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).
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.
|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|
(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.
|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|
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.
|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)|
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.
|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|
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.
|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)|
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.
|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|
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.
|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|
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).
|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|
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)
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.