The Language Perfectionist: Don’t Take this “Chance”

The word fortuitous is regularly misused. Because of its similarity to fortunate, people assume that it means the same thing. Examples:

  • “As members of the Writers Guild of America strike… the timing of today’s debut could be fortuitous.”
  • “A sudden knee pain near the end of an 18-mile run turned out to mean that I wouldn’t be racing as planned in a coming marathon. ‘Nothing but swimming,’ said the doctor. But I had no idea how fortuitous his prescription would turn out to be.”

Writers of the above are using the word as if it means favorable, fortunate, lucky. But the correct definition is “occurring by accident or chance.” A chance event can be good, but it can also be neutral or even tragic.

Sometimes the context is ambiguous enough to allow the misinformed writer to get away with it. In such cases, the word could plausibly have either meaning. (“Fortuitously, we were asked earlier this year to join the Committee on Broadcast Arts.”) But at least some readers will be left wondering what the writer is trying to say. Moreover, this sort of weaseling is no way to write.

Because the confusion is so widespread, it’s probably best to avoid using the word. But if you choose to use it, be sure you understand its meaning.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was a direct-response copywriter. He is author of the wordplay books Cruel and Unusual Puns and Acronymania, and is now writing a new book that also blends language and humor.]