiritual conversion: “Her story struck me as increasingly normative rather than anomalous.”

The word normative refers to a norm, a standard of correctness. But the writer quoted above uses it as a pretentious substitute for normal or common.

By the way, if you’re wondering about the word congeries in the title of this column, it means collection, aggregation, or assemblage. It’s pronounced either “KON-juh-reez” or “kon-JEER-eez.”

[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.]