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The Language Perfectionist: Here’s Some “Practical” Advice

Can you spot anything amiss in the following sentences?

  • “The right way to look at illegal immigration is with a pragmatic eye.”
  • “Should nurses take a pragmatic approach to hand hygiene?”
  • “The system integrates ideas from logic programming, imperative programming, and rule-based systems in a pragmatic way.”

The writers of these sentences use the word pragmatic as if it were a synonym for practical. Many dictionaries sanction this usage, defining the two words as if they were interchangeable.

But as I’ve argued before in this column, you can’t always trust dictionaries. They are often too permissive and simply echo popular usage, even when it’s incorrect.

The word pragmatic is associated with pragmatism, a school of philosophy that holds that what’s right or just is “whatever works.” Critics argue that this position is equivalent to expedience, an abandonment of ethics and principle.

Thus, even if the distinction between the two words has become blurred or nonexistent for most people, my advice is to avoid pragmatic — unless, of course, immoral or amoral expedience is the meaning you intend.

My hunch is that writers and speakers use pragmatic because it sounds fancier and more impressive than practical, a simpler word that is perfectly appropriate in most contexts.

[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.