The Language Perfectionist: “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope”

Can you see anything wrong with the following sentences?

  • “No longer able to cope, she reluctantly decides to leave.”
  • “I just can’t cope anymore…. Most of the time I can cope pretty well.”
  • “Homer and the rest of the family have trouble coping without Marge.”

Or how about the title of this column, which is the name of a Broadway musical from the 1970s?

In the above examples, the verb cope is used incorrectly.

According to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, the classic guide to English usage, cope is “an intransitive verb used with with. In formal writing, one doesn’t ‘cope,’ one ‘copes with’ something or somebody.”

Here’s an example of the correct use of the word: “How will this remote society of island people be able to cope with the modern pressures and influences of the rest of the modern-day world?”

If you’re not familiar with the difference between a transitive and an intransitive verb, the terms themselves provide clues to their meanings. An intransitive verb indicates a completed action, which is thereby restricted to the subject. A transitive verb conveys the action to a direct object.

To communicate the sense of a struggle without a specific referent, try endure, prevail, or survive instead of cope.

[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.]