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.]

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.