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Words to avoid in academic writing

9th June 2020 blog

Cheat sheet

No time to read? Here’s the short version:

Academic writing is comparatively formal. To improve the tone of your paper, avoid the following expressions:

  Category Common Examples
Avoid … informal expressions good/bad, big/small, sort of/kind of
vague expressions a lot, a couple of, thing, stuff
exaggerations always/never, definitely, every/none, best/greatest
opinionated or subjective expressions naturally/obviously, of course, should
clichés at the end of the day, a happy medium
fillers literally, serves to/helps to, really
contractions can’t, won’t, don’t, isn’t, it’s
Think twice before using… the first or second person I, we, our, you, your
unnecessary jargon Demurrer, malfeasance, cytokinesis, aneuploidy
gendered language man, mankind, congressman, him or his when referring to people of all genders

Informal and colloquial writing

Academic writing is more formal than other kinds of writing. Some words or expressions that may be acceptable in emails, blog posts, or text messages are too informal for academic contexts and may come across as unsophisticated.

Informal word(s) Replacement(s) Example
America the United States, the US, the USA The study focused on America the United States.
bad poor, negative The results were bad poor.
big, humongous, huge large, sizeable, significant A huge significant amount of evidence supports this theory.
has got has, must The senator said that the government has got to must act.
get, got receive The writer got received a prize for her work.
give provide, offer, present Table 5.2 gives provides evidence to support this conclusion.
good optimal, strong, prime
(or replace with a more descriptive adjective)
The findings were good optimal.
kind of, sort of somewhat, to some degree, in the category of The scholar kind of somewhat agreed.
till until, to, through The study will run from March till until May.
show demonstrate, reveal, illustrate The interviews showed revealed a shared concern over safety.

Overly vague writing

Academic writing should be as precise as possible. Unambiguous language strengthens papers while vague wording can leave too much to a reader’s interpretation. Whenever possible, prefer exact values—percentages, measurements, statistics—to broader terms.

 

Vague word(s) Replacement(s) Example
a bit Specify the exact amount or replace with the word somewhat. The experiment required a bit 10 mg of the catalyst.
a couple of/some Specify the exact amount or replace with many, several, a number of. A couple of A total of 30 students were surveyed.
a lot of, lots of Specify the exact amount or replace with many, several, a great number of, significant, or numerous. The announcement received a lot of significant attention.
a ton Specify the exact amount or replace with many, several, a great number of, a substantial amount of, or significant. The government spent a ton $5 million on the project.
and so on Either finish the thought, eliminate the phrase, or replace with a more specific phrase like including other factors or additionally. Civil engineers must consider load, terrain, weather and so on many other factors when designing a bridge.
anything, something Specify the item(s). The writer could be referencing anything.

The writer could be referencing three separate themes: the narrator’s grief, the uneasy political situation, or death in general.

nice Specify the quality. It was a nice colourful painting.
most Specify the amount or replace with many or the majority of. Most Over 95% of scientists support the measure.
stuff, thing Specify the item(s), or replace with object, sample, point, or finding. The report included lots of stuff.

The report included multiple relevant findings.

Exaggerations

Academic writing should allow for reasonable doubt. While academic writers can be confident, they must acknowledge that their ideas and theories may be disproven. Avoid language that suggests absolute authority or knowledge.

Superlatives, such as largest and best, should be used only if they refer to provable facts (for example, describing a company as the largest in Europe) or if the writer is quoting another source (for example, saying that Rolling Stone ranked a certain recording as the best single of 2018).

Exaggeration Replacement(s) Example
always Specify the amount or replace with the word frequently. The results were always the same.

The results were the same over 120 iterations.

definitely, absolutely Eliminate or replace with greatly, likely significantly, or strongly. The findings absolutely provide significant support for the proposed legislation.
every Specify the amount or add a phrase to convey reasonable doubt, such as almost, essentially, or recorded. Every recorded species of this creature genus is found in the Brazilian Amazon.
never Specify the amount or replace with the word rarely. Surveyed respondents never chose the fourth option.

 

None of the 30 surveyed respondents chose the fourth option.

none Specify the amount or add a phrase to convey reasonable doubt, such as almost, essentially, or recorded. None of the respondents answered positively.

None of the surveyed respondents answered positively.

proves, proof supports This finding proves supports the hypothesis.

Too subjective or opinionated

In academic writing, arguments must be supported by evidence. Avoid words that imply conclusions based on the writer’s personal opinions; use objective language to support the main argument.

Subjective word(s) Replacement(s) Example
beautiful, wonderful, awful, ugly, hideous Specify the quality as objectively as possible. The composition was awful full of clashing movements.

The building was beautiful artfully designed.

better Replace with a more objective word or phrase. The candidate had a better more comprehensive plan to address climate change than his opponent.
clearly, naturally, of course, obviously, undoubtedly Eliminate or replace with a more objective word. Naturally, The programmer wrote the application in Java.

Of course, After the war, economic policy changed.

perfect, ideal, best Replace with a more specific qualifier or the words strong, key, or crucial. The applicant was the ideal a strong candidate.
should Explain the rationale behind the recommendation. Activists should study the protest.

Activists could benefit greatly from studying the protest.

Clichés and colloquialisms

Clichés are overused expressions, while colloquialisms are those patterns of expression typical of informal speech. Besides making a paper appear too informal or conversational, they suggest that the writer doesn’t have a clear idea of what she’s trying to say. Replacing such phrases with more precise language will help improve the tone of your writing.

Cliché or colloquialism Replacement Example
a happy medium a compromise The two sides reached a happy medium compromise.
a stumbling block an obstacle The proposal encountered a stumbling block an obstacle when the opposing party mounted a negative press campaign.
above board legitimate Unlike previous proposals, the resolution was above board legitimate.
at the end of the day, when all is said and done ultimately or in conclusion At the end of the day Ultimately, the new law did not impact the rural population.
get through Replace with a more specific verb or use endure or survive. The researcher had to get through read multiple texts.
in this day and age, in recent years Specify the time period or use currently, presently, or today. In this day and age In the past decade, social media use has become prevalent amongst millennials.
think outside the box Specify the idea or replace with words like creative and innovative. The economist was known to think outside the box propose innovative ideas.

Filler words

Some words or phrases are superfluous in academic writing. Sentences tend to be stronger when they are removed.

Filler word(s) Replacement(s) Example
literally Eliminate entirely unless you mean ‘in a literal manner.’ The scientist had literally explored every option.

 

The politician’s remarks were not intended to be interpreted literally.

really, too Eliminate or specify the quality. The results were really highly revealing.
serves to, helps to Eliminate entirely. This quote serves to illustrates the author’s primary argument.
so Eliminate entirely or replace with a more specific word. The poem is so interesting because it uses an unusual rhyme pattern.
very, extremely Eliminate the word or replace with important, crucial, critical, significant, key. Her testimony was very useful.

Her testimony was crucial.

Contractions

Contractions are the result of combining two words into one word, with the omitted letters shown with an apostrophe. For example, don’t is a contraction of do not. Contractions are considered too informal for academic writing and should be avoided.

Contraction Replacement(s) Example
can’t, won’t, don’t, didn’t cannot, would not, do not, did not The two substances didn’t did not react.
shouldn’t, wouldn’t should not, would not He wouldn’t would not support the vote.
it’s it is It’s It is a common misunderstanding.
I’d, I’ve, we’ve, she’s I would, I have, we have, she is She’s She is incapable of deceit.

Language to consider carefully

First or second person

The first person (I/we/my/our) is not always deemed acceptable in academic papers. Consult your organisation’s guidelines about its usage. The first person may be allowed in some sections (such as the Acknowledgements) but not others (such as Methods and Results).

The second person (you/your) is almost never used in academic writing, though it may be appropriate in creative writing or personal communication. Remember that the second person also includes commands, such as add 10 ml to the solution. In most cases, the best way to avoid the second person is to restructure the sentence.

Person Replacement Example
First person:

I/we/my/our

Replace with a third-person actor (the researcher, the writer) or rewrite the sentence passively. I performed a regression analysis.

A regression analysis was performed.

The researcher performed a regression analysis.

Second person: you/your Restructure the sentence or replace with a neutral term like one or the reader. You might think that this result is unlikely.

Most of those who first heard this result found it unlikely.

The result seems unlikely.

It was an unlikely result under the circumstances.

One might think the result unlikely.

Unknown jargon

Consult your professor or adviser about your paper’s intended audience and how frequently you should define subject-specific terms. While using subject-appropriate terminology is important, the goal of a paper is to be read and understood as widely as possible.

Introduce complex or industry-specific terms with clear definitions.

Jargon Explanation How to use it
Aneuploidy The presence of an abnormal number of chromosomes in a cell. In this study, researchers reviewed the causes of aneuploidy, namely, the presence of an abnormal number of chromosomes in a cell.
Demurrer A written response in which the defendant seeks dismissal of an allegation due to insufficient grounds. The party against whom a complaint has been filed may object by demurrer—a legal document in which the defendant requests dismissal of an allegation due to insufficient grounds.

Gendered language

Replace gendered language—words or phrases that imply a specific gender when no such implication is warranted—with gender-neutral alternatives to avoid perpetuating gender bias.

Gendered language Replacement(s) Example
man, mankind person, people, humanity, humankind The wheel is one of mankind’s humanity’s earliest inventions.
professional designations that end in -man or -woman, such as policeman or congresswoman, –ette, such as usherette, or –ess, such as actress Replace with gender-neutral words. police officer, congressperson, legislator, usher, actor
girl, lady in reference to women, such as weather girl Replace with gender-neutral terms. The weather girl reporter warned viewers of the approach of a vicious cold snap.

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