The Language Perfectionist: Superfluous Words

One of the basic principles of good writing is to omit unnecessary words. Conciseness beats verbosity. Consider these examples I recently encountered:

  • “[Author James] Patterson considers himself as an entertainer, not a man of letters.”

The word as is dispensable here. Correct: “Patterson considers himself an entertainer….”

  • “But I can’t recall of an instance when [newspaper] book sections disappeared and book coverage was folded into other sections where the coverage expanded.” The word of adds nothing to this sentence and can be deep-sixed.
  • “Study Spanish for free with our online lessons, vocabulary games, and didactical contents developed by Spanish teachers.”

There’s no doubt that the use of for free is commonplace. (A Google search for the phrase generates half a billion matches!) But the expression is slangy and the preposition is superfluous. Correct: “Study Spanish free….” Some language gurus suggest that at no cost, for nothing, or without charge can work better, depending on the context.

Once acquired, colloquialisms such as those above become habitual and are difficult to extricate from one’s vocabulary. In conversation, they may be forgivable. But make the effort to expunge them from your writing.

[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.