3 Types of Words and Phrases to Avoid in Academic Writing

Academic Writing updated on  May 29, 2024 4 min read

What are the top words to avoid in academic writing? To communicate credibly, clearly, and concisely, replace words and phrases that are too casual, too ambiguous, or too verbose.

Unlike some other types of writing, academic writing comes with certain restrictions because it’s meant to accomplish specific goals. Academic writers aim to share information and make arguments in a way that other scholars will clearly understand.

Using the wrong words is one of the most common academic writing mistakes. To achieve the goals above, choose words and phrases that help readers take your writing seriously, understand your meaning, and stay with you until the end.

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Casual words to avoid in academic writing

We can’t write an essay, dissertation, or thesis the same way that we usually talk because the target audience of these papers isn’t our family and friends. It’s other students, instructors, and researchers, who are often strangers.

Slang and colloquialisms are always words to avoid in formal writing. Instead, use more formal choices, like the ones in the center column below. When you do that, your readers will see that you take your subject matter seriously, and then they will too.

Casual

Formal

Examples

a lot

lots

tons of

many

numerous

a specific number (best option)

A lot of participants responded that…


Out of 203 participants, 146 responded that…

contractions:

can’t

he’ll

they’re

spell out:

cannot

he will

they are

This method can’t determine the number of…


This method cannot determine the number of…

slang/colloquialisms:

ASAP

stats

legit

formal terms:

a specific time

data

legitimate

We measured the temperature ASAP after completing step 2.


We measured the temperature 2 hours and 10 minutes after completing step 2.

in a nutshell

in short

to sum up

in summary

briefly

In a nutshell, we found…


In summary, we found…

really

super

specific information, such as a concrete number, amount, or comparison

Participant 19 scored really high on the assessment.


Participant 19 scored 45 out of 50 possible points on the assessment.

Imprecise words to avoid in academic writing

If your goal is to be clear, you’ll want to avoid words that lack specificity, exclude or include items or people unintentionally, or are subjective rather than measurable.

The left column shows words to avoid in an essay or other academic text, and the suggestions in the center column can help you improve.

Imprecise

Precise

Examples

sort of

kind of

a bit

a little

fairly

somewhat

significantly, insignificantly, or make a more concrete comparison by providing numbers or proportions

The p value was somewhat high.


The p value was 0.08.

around

in the area of

more or less

approximately

a specific range or

region (best option)

The research will cost in the area of $10,000.


The research will cost $9,000 to $12,000.

subjective adjectives:

loud, quiet

warm, cool

great, awful

beautiful, ugly

old, young

normal, abnormal

factual details:

measurements

color

shape 

place of origin

age

control, variable/experimental

The classroom was loud.


The noise level in the classroom measured 65 decibels.

fireman

forefathers

mankind

husband, wife

Asian

disabled

firefighter

ancestors

humanity, humankind,

Humans

spouse, partner

names of specific groups

Religious practice may emphasize the importance of your forefathers.


Religious practice may emphasize the importance of a person’s ancestors.

rich, poor

upper-class, lower-class

uneducated, intellectual


specific income brackets or education levels

The rich consume more fast food than the poor.


Adults with household incomes at or above 350% of the federal poverty line (for a family of four) consume more fast food than those with incomes at or below 130% of the federal poverty line.

Wordy phrases to avoid in academic writing

Connecting ideas is a key step in academic writing because doing so helps readers follow your reasoning. But it’s vital to do this by using genuine transition words and phrases, not by adding fluff.

Filling an academic paper with words that don’t add value is like pouring a glass of juice, then adding a lot of ice cubes and letting them melt before you drink it. The part that matters is diluted, which makes it hard to finish the drink.

Instead of using these phrases to avoid in academic writing, shown in the left column, try the replacements in the center column to make sure your text is strong. You may not think small changes like these make much of a difference, but they do—the examples with an ✘ add up to 43 words, while those with a ✔ add up to just 28. In a long paper, many small changes go a long way.

Wordy

Concise

Examples

at this time

currently

at the present time

in this day and age

at this point in time

as a matter of fact

in fact

I think

in my opinion

it seems to me that

I believe

as far as I’m concerned

delete and simply state what would follow

At this point in time, the data show…


The data show…

with respect to

when it comes to

in regard to

in the matter of

on the topic of

in reference to

regarding

concerning

When it comes to the link between consumption and expenditure…


Regarding the link between consumption and expenditure…

for the most part


primarily

predominantly

mainly

For the most part, koalas eat eucalyptus leaves.


Koalas primarily eat eucalyptus leaves.

cause damage to

make reference to


damage

refer to

Hurricane Ian caused damage to $109 billion worth of Florida property.


Hurricane Ian damaged $109 billion worth of Florida property.

at a later date

at a later time

in the future

at some point in the future

in the years to come

later

In the future, researchers could examine…


Researchers could later examine…

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Hannah Skaggs

Along with Meredith Harris

Hannah, a writer and editor since 2017, specializes in clear and concise academic and business writing. She has mentored countless scholars and companies in writing authoritative and engaging content.

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