Words and Phrases to Avoid 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
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
Plus Plus, the participants were in agreement on the third question (Moreover/Furthermore/What is more), 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 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 while This topic has interested researchers for a while This topic has interested researchers for more than 30 years

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Too exaggerated

Academic writing is usually unadorned and direct. Some adverbs of frequency (such as always and never) and intensifiers (words that create emphasis, such as really) 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 The perfect solution to the problem (An ideal solution/one of the best solutions) to the problem
Really, so, super This theory is really 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 texts (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, great, boring A review of the literature yielded many great articles A review of the literature yielded many relevant articles
Obviously, naturally, of course The results obviously indicate The results clearly indicate

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 literally did not understand The students did not understand
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., approx., ASAP, corona, stats, info)
  • Slang (e.g., cops, cool)
  • Gender-biased language (e.g., firemen, mankind)
  • Generally unnecessary (e.g., redundant expressions that do not add meaning, such as compete with each other instead of simply compete)

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.

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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.