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Precise Academic Writing: The Non-Word Void

The very nature of academic writing requires a precise use of language.  There is no room for vague ideas floating out into a non-word void similar to that of deep space.  Producing, controlling and mastering this precision is one of the hardest aspects of writing in an academic style, for both novice and ESL academic writers.

Professors, journal editors or even proofreading services will have received, on many occasions, submissions of academic text containing words with imprecise meaning.  An example of such a phrase can be seen below:

The striking thing about this research is that it highlights the necessity for a reinterpretation of the laws concerning euthanasia.

Although the majority of the above sentence is in an academic style, the word ‘thing’ holds no meaning. It acts, instead, as a non-word, because it does not precisely state what the actual ‘thing’ is.  It might refer to ‘an aspect’ of the research or ‘the findings’ of the research.  The reader is left to fill in the blanks and guess what was ‘striking’.

Other non-word examples, that frequently occur, are ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘big’, ‘small’, and so on.   Take the example of the word ‘big’.  In the following sentence ‘big’ is partnered with ‘changes’:

The research concludes that big changes will be needed in the way legal systems treat euthanasia, in order to protect the rights of the individual.

This use of ‘big’ is so vague that it encompasses a whole array of meaning.  The writer could be trying to convey the idea of ‘substantial’ changes, ‘historic’ changes or even ‘meaningful’ changes.  Each one of these synonyms carries a different message for the reader.  For example, ‘historic’ might mean that the changes have never been witnessed before in the history of the country.  ‘Substantial’, on the other hand, might mean that parts of the legal system might need to change.

The writer has failed to claim their role as the person who carries essential meaning to their audience. This can lead to frustration for the writer and confusion for the reader.   Academic writing demands that the writer states their message clearly, while leaving nothing to the reader’s imagination.

Solving the Non-Word Void

For the novice or ESL writer, however, they might have realised that they do not have control over their language, but their limited exposure to the academic genre means that they cannot easily think of alternatives to solve this non-word issue.

A good thesaurus, also known as a synonym dictionary, can aid the writer to find alternatives to the words in question.  One such example is the Merriam-Webster dictionary and thesaurus, where the writer can type the word into the search box and find a range of synonyms and their meanings.

Another way to resolve the above issue is to read more widely in the subject area, for which the writer is producing the written text.  The writer can collect examples of the various synonyms, in order to expand their vocabulary range; thus avoiding non-words.  In this way, the writer will then be able to reclaim their role as the maker of meaning.