Words Not To Use In 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.

There are some words students use in academic writing that could be said to be overused or unnecessary. Whether you are writing a paper for a class, or you are submitting a business proposal as an entrepreneur, there are particular words you should avoid in order to maintain a professional writing appearance. There is an exception, though, if you are specifically told by the person who assigned your work that the presence of colloquial and casual language is allowed. But this rarely happens, and it is best to avoid the following list of words even in the case of getting permission to use a freer language than usually practiced in academic writing:

1. Very

“Very” creates an overstatement. Take the sentence, “She was very radiant.” Radiant is a powerful word already. Let it do its work alone without adding extra emphasis.

Words to use instead: genuinely, veritably, undoubtedly, profoundly, indubitably.

2. Of course

A reader is often unfamiliar with the material you are presenting. If you use of course, the reader may believe they are not smart enough or feel you are not explaining your material well enough. Simply present your case without fluff-language. If you feel you have to use “of course,” use the words below:

Words to use instead: clearly, definitely, indeed, naturally, surely.

3. Thing

It seems when we do not know how to describe an object or phenomena, we use “thing.” Writing, especially in the academic realm, is about being specific. Using “thing” does not provide any specificity whatsoever.

What to write instead: Discuss your subject directly. For instance:

“I loved the thing she did,” could be changed to, “I loved her salsa dancing on Friday nights by Makelmore Harbor.”

4. Always

Do you know of a person, place, or phenomena that “always” does an action? “Always” is almost always not true.

What to write instead: Consider how often your subject does an action. Say someone at your work is consistently late, but is on time occasionally. Some people might write, “He is always late to work.” As an alternative, you could write, “He is late to work most of the time.” If you are writing a serious paper, consider going further and give exact numbers, such as, “He is late to work 88.6% of the time in the mornings, during the months of September, August, and May.”

5. Never

Similar to “always,” do you know of any person, place, or object that “never” does a certain action?

What to write instead: Let us look at this sentence: “Maggie never lost her temper because she was a good girl.” A better way to approach this sentence would be to say, “Maggie rarely lost her temper, as she was brought up in believing that displaying her anger was the worst form of human expression.”

6. (Contractions) Can’t, won’t, you’ve…

When you are writing an essay, a research paper, or a review, you are presenting yourself as an expert or professional that wants to send your message across to an audience. Most readers are not wanting to be written to in a casual way. They expect we respect them and that respect is in the form of the language we use. Contractions show we are either lazy or are talking to a lower-level audience.

Instead of writing contractions, simply use the original form of the word.

7. So

Akin to “very,” it is not necessary to use and is a form of overstatement.

Words to use instead: extremely, remarkably, unusually, consequently, accurate.

8. A lot

Using “a lot” refers to a quantity, but it does not tell the reader how much exactly. Keep the idea of specificity in your mind when you write. It is better to state the exact amount or at least hand over an educated guess.

What to write instead:

Here is an incorrect sentence first: “I ate a lot of ice cream this morning.” The correct version: “I ate two dinner-sized bowls of ice cream this morning.”

9. Good

It does not give an appropriate description of a subject. It is recommended to be more specific.

Words to use instead: commendable, reputable, satisfactory, honorable, pleasing.

10. Stuff

What does “stuff” mean, anyways?

Words to use instead: belongings, gear, goods, possessions, substance.

11. Nice

This word is vague. It generally means “satisfactory,” but a reader cannot be entirely sure.

Words to use instead: admirable, cordial, favorable, genial, obliging.

12. Really

A hollow word that does not add much value.

Words to use instead: precisely, assuredly, veritably, distinctly, unequivocally.

13. Many

Sometimes, writers stamp “many” down on a page without realizing that it means almost nothing to a reader. If you want your audience to know about a quantity, why not state its specifics? But if you cannot provide the details, try these:

Words to use instead: copious, bountiful, myriad, prevalent, manifold.

14. In conclusion

Your readers know it is your conclusion by being the last paragraph(s) and that you are summarizing. There is no reason to state it is your conclusion.

What to write instead: Exclude cookie cutter phrases. Go straight to your summary and afterthought.

15. Firstly, secondly, thirdly…

Your readers knows where your first, second, and third body paragraphs are because they can count. You do not need to state the obvious.

What to write instead: Lead into your body paragraphs by beginning with a topic sentence that follows the concepts outlined in your thesis statement.

16. Finally/lastly

Your readers can see it is your ending point by being the last section in your paragraph(s). And even if the placement of your final point is not clear, there is no real reason to state that it is the last topic.

What to write instead: Write your transitions naturally, without plastic, pre-made phrases. Relate your transitions to the content that was before it.

17. Anything

“Anything” could be, well, “anything.” Specifics, specifics, specifics.

What to write instead: The common phrase, “It can be anything,” can be broken down into details that relate to your composition. Say you are writing about topics for poetry. Instead of stating that, “Poetry can be written about anything,” why not list some possibilities: “Your loneliness in a new city, a recent divorce, how an insect flies through wind filled with tree fluff, your disgust of politics in Buenos Aires, how you wished you could transform into a clock: all these topics and more are valid when writing poetry.”

18. Kind of

A casual version of saying:

“type of”
“in the category of”
“within the parameters of”

19. Find out

Imagine you are Sherlock Holmes. I bet when you finished a case, you would not say, “I found out the reason that….” No, you would be stately and expound, “I have examined, investigated, interrogated, discovered, realized that Mr. Shuman was tied counter-clockwise to the rope that was set by the food agency’s mole to convert a missionary to blasphemy.”

20. Various/variety

The fathers of ambiguity, these words does not relate to any concrete object, person, or phenomena. It is best to list the “various” or a “variety” of objects, people, or places you are examining in your piece of writing. But if you cannot come up with a proper list, you can insert one of the following words in place of various or variety:

What to write instead: discrete, disparate, diverse, multifarious, divergent.

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Samples for Words to Avoid in Academic Writing

Presentation of Words to Avoid

The following is an example of how specific words should not be used in an academic paper, and how the text would look like without these words. Words to Avoid Included: The crow is a very intelligent bird f...

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