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.]


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.