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The Language Perfectionist: Gaffes Galore

Here’s another collection of errors I encountered recently in major publications:

  • “[The scandal at Hewlett-Packard] has stunted a long search by HP’s employees for stability and pride at the patriarch of Silicon Valley companies.”

A patriarch is defined literally as “a man who rules a family, clan, or tribe,” and, by extension, “the founder or original head of an enterprise.” Using the word to characterize an organization rather than a person, as is done here, is something of a stretch. It also creates opportunities for confusion. The reader might wonder: Is the reference to the just-dismissed CEO?

  • “He was dispatched to the Stork Club to pick up a few gallons of the boite’s signature perfume; it was to be poured into the blowers of the theater as an aural accompaniment to the first act’s eye-popping curtain-closer: a bubble bath for the showgirls.”

The audience in 1950 must have been impressed. But the word aural relates to the sense of hearing. The adjective that applies to the sense of smell, and which was surely intended here, is olfactory. Or, if the writer wanted to preserve the alliteration, he could have written “aromatic accompaniment.”

  • “Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein may have some competition in the children’s book department…. But unlike Mr. Seuss and Mr. Silverstein….”

Mr. Seuss? The pseudonym of Theodor Seuss Geisel was Dr. Seuss, correctly rendered in the first mention. Perhaps this writer’s tinkering with the honorific was intended as a joke, but if so, the humor is rather lame.

  • “A New York Times reporter pressed the Republican presidential nominee on the draft. Nixon had remained ambiguous about the issue up to this point….”

The word ambiguous (“open to multiple interpretations”) more naturally applies to a statement than to the individual making it. The preferable word here is ambivalent (“uncertain, indecisive”).

[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.