The Language Perfectionist: The Sense of Sense

Can you spot anything wrong with these sentences, found online?

  • “A rich mixture of ylang-ylang and palmarosa essential oils creates a sensual aroma.”
  • “Soulful Situations is a sensual sound experience that offers soul, jazz, R&B and beyond.”
  • Article Title: “Heightening the Sensual Experience of a Well-Designed Landscape”

In all of the above cases, sensual should be sensuous.

Why? A reliable reference source for this column is the usage guide The Accidents of Style. Author Charles Harrington Elster explains:

“[The word] sensual, which should apply to the gratification of desire, is often misused for sensuous, which should apply to the senses or to pleasurable sensations…. If you mean ‘lovely, pleasurable,’ or ‘experienced through the senses,’ use sensuous. If you mean ‘self-gratifying’ or ‘pertaining to physical desires,’ use sensual.”

Other commentators note that sensual is sexy, while sensuous is esthetic. It pays to remember the distinction. In some contexts, using the wrong word might prove awkward!

[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.]