The Language Perfectionist: Frequent Mistakes, Set Aright

Some linguistic errors occur repeatedly. One of my favorites is the bungling of prix-fixe, a term that even some classy restaurants misspell in various creative ways. Below is a collection of other common gaffes — and how to avoid committing them.

  • “We were on tender hooks waiting for her to come back — when she did [and] she was breathing on her own, I cried with relief.”

The correct expression is on tenterhooks. Once upon a time, tenters were frames and tenterhooks were used to stretch cloth across them. Thus, on tenterhooks is a metaphor for being in a state of suspense or apprehension.

  • “Lind is an internationally renown scholar who has served as a visiting professor for education and educational research….”

The word renown is a noun; the adjective is renowned. Someone who is renowned is distinguished and famous. But don’t use the noun in place of the adjective, as the writer of the above sentence did.

  • “I was just wondering if anyone has dalmations and if their temperament is good around children.”

The breed of dog favored by firefighters and Disney animators is a Dalmatian. Spell it properly — and capitalize it, too.

  • “I would never take the train when I am on a business trip but since I am backpacking this time, I have to — for old time’s sake….”

We do nostalgic things not for the sake of old time but rather old times. Thus, the possessive plural apostrophe should be placed at the end of the word: old times’ sake.

  • “The president simply couldn’t… convey his passion and convictions in the plain words of plain folks, and to breech the chasm between the People’s House and the people’s houses.”

This sentence contains a double mistake. First, the verb the writer evidently had in mind is correctly spelled breach. But then, that’s not right either because he clearly meant bridge (to connect), not breach (to break or tear).

[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.