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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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.