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Words Not To Include In An Essay

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 how we normally speak. The following words and phrases are considered too informal for a dissertation.

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

Too unsophisticated

Some words should not be used because they do not have a scholarly feel. As utilizing too many simple terms makes your writing feel elementary, substitute more sophisticated words when possible. It’s also better to replace phrasal verbs with their one-word alternatives.

Taboo ExampleAlternative
BadA bad resultA (poor/negative) result
Big, humungousA 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)

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 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)

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 ExampleAlternative
Always, neverResearchers always argue thatResearchers (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 importantThis 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 ExampleAlternative
Beautiful, ugly, wonderful, horrible, good, badThe literature review included many good articlesThe literature review included many articles
NaturallyThe participants naturally wanted to knowThe participants wanted to know
Obviously, of courseThe results obviously indicateThe 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 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

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 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 (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)

Exceptions

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.

Writing is a combination of art and craft. The art comes from lots of reading, talking, thinking, dreaming, and writing. The craft is primarily technique. Some techniques are complex, but a few are very simple and will instantly strengthen your writing. In many cases, however, strengthening writing simply means avoiding those things that weaken it.

We have identified 10 words that nearly always weaken writing. In no particular order, they are as follows.

1. Really

“Avoiding this word is a really great idea.” Reason: A really great idea is the same as a great idea. If you need to emphasize something, such as the “greatness” of an idea, use a single word that means what you are trying to say, e.g., “Avoiding this word is an excellent idea.”

2. You

“Sometimes, you feel like writing is too hard.” Reason: I never feel this way, so this statement is not true. The writer probably means “I” or “some writers,” e.g., “Sometimes, I feel like writing is too hard.” “You” should only be used when you are actually writing to, and about, the reader, not when making general statements.

3. Feel

“I feel the government should stop people from writing poorly.” Reason: Which emotion is being “felt”? What is the writer touching and, therefore, feeling?
Usually, the writer means “believe” or “think.” “Feel” is also used by authors to describe a character’s emotions, as in “He felt despondent.” Instead, the writer should show the emotions through the character’s words and actions.

4. Think

“I think the government should stop people from writing poorly.” Reason: If you write an opinion, the reader understands that you also think it. Just say what it is you think, e.g., “The government should stop people from writing poorly.”

5. As

“As you write this word, poke out your eyes. It’s weak as it can cause confusion.” Reason: A person usually cannot do two actions simultaneously, so “as” doesn’t make sense in the first sentence. It could be rewritten, “Write this word, then poke out your eyes.” In the second sentence, the writer should use “because.” Until reading the rest of the sentence, the reader doesn’t know if “as” means two actions are occurring simultaneously or means “because.”

6. A lot

“A lot of writing could be made better.” Reason: How much is “a lot”? 100 documents? 50% of everything I have written? 1% of one million books? The term “a lot” is meaningless without the context, but if you give the context, you don’t need the term “a lot.” Also, this is highly subjective. “A lot” to one person may seem like some” to another.

7. Sort of/Kind of

“Using these words is sort of annoying to the reader.” Reason: If using these words is only sort of annoying, you haven’t told the reader exactly what it is. If it is annoying, say so: “Writing this way annoys the reader.” If it is not annoying, tell the reader exactly what it is, e.g., “Using these words bothers readers.” Use words that mean what you are trying to say, and give the reader exact descriptions. This also applies to “kind of.”

8. Like

“Using these words is like baking with spoiled milk.” Reason: If this is like something, then it is NOT that thing. Giving accurate descriptions and using correct verbs
will reduce your need to use “like,” e.g., “These words spoil your writing.” A good metaphor can enhance your writing, but using too many makes writing tedious, so try to think of a different way to express your ideas.

9. Just

“Some people are just persnickety about writing. It’s just the way they write.” Reason: The word “just” doesn’t add any real value to these sentences. Leaving
them out results in the same meanings and makes the sentences much tighter and more direct: “Some people are persnickety about writing. It’s the way they write.” Doesn’t that just sound better?

10. Used to

“He used to write like this when he started writing.” Reason: Using fewer words to express an idea is almost always a good idea, so “used to write” can be written “wrote,” as in, “He wrote like this when he started writing.” The problem is that “used to write” and “when he started writing” both express events in the past, which is redundant. In nearly every case, “used to . . .” can be replaced with a past tense verb.

The sample sentences demonstrate poor uses of these words, but you will find good uses, too. In fact, some of them are perfectly fine in some contexts or when used in
particular ways. Your level of formality, purpose, voice, and audience will determine whether or not to use these words. If you’re not sure whether or not to use them in a particular sentence, our advice is to avoid them.

Precise Edit editors keep a sharp eye out for these troublesome and confusing words. We evaluate their use and, in most cases, find a way to revise the sentences so as
to avoid them. The result is stronger writing that more clearly and more professionally communicates the author’s ideas.

About the Author:
David Bowman is the Owner and Chief Editor of Precise Edit, a comprehensive editing, proofreading, and document analysis service for authors, students, and
businesses. Precise Edit also offers a variety of other services, such as translation, transcription, and website development.

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