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 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

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Too unsophisticated

Utilizing too many simple terms makes 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…” from time to time is perfectly fine. Longer, more complex words aren’t necessarily better than shorter words: good academic writing should be concise and use varied language.

Taboo Example Alternative
Bad A bad result A (poor/negative) result
Big, humungous 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 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 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)

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 Example Alternative
Always, never Researchers always argue that Researchers (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 important This 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 Example Alternative
Beautiful, ugly, wonderful, horrible, good, bad The literature review included many good articles The literature review included many articles
Naturally The participants naturally wanted to know The participants wanted to know
Obviously, of course The results obviously indicate The 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 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

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 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 (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)


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.

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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.

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March 31, 2017 at 2:34 PM

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