The Language Perfectionist: “The Cry of the Awk”

When editing the work of others, I frequently find myself imagining a mythical bird: the awk. In my fantasy, the creature would alert the writer of an awkward sentence with a terrifying cry: “Awk!”

Here are specimens, culled from the media, where this warning might have proven useful:

  • “The discussion… has gone into considerable detail with a number of ideas and proposals for dealing with these complex subjects…”

The phrase “a number of” is vague and unspecific, and characteristic of lazy writing. Where possible, give the precise number. If it’s unknown, better options include several, some,and many

  • “Do you think the ‘This Is It’ movie is a good idea, especially this soon after Michael Jackson’s untimely death?”

Delete untimely.When I was a military journalist, I was taught never to use this phrase. The reasoning behind the rule is that every death is untimely.

  • “A Russian column of at least a dozen armored vehicles moved to within roughly 25 miles of the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, by far the Russians’ closest approach to the city.”

This isn’t exactly a mistake, but describing “closest approach” with the words “by far” creates a contradictory and ludicrous effect that probably wasn’t intended.

  • “How do you utilize the services of convention and visitors bureaus?”

Many people say utilize where use would suffice. It’s a common phenomenon: choosing a word just because it sounds more impressive. The cop tells the newscaster, “I apprehended the perpetrator.” Later, at the bar with his buddies, he boasts, “I collared da bum!”

[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.]