Taboo words in academic writing

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

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, however, 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 or academic paper.

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

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

You can clearly see the results One can clearly see the results

The results can clearly be seen

Informal sentence starts

Some words are acceptable in certain contexts, but become too informal when used at the beginning of a sentence. You can replace these with appropriate transition words or simply remove them from the sentence.

Taboo Example Alternative
Also Also, the participants were in agreement on the third question (Moreover/Furthermore), the participants were in agreement on the third question
So So it can be concluded that the model needs further refinement Therefore it can be concluded that the model needs further refinement
And And the participants were all over the age of 30 The participants were all over the age of 30
Besides Besides, we asked all the participants to sign an agreement Additionally, we asked all the participants to sign an agreement

Too unsophisticated

Using too many simple terms can make your writing feel elementary, so take care not to overuse them. It’s also better to replace phrasal verbs with their one-word alternatives.

That said, some of the below terms do have their place in academic writing. For example, writing “Figure 4 shows that…” or “Table B gives an overview of…” from time to time is perfectly fine. Longer, more complex words aren’t necessarily better than shorter words: good academic writing should aim to be concise and use varied language.

Taboo Example Alternative
Bad A bad result A (poor/negative) result
Big, humongous A big sample A (large/sizable) sample
Get This model gets attention This model receives attention
Give This chapter gives an overview This chapter (provides/offers/presents) an overview
Good A good example A (useful/prime) example
Show The below figure shows The below figure (illustrates/demonstrates/reveals)

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Too vague

Using vague terms makes your writing imprecise and may cause people to interpret it in different ways. Always try to be as specific as possible.

Taboo Example Alternative
Stuff People are concerned about their stuff People are concerned about their (belongings/possessions/personal effects)
Thing The report presents many things The report presents many (details/findings/recommendations)
A long time, a while This topic has interested researchers for a long time This topic has interested researchers for more than 30 years

Too exaggerated

Academic writing is usually unadorned and direct. Some adverbs of frequency (such as always and never), superlatives (terms that indicate something is of the highest degree, such as the best), and intensifiers (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 Example Alternative
Always, never Researchers always argue that Researchers (frequently/commonly/ typically) argue that
Perfect, best, worst, most (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 important This theory is (important/critical/crucial)

Too subjective

Some words and phrases reveal your own bias. For instance, if you state that something will obviously happen, you are indicating that you think the occurrence is obvious – not stating a fact.

Expressing your opinion is appropriate in certain sections of a dissertation and in particular types of academic text (such as personal statements and reflective or argumentative essays). In most cases, though, take care when using words and phrases such as those below – try to let the facts speak for themselves, or emphasize your point with less biased language.

Taboo Example Alternative
Beautiful, ugly, wonderful, horrible, good, bad A review of literature yielded many good articles A review of the literature yielded many relevant articles
Naturally The participants naturally wanted to know The participants wanted to know
Obviously, of course The results obviously indicate The results clearly indicate

Generally unnecessary

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

Taboo Example Alternative
Has got/have got This dissertation has got four chapters This dissertation has four chapters
Serves to, helps to This chapter serves to explain This chapter explains

Generally incorrect

Certain words and phrases are often used incorrectly, even by native speakers of a language. If you’re exposed to such mistakes often enough, you may start to assume 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 Example Alternative
Literally The students were literally dying to participate The students were (dying/very eager) to participate
Would of, had of The study would of considered The 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 (i.e., expressions that are heavily overused, such as think outside of the box and at the end of the day)
  • Everyday abbreviations (e.g. photos, fridge, phone, info)
  • Slang (e.g. cops, cool)
  • Gender-biased language (e.g. firemen, mankind)

Exceptions

Reflective reports and personal statements sometimes have a less formal tone. In these types of writing, you may not have to follow these guidelines as strictly. The preface or acknowledgements of a dissertation also often have a less formal and 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.

13 comments

Claudette
August 24, 2020 at 10:08 PM

Wonderful information!

What about the word 'some'? It sounds like a 'vague' word for academic writing. Would using the word ' certain' be a good replacement?

Thank you!

Reply

Shona McCombes
Shona McCombes (Scribbr-team)
August 27, 2020 at 4:42 PM

Hi Claudette,

It depends on the context, but you're right that in many cases "some" could be considered overly vague; however, the word "certain" doesn't solve this problem. If it's possible to use a more precise term, it's always preferable to do so.

For example, instead of writing "some respondents agreed that...", it would be better to either directly state the number or percentage, or use a more specific phrase: "a small minority of respondents agreed that..." or "approximately half of the respondents agreed that..."

I hope that helps!

Reply

Shea
October 14, 2020 at 11:15 PM

Great Info! Perfect for school project!

Reply

Phu Le Ngo
August 8, 2020 at 8:13 PM

This post is very helpful, highly recommended for whom new to academic writing 👏

Reply

Mohsen
December 16, 2019 at 11:48 AM

Hi.
Thanks for the great tips.
I have a question.
Can we use "do/does/did" for emphasis in written English?

Reply

joel
December 3, 2019 at 12:00 PM

it was helpfull

Reply

Philip
November 10, 2019 at 10:13 AM

This article was really helpful keep it up

Reply

Quarmson
May 2, 2019 at 5:30 PM

This article was very helpful in my studies of Academic wrting

Reply

Seamore
October 3, 2018 at 3:51 AM

Extremely helpful

Reply

Unknown
September 15, 2018 at 11:35 PM

This article was very helpful. I didn't know some of this stuff. Thank-you for all of your help

Reply

Daniel
September 3, 2018 at 4:30 PM

I am pleased you have created this article because it provided me with information I was not aware of.

Reply

Reneilwe
March 31, 2017 at 2:34 PM

This was very helpful

Reply

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