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Fortunate and Fortuitous

Commonly Confused Words

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The primary meaning of fortunate is "lucky" or "auspicious." The primary meaning of fortuitous is "accidental." In recent decades, however, fortuitous has been used synonymously with fortunate and felicitous. See the usage notes below.

Examples:

  • "People who are in a fortunate position always attribute virtue to what makes them so happy." (John Kenneth Galbraith)

  • The best haiku verses have an air of the spontaneous, the fortuitous moment observed.

Usage Notes:

  • "Although some, seeking pomposity, substitute fortuitous for fortunate, the words are not synonymous. Fortunate means 'lucky.' Fortuitous means 'by chance.' 'by accident.' Something that is fortuitous can also be fortunate, but unless it happened by chance, fortunate is the correct word. It was fortunate that the plane had enough fuel to reach an alternate landing field. The pilot's choice was fortuitous; all the other fields were damaged."
    (Rene J. Cappon, The Associated Press Guide to Writing, Peterson's, 2000)


  • "In present-day English we have three senses of fortuitous forming a gradation: 'happening by chance,' 'happening by a lucky chance,' and 'lucky, fortunate.' The third of these has been in use for almost seventy years and is recognized in several dictionaries. There is no question that it is established, especially in newspaper and magazine use, and even though it has lately received a great deal of unfavorable notice, it is showing no sign of going away. You can use the sense, but you should be prepared to catch a little flak if you do.

    "It is harder to advise you about the intermediate use. It seems likely to continue in use, and because the element of chance is present in its meaning, it is unlikely to cause much stir. Only one commentator has noticed it so far, and it has not yet been recognized in most dictionaries. Our guess is that if you use fortuitous to mean 'happening by a lucky chance,' you have nothing to worry about."
    (Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage, Merriam-Webster, 2002)

Practice:

(a) "I'm _____ to be a coward, to have a low threshold of fear, because a hero couldn't make a good suspense film." (Alfred Hitchcock)

(b) This hour-long documentary is the story of a photograph: a fascinating story about a _____ moment frozen in time.

Answers to Practice Exercises

Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

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