Words You Should Not Use In An Essay

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I make my living with words.

I decorate my house with words.

Okay, so my wife decorates our house with words.

I love to surround myself with words in my office or study.

I’ve been known to write or speak a few words.  Okay, a lot of words.

Words are fun and useful. Where would we be without them?  Not only do they communicate, but your choice of words reveals a lot about you – sometimes things you may not want someone to see or think.

Because I also work in the world of education, I see literally thousands of words every week.  Sometimes I see words from students that I have to stop and look up in the online dictionary.  For example, not long ago I had a student who loved to use the word “ken.”  For all I knew, she was using a man’s name.  Turns out, “ken” means “know” – and every single time you would have used the word “know,” she used the word “ken.”

Now I ken.  And you ken, too.

Anyway, in all the myriad of word possibilities, I have found seven words you should never use in an academic paper.

Only seven?  Far as I can tell.

All seven?  Definitely.  Use any of these and they say some things about you that you may not want to be said.

Now what’s tricky about these seven is that they’re common, ordinary words that you could use in conversation, blogs or magazine articles, fiction or popular writing, and they’re actually expected and complimented.  Use them on a research paper and someone will express their displeasure.

(Shhhh!  What’s that falling-in-a-hole sound I hear?  It’s your grade, sinking into the abyss, because you used one of the Seven Words You Can Never Say in an Academic Paper.)

Okay here they are… and if you don’t write academic papers (hey… who was that that said “hallelujah!”?), share this with somebody who does.  Or file it away for a couple of years, for when you go back to school.

1.  You/your

I have already used the word “you” 13 times in this little article.  It’s personal. Conversational. Totally fair game for informal writing.  But never – everEVER use the words “you,” “your,” “yourself” or any other member of the “second person” family in formal writing.

Count the stars in the sky if you can, and you’ll see how many papers I have read that start with something like, “Have you ever wondered…”

Okay I’m back.  I just went and beat my head against the brick wall of our back porch to relieve some of the frustration.

You are not writing your paper to your grandma, your teacher, or your friends.  Technically you’re writing it to the research community.  And they’ll think you’re less than intelligent if you address them as “you.”

Are there exceptions to this?  Only one – when you’re quoting someone verbatim and they use it.  That’s pretty much true of all these words.

2.  We

Some more traditional styles also forbid the use of any kind of first person, which includes “we” and “I.”  They do this sometimes to the point of absurdity, forcing people to refer to themselves as “the learner” or “the writer” or something. APA papers are the exception that this rule – refer to yourself as “I” all you want.

That, however, is not what I’m referring to.  What I mean is, never refer to yourself as “we.”

Seriously?  Would people do that?

Yep. Happens all the time.  Since I teach for Christian universities, I like to blame the preachers for this because preachers frequently refer to themselves as “we.”  Or when they teach/preach, they may say something like, “Today we’re going to look at some of the most beautiful words ever written – the 23rd psalm.”

In that setting, they’re correct.  But when a student sends me a paper that refers to one author (namely themselves) as “we,” the penalty flags will start to fly.  WHO is WE?  Unless you’re submitting a group project, never refer to yourself as more than one person.

Exception:  If you are presenting a group project of some sort, you may certainly refer to the group is “we” in an APA paper.  The Chicago/Turabian folks still need to get a life in this regard.

3. Say/Discuss

“As I said before…”

“In this paper I am going to discuss…”

Okay, call me picky.  I’m calling you names, too, and my names are meaner.

This is not as hardcore an error as the previous two, but your paper is a paper, not a talk.  You are presenting, not discussing.  Your paper may explore, examine, analyze, consider, evaluate, report, reflect, or a host of other things.  But it doesn’t “talk,” “say” or “discuss.”  If you are repeating a previous point, it’s ok to write something like, “as I mentioned previously” or “as stated earlier.”  It’s also OK to refer to an author’s work as speaking. (Example:  “Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that love is greater than any spiritual gift.”)  But try to be as precise as you can with your language. I think it’s better to word it:  “Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13 that love is greater than any spiritual gift.”

4.  In… It

This one’s hard to catch.  It’s not a death knell to your paper, but if you can avoid it, I promise you somebody will be impressed with the quality of your work.

Here’s how this one works.  Two examples…

“In Ephesians 1:3 it says, ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.’”

“In The Great Gatsby it says, ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one… just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”

It makes the point, and can even make for good preaching because it flies by so quickly, but it’s terrible writing.  “IT” doesn’t say anything.  People do.  Or the work does.  Far better to write:

“Ephesians 1:3 says…” or “Paul writes in Ephesians 1:3…”

In Fitzgerald’s opening to The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway says, “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

5. Author  

I’ve been seeing this a lot in the last year or two. I blame the media.  If I’m a news reporter and I am introducing someone I have interviewed or researched for a general quote to a general audience, it’s totally appropriate to say, “Author Ken Blanchard…” or “Ken Blanchard, co-author of The One Minute Manager…”

But if you are citing someone in a paper, guess what?  Everybody already knows they’re an author, and it’s silly and redundant and redundant (couldn’t resist) to refer to someone as “Author” anybody.  Just name him or her. Oh, and if it’s an APA paper, they don’t even want to know the author’s first name. There you would simply write something like, “Blanchard and Johnson (1985) refer to three simple management practices anyone can perform.”

6. Article/Book  

Never, ever write in a formal paper, “In an article…” Name the author and move on. For that matter, only in the rarest of occasions (and then only once, please!) should you name the title of a book or article.  Just author and date.

If you want to send your teacher into muttering hysterics, put this in your paper:  “In an article I read in the library…”

Yes.  Yes.  I have seen that.  More than once.

7. Assignment

Want to turn your name into a flashing neon sign that says, “ROOKIE”?  Start your paper with the words, “For this assignment…”

First of all, of course it’s an assignment unless you’re a Ph.D.-type publishing your own research.  And you already know this stuff, so why are you still reading this?

Second and more importantly, anything you write should make sense to some degree to a general audience. And guess what?  Most people don’t know what the assignment is and don’t care. But you may actually be surprised that they may care about the content of your paper.

Again, I know this may be in the “picky” zone.  But I promise if you want to be taken seriously as a student, researcher, or grad-school candidate, you will shoot yourself in the proverbial foot if you use this word.

Well, there they are… the Seven Words You Can Never Say In an Academic Paper.  Just one more thing, as a special added bonus…

Steer clear of contraction action.

Never – yes never – use contractions.



Tagged as: Academic Writing, Writing

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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