Help me prune the academic wankery
May 28, 2011 5:48 PM   Subscribe

What are unnecessarily formal "academic jargon" type words that I should seek and destroy in my papers?

I've started keeping a list of words that are unnecessarily formal/show-offy and that I overuse in my academic prose. I recently did a nearly-final stylistic revision of a paper just by systematically searching for these words and examining each sentence that contained them to see if it could be reworded. I was happy with the result.

My papers up until now have tended towards the very formal end of the prose spectrum, and in my discipline, that is not necessary. The papers I most enjoy reading are written much more conversationally.

I'm thinking there are probably other words like this that have got in under my radar. Can anyone give me similar examples I should be examining?

The words I already have in my list are hence, thus, notwithstanding, inasmuch, insofar and the humble yet. I'm also searching for all sentences containing a semi-colon, and for any longer than 50 words, so other non-word searches like that would be good suggestions too.
posted by lollusc to Writing & Language (65 answers total) 116 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I found my formal papers were filled with the word "seems" and perfect aspect.
posted by jeather at 5:51 PM on May 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Perfect aspect. I still don't understand what that is. Are you writing in french, jeather?
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:55 PM on May 28, 2011

Best answer: If you're comfortable on the command line, try 3 shell scripts to improve your writing, or "My Ph.D. advisor rewrote himself in bash".
posted by caek at 5:55 PM on May 28, 2011 [16 favorites]

The semicolon is not academic wankery; it is a legitimate, constructive punctuation mark.
posted by missmary6 at 5:57 PM on May 28, 2011 [41 favorites]

In my experience the words are different in, e.g., comp lit and law. Can you clarify what your background is and what discipline you're writing in?
posted by J. Wilson at 5:58 PM on May 28, 2011

A teacher in high school once had me go in and take out every instance of the verb 'to be'. While the absolutist approach is probably unnecessary in practice, the exercise did make me realize that a lot of 'is'es can be restructured into much stronger sentences.
posted by threeants at 6:02 PM on May 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: LOVE the shell scripts. Thanks!

My discipline is linguistics. So somewhat like the hard sciences, somewhat like the humanities.

I agree that the semi-colon CAN be legitimate. But when you use it every third sentence, it is worth examining those sentences to see whether they can be reformulated.
posted by lollusc at 6:05 PM on May 28, 2011

Best answer: I'm not an academic. I have a list of words that I try to edit out of my writing that overlaps with yours: but, however, yet, on the other hand—they tend to pop up in places where I'm saying two things at once or packing multiple conflicting ideas into a single sentence. Getting rid of them usually breaks long-winded sentences into shorter and clearer ones.
posted by migurski at 6:15 PM on May 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

threeants, all forms of “to be” were banned in my 7th grade english class.
posted by migurski at 6:16 PM on May 28, 2011

Best answer: I try to remove words that I treat as connectors but end up acting as fillers: therefore, however, unfortunately, ultimately. In general, when you can remove a word and not change the meaning of the sentence, you should. The goal is for every word you use to have a purpose.

And of course, read it out loud. If it sounds stilted, re-write.
posted by samthemander at 6:19 PM on May 28, 2011

Regarding those scripts, I wouldn't take writing advice from someone who wrote this:

Bad: False positives were surprisingly low.
Better: To our surprise, false positives were low.
Good: To our surprise, false positives were low

The first sentence is clearly better than the third, which is awkward and wordy. Yeah, the writer is making the judgement rather than the reader, but that's understood and perfectly acceptable. You don't have to make it explicit with an ugly sentence.

Also, don't take writing advice from people who bash the passive voice. It can be overused just like anything else, but it performs a perfectly valid function and has been kept around in the language for good reasons.
posted by zachawry at 6:19 PM on May 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Paradigm, paradigm shift...I don't think I've ever seen these used used properly.
Insomuch, inasmuchs' ugly cousin.
Scope, out of scope, when you may actually mean "I didn't research this part".
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 6:23 PM on May 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "per se" I've a colleague who loves this and uses it constantly. Grr.
"Due to fact that" when "because" will do just fine
"At this point" or worse, "at this point in time" as wordy versions of "now"
posted by angiep at 6:32 PM on May 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I teach freshman comp, and I tell my students to get rid of "to be" verbs, have them revise long and awkward sentences, and have them read their papers aloud to catch infelicitous phrasings. I also limit them to one semi-colon per paper. There is nothing wrong with them, per se (sorry angiep), but they can be overused.

I'm not sure you need to get rid of "thus" entirely, as it can function to express the logic of your argument. (Shit. I'm writing all academic-y now.)

There is another academic phrase that drive me nuts, but I can't think of it right now. It's similar to "up to and including," but that's not it. It's similarly redundant.
posted by apricot at 6:45 PM on May 28, 2011

I edit academic writing every single day so I have my pet peeves.

Perhaps my biggest peeve is "critique" used as a verb. I find that appalling and pretentious. ("I am critiquing Deleuze and Zizek." etc.). "Criticize" does the job just fine.

(Actually, any reference to Deleuze or Zizek immediately sets of my bullshit detector, whether or not you are "critiquing" them.)

Close behind: "signification" where "meaning" would do.

And it's not just words. It's sentence structure. As I say to my students: if you need more than two dependent clauses in a sentence, you'd better have a damn good reason for making it hard for me to follow you. Likewise, please don't em-dash-offset an extraneous aside or qualification in every other sentence.

The passive voice is an enemy of both clarity and accountability in all writing.

I also recommend sending in Seal Team 6 to take out any adverbs you can find with extreme prejudice. One shot to the head, one to the heart, bury them at sea.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:46 PM on May 28, 2011 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Seemingly, clearly, incontrovertibly, and even definitively.

All of these words have a time and a place. I have found, though, that if you use them frequently, especially in an argumentative paper, you will will sound pretty damn pretentious.

My bad habit: We can clearly see...
posted by lobbyist at 6:50 PM on May 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Another couple of clarifications:

(1) these are long papers (40+ pages). While "be" and its various forms can often be replaced, it is not practical to do an automatic search for every sentence containing "be" in the same way it is to search for all instances of "thus". I am actually doing "real" revision of the papers as well as this search-and-replace, and I do know about things like where passive voice works and where it doesn't, and how to revise awkward sentences, read things aloud, etc. Here I am specifically asking about the sorts of words I can run a targeted search for.

(2) I am not removing all instances of these words that I come across. I agree with apricot that thus etc isn't always bad. But because of my personal tendency to overuse it, it is a good idea for me to at least reconsider each usage and decide if it really is the best phrasing. And if I want to de-formalise a paper, thus should probably not be in there.

I am marking as best answers the ones that specifically suggest words, and that would be practical from a search perspective. Some answers suggest words that I personally never use (like signification or critiquing), so I'm not marking those as "best", even though they might be helpful to some people.
posted by lollusc at 6:59 PM on May 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

fourcheesemac: You say "The passive voice is an enemy of both clarity and accountability in all writing."

Can you re-write my sentence below, with not one but two instances of the passive voice, to make it better in the active voice?

"It can be overused just like anything else, but it performs a perfectly valid function and has been kept around in the language for good reasons."

Sometimes, often in fact, the subject is unknown or ambiguous, and that's just a fact of life.
posted by zachawry at 7:00 PM on May 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

I like to read broadly and don't mind complicated or long words, but I do object to jargon that locks me as a non-specialist out of whatever I'm trying to understand. Occasionally, jargon is helpful. New words are introduced in order to more readily explain a unique concept. But often jargon exists mainly to exclude. So while a well-placed therefore or thus doesn't trouble me, a jargon word that could be replaced by a regular word does.

Therefore, I can't offer much advice on what specific words to remove (since I don't know much about linguistics). But I can suggest searching for linguistics jargon and replacing it with regular English.
posted by serazin at 7:04 PM on May 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ah, linguistics! Ok, here some things that come up in linguistics papers specifically that (IMHO) should be avoided:

Idioms, metaphors and meta-language that is language- or data-referential by design. Phrases such as:
in other words
so to speak
that is to say
speaking of
in conclusion
significant (unless you are running stats or writing about semiotics)
mean, means, meaning (unless you are talking about the mean, the means or the meaning of something)

Other common phrases in linguistics papers that are just weird:
to be sure
it should be noted that

Unnecessary hedges and double constructions:
trying to attempt an
seeking to find a
not entirely but somewhat

Unintended evaluations:
'had to say that...' differs from 'said that...' (the former implies that one was compelled)
undeniably, obviously, apparently (implies that you're a moron for not seeing what the author sees)

And don't strive for too much conciseness either. Sometimes elided components are really necessary. I had a student paper recently that contained the phrase 'male tokens', referring to the lexical variants that were spoken by the males in the study population. I explained that 1) tokens aren't gendered, and 2) males are not objects. Not to mention the third interpretation. Or the weird compounding.

One or two ideas per sentence, tops.

Big linguistics article pet peeve of mine, if I may: carelessly using terms interchangeably, such as language/dialect/accent, sex/gender, race/ethnicity.

Linguistics articles are nothing like 5 paragraph essays. They should be somewhat dry...this lets the data shine. Think of linguistics papers like physics or medical reports, but infinitely more interesting. Get in, do what you gotta do, and get out.

To the first couple comments above...English does indeed have a way of referring to both the perfect and perfective...they're just not grammaticalized (i.e. conjugated verb forms or some other morphological marking); they're lexicalized. It's sorta like saying that English doesn't have future because we have to use a word like 'tomorrow', as in "Tomorrow I (will) eat."
posted by iamkimiam at 7:09 PM on May 28, 2011 [6 favorites]

Perfect aspect. It was my most egregious first draft problem -- at least every other sentence used it. (It is not particularly hard to search for if you have robust regular expressions. -- essentially, ha[(ve)|s]]\s[:alpha:]+n\s -- but it worked for me mostly because I overused it so much and it was almost never necessary.)

You do need to be careful with search & replace -- one psychology journal had an editorial policy of not calling people involved in experiments subjects but participants, and when syntax language acquisition papers were sent through the editorial automagic reformatting, absurdity ensued.
posted by jeather at 7:12 PM on May 28, 2011

[Beware all blanket proscriptions in language use, including this one. They are by their nature fraught with personal axes to be ground, bad pedagogy and rampant pedantry. There's a right tool for every job, and words are just tools. If someone told you you should NEVER EVER EVER use a brace & bit under any circumstances these days, you'd rightly think them a fool. Same goes for language.]

If you're using MS Word or something similar that allows you to calculate the Fleisch-Kinkade reading level, run it. If it's crazy high, simplify your sentence structure. Your diction will necessarily be simplified in turn. Like as not, diction follows syntax.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 7:23 PM on May 28, 2011

Best answer: Don't use the word "said," as in, "I went to a baseball game. The players in said game...." This comes up a lot in legal writing, though it appears elsewhere as well. You can almost always just say "the" or some simpler word instead.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 7:30 PM on May 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Any unnecessarily "nouned" verbs -- or: nominalizations. Try Style Toward Clarity and Grace.
posted by glibhamdreck at 7:38 PM on May 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

My academic jargony bêtes noires are "problematize" and the vaguely pejorative use of the word "Western" (e.g., from googling, "You see, in our Western society in the 1990s, it is 'normal' for infants to be restricted or weaned from the breast").
posted by CutaneousRabbit at 7:47 PM on May 28, 2011

Utilize. Replace with use.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:48 PM on May 28, 2011 [7 favorites]

Best answer: "ways in which" drives me absolutely bonkers. That's two extra words that just dangle there.

The ways in which the speaker...
The ways the speaker...
posted by bilabial at 7:58 PM on May 28, 2011

Can you re-write my sentence below, with not one but two instances of the passive voice, to make it better in the active voice? (zachawry)

"You can overuse it just like anything else, but it performs a perfectly valid function. English speakers have kept it around for good reasons."
posted by migurski at 8:05 PM on May 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

OK, the passive voice has its place. But it is massively overused in academic writing *precisely* to avoid accountability.

"It can be overused just like anything else, but it performs a perfectly valid function and has been kept around in the language for good reasons."

"Many writers overuse the passive voice. The passive voice is sometimes useful to express an ambiguous or unknown agent."

Also, don't take writing advice from people who bash the passive voice

You might want to take writing advice from a tenured professor whose PhD advisees are almost all working at tenure track jobs. Much academic writing is replete with unnecessary passive voice constructions. However I admit I was being a little polemical above. I too use the passive voice sometimes. But I try not to do so if it isn't necessary.
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:15 PM on May 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

I just pulled up the first random Deleuzian bullshit I could find on Google:

Here's a quote from Difference and Repetition

"Traditionally, the subject was conceived as the ultimate essence of individuation, as a pure, empty, prereflexive apprehension of the world, a nucleus of sensibility, of expressivity - the unifier of states of consciousness."

This is an example of the most egregious use of the passive voice, and this sort of usage is *exceedingly* common in academic writing: to cast aspersions without naming names (or citing references). "Traditionally, the subject was conceived as . . ." would almost always get a "BY WHOM?" from me in the margins. Note also the use of an adverb that further distances the author from accountability for his claim. "Tradition" didn't conceive of anything. Human beings "conceive" things. Many legitimate intellectual "traditions" (even within western thought) conceive "the subject" in very different ways -- Buddhist and rationalist and behaviorist and cognitivist and theist, to name a few.

This is sloppy and evasive writing.

Get me rewrite on the phone!

"Western philosophers have (traditionally?) conceived of the subject as . . . (list of references "to philosophers who have done so, or those who have advanced this claim about philosophy). "
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:28 PM on May 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

Here's the tricky thing about technical writing. You often have multiple target audiences.

For example, I am a technical translator of Japanese to English. My two main audiences often have needs that are diametrically opposed to each other. The first is the client who pays for the translation, usually a Japanese person with limited understanding of English. This person likes an easily-identified English word or phrase for each original Japanese.

Then there is the final reader, a native English speaker who can't read Japanese and who doesn't care about sentence structure in the original.

I have to please the first audience, or I won't get paid, but I really want to write for the second audience. Juggling these two sometimes means I end up writing things so the client will like it (ie be able to understand it easily), even at the cost of making it less clear for the final reader.

I can imagine the same thing happening with writing journal articles in linguistics or any other discipline. You have to please the "gatekeepers" of the journal reviewers, thesis advisers, etc., but what they want might not be what makes the writing clear and understandable to most.

(BTW, I'm forced into passive often because Japanese tends to omit subjects and objects, but that's another story...)
posted by zachawry at 8:39 PM on May 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

The best tip I have - other than studying composition - involves using the grammar and readability tools in your wordprocessor. Aim for a 9th to 10th grade reading level. Or you can calculate the Fog Index on your own and then tweak accordingly.
posted by acoutu at 9:06 PM on May 28, 2011

Best answer: Crucially.

Linguists are obsessed with this word. Why, just this afternoon I read a certain Distributed Morphology paper that used it twice in the same paragraph to introduce two separate steps in the argument.

I hope you don't waste your time trying to cut out "jargon". Crucially, the "regular English" words for most concepts in (at least theoretical) linguistics don't exist.
posted by ootandaboot at 9:22 PM on May 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The passive vs active debate is turning into a bit of a derail here.

Also, at the risk of repeating myself too much: I really don't need generic writing tips such as creating a progression of ideas or varying sentence construction. I am sure my writing is far from perfect, but I do have successful published papers and books and have on occasion been told that my prose is elegant and readable. I am just looking for words to add to my find-and-inspect list of potentially unnecessary formal academic words. Thank you.
posted by lollusc at 9:46 PM on May 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Has anyone said "heretofore"? Also, "such" and "said" are almost always unnecessary when used in a certain way -- like, "Subsection A of the Civil Rights Act requires blah blah blah. Said/such subsection yadda yadda yadda."
posted by J. Wilson at 9:52 PM on May 28, 2011

Best answer: Whence. Just say when.

Thus. If you're drawing a conclusion, and you always feel obligated to nail to this signpost, I'll either tear my hair out or put
the paper down. (this sentence reads better as 'if you nail every conclusion to the signpost "thus," I will either tear my hair out, or put the paper down.')

I'm also not a big fan of 'coincidentally' in academic papers. Nor of 'interestingly.

Think twice before describing some characteristic as 'empirical.'
posted by bilabial at 10:01 PM on May 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh. And hegemony. You're not allowed to use that word more than once in x months. When I am queen that will be a law.
posted by bilabial at 10:03 PM on May 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: "Per se"
"a priori"
Really long sentences with tons of flowery adverbs. Chop 'em up to make 'em readable.
posted by sunnychef88 at 10:26 PM on May 28, 2011

Words that end in "ize" are my personal weakness. Contextualize, diagonalize, regularize, normalize, etc etc.
Fun way to check for them: use a British spell checker (or an American one, if your english is British). I used to end up with papers all underlined in red that way..
posted by nat at 11:17 PM on May 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Whence. Just say when.

But "whence" and "when" are not synonyms, nor even close to it.
posted by redfoxtail at 12:05 AM on May 29, 2011 [7 favorites]

Best answer: "Approximately" instead of "about."
posted by zachawry at 1:29 AM on May 29, 2011

And hegemony. You're not allowed to use that word more than once in x months.

I disagree with this. That's like saying "culture" or "tradition" are meaningless jargon or overused terms.

"Hegemony" is a perfectly legitimate term for a very important concept with a distinguished lineage (Vico, Marx, Gramsci, R. Williams). There is no other word that means what it means exactly in modern social thought (power exercised through securing the consent of the dominated, culture as a structure of power). It doesn't just mean "domination" or "power" in social scientific usage. It names a particular way in which power is structured and exercised in modern societies.

Some jargon is useful. A single term naming a major concept with a rich theoretical heritage is not bad writing.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:53 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Root out and destroy all instances of "paradigm."
posted by BostonTerrier at 6:49 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 'The way in which' = 'how.'
posted by nerdfish at 8:05 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Don't exist "at the intersection" of one field or disciple and another.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:00 AM on May 29, 2011

Best answer: Anytime I see [re] in front of a verb, I want to kill the writer.
posted by timsteil at 10:52 AM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

posted by IndigoJones at 11:27 AM on May 29, 2011

Revising Prose summarizes many of the ideas outlined by commenters above. It's pricey for a slim volume, but worth it.
posted by Fuego at 1:28 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Arguably

It's a really tepid term that adds nothing and is essentially the author trying to save their own arse.
posted by litleozy at 3:08 PM on May 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Good writing is about 75% one- and two-syllable words.

After you delete the academic babble, go through flagging multi-syllable words and change them to short ones.

Read Strunk & White, The Elements of Style, particularly Rule 13, Omit Needless Words.

Omit 99% of adverbs and 90% of adjectives.
posted by KRS at 3:34 PM on May 29, 2011

Attempt to reduce the amount of redundant and unnecessary verbiage.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:15 PM on May 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone!

Here's my final list of words and phrases to search for and examine closely, compiled from all your helpful answers!

on the other hand
the fact that
at this point
per se
so to speak
that is to say
it should be noted that
seeking to find
ways in which
a priori
ways in which
posted by lollusc at 10:11 PM on May 29, 2011 [5 favorites]

There's no objective master list—the best way to generate this list is to read 10 articles and then pick out the words you object to, or find wanky or whatever.

Academic writing is still a literary act, so it's about developing your own personal style. This varies, which is a good thing. Some of the best academic writers out there are so good because they have an individual style, something that can't be gained by merely cutting out adverbs, as your list shows.

That said, nix multiplicity and discourse.
posted by oxford blue at 7:23 AM on May 30, 2011

Best answer: Maybe 'of course' as well?

I'm personally really guilty of using it, but it is just rhetorical 'don't you disagree with me on this' or 'I'm going to hide my own position behind some supposedly generally accepted assumption' fluff.
posted by litleozy at 7:53 AM on May 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

"In and of itself" is the phrase I was trying to think of before. That one sets my teeth on edge for some reason.
posted by apricot at 8:26 AM on May 30, 2011

Best answer: furthermore
posted by runningwithscissors at 8:35 AM on May 30, 2011

A list is fine as far as it goes, but rules to identify said words might serve better in the long run.

Hence, On Writing Well, by Zinsser.
posted by storybored at 12:31 PM on May 30, 2011

Chiming in one last time to say that "Discourse" and "Empirical" are two words I could not imagine doing without and don't consider in anything like the same league as most of the fillers and qualifiers on your list; in particular, the former is a specific technical term in linguistics (my home field) for which there *is no synonym* (the level of language structure above the sentence) and "empirical" is a venerable term in the philosophy of science that contrasts precisely with "speculative."
posted by fourcheesemac at 1:37 PM on May 30, 2011

Response by poster: I agree about discourse: that's why it isn't on my list. As for as 'empirical' goes, I agree that it is valuable when used correctly, but I suspect I may sometimes put it in to make myself sound more scientific (and less speculative) and cover the fact that I am NOT being particularly rigorous. I.e. "I have a couple of anecdotes to illustrate this point" becomes "Empirical evidence shows that..." (Not that I'd leave it as 'a couple of anecdotes' either, but in my case, it's certainly worth searching for 'empirical(ly)' and checking whether I am trying to cover my ass.
posted by lollusc at 9:15 PM on May 30, 2011

Reduce verbosity by changing "in order to" -> "to"

For an example from this thread, notice how little is lost by the change:

New words are introduced in order to more readily explain a unique concept.

New words are introduced to more readily explain a unique concept.
posted by bookdragoness at 10:03 AM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ah, ok. "Evidence" is generally, by its very nature, "empirical" (you "experienced" it somehow, as opposed to speculating about the claim). So "empirical evidence" is redundant; anecdotal evidence is empirical; so is evidence gathered in a systematic or scientific fashion.

The word itself is a distinguished term of art in the philosophy of science. I could no more imagine avoiding its use than I could imagine never eating a sandwich again in my life.

A book by one of my favorite teachers begins with the sentence: "Alas, poor empiricism."

The point is that "jargon" is not necessarily a bad thing. All professions and disciplines use specialized language (or jargon) to communicate clearly and efficiently. Doctors do it. Lawyers do it. Nurses do it. And players of instruments too.
posted by fourcheesemac at 10:49 AM on May 31, 2011

Seconding "in order." One of my previous grant-writing supervisors hated "in order" and struck it out of everything I wrote. Didn't take me long to come around to her perspective, and and this point I shudder when I see it.
posted by dlugoczaj at 12:36 PM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Try as an exercise: if it can be replaced by a simpler word, do so.

I often think more undergrads would like philosophy if the writers with big ideas were trying for a wider audience than just their direct peers.
posted by talldean at 8:16 PM on May 31, 2011

I overuse "meanwhile" and I used to overuse "worldview"
posted by Jagz-Mario at 7:24 PM on June 1, 2011

"In terms of" is often used very loosely to mean with respect to, in regards to, concerning, as for, about, etc. I think it should be reserved only for when there are actually (quantifiable?) "terms" that you want to speak in.
posted by frankly mister at 4:19 PM on June 2, 2011

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