The Language Perfectionist: Let Me Emphasize This One

Is anything amiss in the following three sentences?

  • “I must stress that I was neither consulted on the matter of changing the grades, nor was I asked to sign the alterations in the grading sheet.”
  • “At the outset, I would like to stress that it has been a pleasure working closely with my World Bank colleagues….”
  • “Stress the point that users are getting security warnings when visiting their site.”

A basic rule of good writing is never to use a long word when a short one will suffice. In most cases, this dictum is worth observing. But every rule has exceptions. In the above cases, I would substitute emphasize for stress.

Why? The word stress has multiple meanings, ranging from force or pressure to a serious psychological condition. Also, it’s a noun as well as a verb. Thus, its use in some contexts might momentarily mislead the reader or provoke irrelevant associations. (Example: “In our final tests of the new car model, we should stress the braking system.”) In contrast, the word emphasize is unambiguous.

[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.