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.]

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.