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The Language Perfectionist: The Language Doctrine

In a recent news report, a think-tank executive was quoted as follows: “There is no Obama doctrine because the president is not doctrinaire.”

The remark might have been intended as a clever pun, but it’s confusing and misleading.

A doctrine is “a principle or body of principles.” Its literal meaning is neutral. Religious doctrines do exist, but doctrines are also found in philosophy, science, politics, law, and warfare.

In contrast, the adjective doctrinaire means “characteristic of a person inflexibly attached to a practice or theory.”

The word doctrine isn’t synonymous with dogma, which is “an authoritative, arrogant assertion of unproved or unprovable principles.” (Definitions are from The American Heritage Dictionary.)

One might interpret the pundit’s comment above to mean that the president has no principles or beliefs. But that probably wasn’t what he intended, so he should have expressed himself more clearly.

Because the word doctrine can be associated with religion, it’s probably best avoided if you don’t want it to be misconstrued as meaning dogma or faith. Instead, use such words as belief, precept, premise, principle, tenet, or theory.

[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.