Words That Come in Two Flavors

I read The New York Times regularly. Notwithstanding its reputation, this esteemed newspaper often proves to be a fertile source of misuses for this column. Within the space of a few days, for example, I found these two sentences in its pages:

Photo caption: Jed Walentas, a real estate developer, says that an 18-story building would not be obtrusive, and that a smaller one is unfeasible.

Headline: Town Mourns Typical Businessman Who Took Untypical Risks

The words unfeasible and untypical are not necessarily wrong, but they are nonstandard. The preferred forms are infeasible and atypical.

Garner’s Modern American Usage, one of my favorite authorities on matters linguistic, uses the term “needless variants” – “two or more forms of the same word without nuance or differentiation.”

The English language contains numerous word pairs with identical meanings but which differ in minor ways, as the examples above demonstrate. One form is usually regarded as standard, however, and that’s the one you should use.

Here are a few more words to use – and avoid:

complacency, not complacence

• ironic, not ironical

• orient, not orientate

• preventive, not preventative

When in doubt as to which version of a word to use, consult a good dictionary or style guide.

[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 recently published by AWAI that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

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