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.]

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.