Word-Level Issues in Academic Writing

Try hard to avoid ambiguous references

Conversation is replete with ambiguous words like “this”, “these”, “his”, “it”, “they”, etc. These words have no meaning in themselves, but in conversation the meaning is usually clear from the context. In written text, however, the intended meaning is quite often not evident to the reader, because there are e.g. many possible interpretations of “it” and “this”.

It is a good idea to read over anything you write, searching for this sort of word. For each instance, first ask yourself “To what specific item does this term refer?”. For such a reference to make sense, the object, person, or concept must have been explicitly mentioned just prior to your reference. Often you will find that “it” or “they” refers to something vague that was not even discussed explicitly in your paper, in which case you should reword your text entirely.

Even if the item to which you refer is explicitly mentioned in your paper, ask yourself whether there is any chance that the reader might not know to which of several items you might be referring. E.g. for the word “he”, were there two or three people being discussed? If so then state the actual name of each; “he” would be ambiguous.

Often an ambiguous “this” or “these” can be disambiguated by adding a noun that specifies precisely the type of object or concept to which you are referring. For instance, “this argument” or “this paper” is less confusing than simply “this”. That is, do not use “this” followed directly by a verb phrase, but you can use “this” before a noun phrase, as in “this sentence is a good example of the use of the word ‘this'”.


Watch out for homonyms

Spell checkers are wonderful, but they are absolutely useless for detecting misused homonyms or near-homonyms, i.e., actual words whose meaning is confused with other actual words. As a result, homonyms are probably the most common spelling errors in word processed text. Even if you are lazy and let the spell checker fix all of your other words, make certain that you know the differences between words like:

Word-Level Issues in Academic Writing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you do not know the difference, you must simply avoid using any of these words. Yet because the spell checker takes care of all the other words you may misspell, learning to use these few words correctly is surely not much of a burden, and is crucial for convincing your readers that you are competent and trustworthy.


 Avoid “comprise”

Apparently the word “comprise” has now been used incorrectly so many times to mean “compose” that this usage is now becoming acceptable. But it is much safer simply to avoid “comprise” altogether, as anyone who does know what it started out meaning will be annoyed when you use it to mean “compose”.


 “But” and “however” are not interchangeable

The words “but” and “however” have similar meanings, but they are not interchangeable. If you take a grammatically correct sentence containing “but” and replace it with “however”, or vice versa, the result will almost always be incorrect, mainly because of comma punctuation.

Correct examples:

“I like oranges, but I do not like tangerines.”

“I like oranges. However, I do not like tangerines.”

“I like oranges; however, I do not like tangerines.”

“I, however, do not like grapefruits.”

“I like oranges however they have been prepared.”

If you exchange any of these “but”s and “however”s, then the sentences would become incorrect, and in some cases meaningless.


A “point” is a single item

The word “point” can only be used for a single, atomic item. Thus it is not appropriate to discuss a “sub-point”, “part of a point”, the “first half” of a point, etc. Instead use “topic” or “section”, etc.


“A research”

There is no noun phrase “a research” in English. Use “a study” or just “research”, never “a research”. Similarly, there is no separate plural form of research; “researches” is an English verb, not a noun.


Avoid capitalization

When in doubt, use lower case. Capitalization is appropriate only for specific, named, individual items or people. For example, capitalize school subjects only when you are referring to a specific course at a specific school: math is a general subject, but Math 301 is a particular course. Similarly: Department of Computer Sciences vs. a computer science department, the president vs.President Bush. When in doubt, use lower case.


 Avoid contractions

Contractions are appropriate only for conversational use and for informal writing, never for technical or formal writing.


Reference:

Dr. James A. Bednar. Tips for Academic Writing and Other Formal Writing

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