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The Language Perfectionist: A Parade of Misuses

While listening to National Public Radio, I heard a plug for the film The King’s Speech. The announcer referred to George VI’s “impromptu ascension to the throne.”

If you’ve seen this excellent movie, you know that George’s becoming king could be described in many ways, but impromptu — spontaneous, unplanned — is not among them. Quite the contrary, in fact. It’s especially surprising that this boner was committed by the supposedly erudite folks at NPR. The phrase is now all over the Internet in summaries of the film.

Here are a few other interesting mistakes I spotted recently in newspapers:

  • “‘What’s great about this,’ Mr. Greene said, ‘is that the award insinuates that we want to play in a theater, which is totally true.'”

The word insinuate means to suggest or hint in a sly or devious fashion. But the award has no such derogatory implication.

  • “The Internet is rife with consumer complaints about DecorMyEyes [a website selling eyeglasses], and even the quickest search of the store’s name yields dozens of outraged testimonials.”

The same sort of error is committed here. A testimonial is always positive; it’s defined as “an expression of esteem, admiration, or gratitude.” If the writer intended to avoid repeating complaints, he could have used gripes or grievances.

  • Photo caption: “A Thanksgiving Day shopper awaits for a Florida mall to open.”

The transitive verb awaits means wait for; the preposition for is included in the meaning of the word. Thus, the caption should be either “A Thanksgiving Day shopper waits for a Florida mall to open” or “A Thanksgiving Day shopper awaits the opening of a Florida mall.”

  • “I’m certain that the author feels embarrassed: he was I.”

This is a classic example of what language gurus call hypercorrection. The writer is the subject of the sentence, so it should read “He was me” or “I was him.”

[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.