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.

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 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

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 ExampleAlternative
AlsoAlso, the participants were in agreement on the third question(Moreover/Furthermore), the participants were in agreement on the third question
SoSo it can be concluded that the model needs further refinementTherefore it can be concluded that the model needs further refinement
AndAnd the participants were all over the age of 30The participants were all over the age of 30

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 ExampleAlternative
BadA bad resultA (poor/negative) result
Big, humongousA 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 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 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)
A long time, a whileThis topic has interested researchers for a long timeThis 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 ExampleAlternative
Always, neverResearchers always argue thatResearchers (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 importantThis 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 ExampleAlternative
Beautiful, ugly, wonderful, horrible, good, badA review of literature yielded many good articlesA review of the literature yielded many relevant articles
NaturallyThe participants naturally wanted to knowThe participants wanted to know
Obviously, of courseThe results obviously indicateThe 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 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

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 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 (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.

7 comments

Philip
November 10, 2019 at 10:13 AM

This article was really helpful keep it up

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Quarmson
May 2, 2019 at 5:30 PM

This article was very helpful in my studies of Academic wrting

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Seamore
October 3, 2018 at 3:51 AM

Extremely helpful

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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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