Taboo words in academic writing

When you are writing a dissertation, many words and phrases that are acceptable in conversations or informal writing are considered inappropriate.

You should try to avoid expressions that are too informal, unsophisticated, vague, exaggerated, or subjective, as well as those that are generally unnecessary or incorrect.

Bear in mind that these guidelines do not apply to text you are directly quoting from your sources (including interviews).

Too informal

Academic writing is generally more formal than the writing we see in non-academic materials (including on websites). It is also more formal than the ways in which we normally speak. The following words and phrases are considered too informal for a dissertation.

Taboo ExampleAlternative
A bitThe interviews were a bit difficult to scheduleThe interviews were (difficult/somewhat difficult) to schedule
A lot of, a couple ofA lot of studies(Many/several/a great number of/eight) studies
AmericaA researcher in AmericaA researcher in (the United States/the US/the USA)
Isn’t, can’t, doesn’t, would’ve (or any other contraction)The sample isn’tThe sample is not
Kind of, sort ofThe findings were kind of significantThe findings were (somewhat significant/significant to some degree)
Til, tillFrom 2008 till 2012From 2008 (until/to) 2012
You, your

(i.e. the second-person point of view)

You can clearly see the resultsOne can clearly see the results

The results can clearly be seen

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Too unsophisticated

Some words should not be used because they do not have a scholarly feel. As utilizing too many simple terms makes your writing feel elementary, substitute more sophisticated words when possible. It’s also better to replace phrasal verbs with their one-word alternatives.

Taboo ExampleAlternative
BadA bad resultA (poor/negative) result
Big, humungousA big sampleA (large/sizable) sample
GetThis model gets attentionThis model receives attention
GiveThis chapter gives an overviewThis chapter (provides/offers/presents) an overview
GoodA good exampleA (useful/prime) example
ShowThe below figure showsThe below figure (illustrates/demonstrates/reveals)
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Too vague

Using terms that are vague makes your writing imprecise and may cause people to interpret it in different ways. Avoid the below expressions and try to be as specific as possible.

Taboo ExampleAlternative
StuffPeople are concerned about their stuffPeople are concerned about their (belongings, possessions, personal effects)
ThingThe report presents many thingsThe report presents many (details/findings/recommendations)

Too exaggerated

Academic writing is usually unadorned and direct. Some adverbs of frequency (such as always and never), superlatives (which are terms that indicate something is of the highest degree, such as the best), and intensifiers (which are words that create emphasis, such as very) are often too dramatic. They may also not be accurate – you’re making a significant claim when you say something is perfect or never happens.

These terms do sometimes add value, but try to use them sparingly.

Taboo ExampleAlternative
Always, neverResearchers always argue thatResearchers (frequently/commonly/ typically) argue that
Perfect, best, worst, most, always, never (or any other superlative)The perfect solution to the problem(An ideal solution/one of the best solutions) to the problem
Very, extremely, really, too, so (or any other intensifier)This theory is extremely importantThis theory is (important/critical/crucial)

Too subjective

Some words and phrases reveal your own opinion or bias. For instance, if you state that something will obviously happen, you are actually indicating that you think the occurrence is obvious – not stating a fact. Expressing your opinion is usually only appropriate in certain sections of a dissertation (namely the preface, acknowledgements, discussion, and reflection), so take care when using words and phrases such as those below.

Taboo ExampleAlternative
Beautiful, ugly, wonderful, horrible, good, badThe literature review included many good articlesThe literature review included many articles
NaturallyThe participants naturally wanted to knowThe participants wanted to know
Obviously, of courseThe results obviously indicateThe results indicate

Generally unnecessary

You should strive to make your academic writing as concise as possible. Avoid adding words and phrases that do not create meaning, even if you think they give your writing a more refined feel.

Taboo ExampleAlternative
Has got/have gotThis dissertation has got four chaptersThis dissertation has four chapters
Serves to, helps toThis chapter serves to explainThis chapter explains

Generally incorrect

It is not uncommon that words and phrases are used inappropriately, even by native speakers of a language. If you’re exposed to such mistakes often enough, you may start thinking they are correct – but it’s important that you don’t let them creep into your writing.

You should also bear in mind that some of these mistakes relate to things we all frequently mishear (for instance, we often think the speaker is saying would of instead of would have).

Taboo ExampleAlternative
LiterallyThe students were literally dying to participateThe students were (dying/very eager) to participate
Would of, had ofThe study would of consideredThe study would have considered

Other tips

In general, you should also try to avoid using words and phrases that fall into the following categories:

  • Jargon (i.e. “insider” terminology that may be difficult for readers from other fields to understand)
  • Clichés (which are expressions that are heavily overused, such as think outside of the box and but at the end of the day)
  • Everyday abbreviations (e.g. photos, fridge, phone, info)
  • Slang (e.g. cops, cool)
  • Not gender neutral (e.g. firemen, mankind)

Exceptions

Reflective reports sometimes have a less formal tone; if this is what you are writing, you may not have to follow these guidelines as strictly. This may also be true if you are writing the preface or acknowledgements for your dissertation, as these sections have a more personal voice than the rest of the document.

Is this article helpful?
Sarah Vinz

Sarah's academic background includes a Master of Arts in English, a Master of International Affairs degree, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. She loves the challenge of finding the perfect formulation or wording and derives much satisfaction from helping students take their academic writing up a notch.

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4 comments

Seamore
October 3, 2018 at 3:51 AM

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Unknown
September 15, 2018 at 11:35 PM

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Daniel
September 3, 2018 at 4:30 PM

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Reneilwe
March 31, 2017 at 2:34 PM

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