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Avoid These Words and Phrases in Your Academic Writing


When writing an academic essay, thesis, or dissertation, your professor or advisor usually gives you a rubric with detailed expectations to guide you during the process. While the rubric will identify the major requirements for the paper, it will probably not tell you what words or phrases you need to avoid. Whether you want to earn a stellar grade on your next paper or you're hoping to get published in an academic journal, keep reading to discover words and phrases you need to avoid in your academic writing.

"A great deal of"

I encounter the phrase a great deal of in most academic papers that I edit. Avoid using this vague phrase, because your academic writing should be specific and informative. Instead of saying a great deal of, provide exact measurements or specific quantities.

"A lot"

Similar to the previous phrase (a great deal of), a lot is too vague and informal for an academic paper. Use precise quantities instead of this overly general phrase.


Avoid using the word always in your academic writing, because it can generalize a statement and convey an absolute that might not be accurate. If you want to state something about all the participants in your study, use specific language to clarify that the statement applies to a consistent action among the participants in your study.


It is almost a cliché to tell you to avoid clichés, but it is an essential piece of writing advice. Clichés are unoriginal and will weaken your writing. In academic writing, using clichés will erode your credibility and take away from all the research and hard work you have put into your project.

What qualifies as a cliché? According to, A cliché is an expression, idea, or action that has been overused to the point of seeming worn out, stale, ineffective, or meaningless. Your words should be original, carry meaning, and resonate with your readers, and this is especially important for academic writing. Most clichés have been used so frequently in so many different contexts that they have lost their meaning. To eliminate clichés, scan your paper for any phrases that you could type into an internet browser and find millions of search results from all different topic areas. If you are unsure if your favorite phrases are overused clichés, consult this Cliché List for a comprehensive list.


Academic writing should be formal and professional, so refrain from using contractions. offers the following advice regarding contractions: Contractions such as isn't, couldn't, can't, weren't, he'll, they're occur chiefly, although not exclusively, in informal speech and writing. They are common in personal letters, business letters, journalism, and fiction; they are rare in scientific and scholarly writing. Contractions occur in formal writing mainly as representations of speech. When you proofread your paper, change any contractions back to the original formal words.

Double negatives

Double negatives will confuse your readers and dilute the power of your words. For example, consider the following sentence:

"He was not unwilling to participate in the study."

The word not and the prefix un- are both negatives, so they cancel each other out and change the meaning of the sentence. If you want to convey that someone reluctantly participated in the study, express that clearly and explicitly.


The abbreviation etc. is short for the Latin word et cetera, which means and others; and so forth; and so on. specifies that etc. is used to indicate that more of the same sort or class might have been mentioned, but for brevity have been omitted. I discourage writers from using etc. in academic writing, because if you are writing an academic paper, you are writing to share information or scholarly research, and you are not conveying any new information with the abbreviation etc. Instead of writing etc., explicitly state the words or list that you are alluding to with your use of etc. If you absolutely must use etc., make sure you only use it if readers can easily identify what etc. represents, and only use etc. at the end of lists that are within parentheses.

"For all intents and purposes" and "for all intensive purposes"

These two phrases are often used interchangeably, but you should avoid both of them in your academic writing. Avoid the second phrase in all of your writing: For all intensive purposes is an eggcorn (a word or phrase that is mistakenly used for another word or phrase because it sounds similar). For all intents and purposes is generally a filler phrase that does not provide any new information, so you can usually omit it without replacing it.


An idiom is an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements. Idioms include phrases such as he kicked the bucket, and they are particularly problematic in academic writing, because non-native English speakers might not understand your intended meaning. Below are three of the idioms I encounter most frequently when editing academic papers:

  • All things being equal: All things being equal is usually an unnecessary or redundant phrase that you can simply omit without replacing with anything else.
  • In a nutshell: Instead of saying in a nutshell, use a more universal phrase such as in summary or in conclusion.
  • On the other hand: Idioms such as on the other hand are informal and will weaken your paper. Instead of writing the phrase on the other hand, consider using conversely.

In-text ampersands ("&")

Do not use ampersands in place of the word and in sentences. Most style guides dictate that you use an ampersand for parenthetical in-text citations, but you need to spell out the word and in your paper. An ampersand within the text of your paper is too informal for an academic paper.

"I think"

You do not need to include the phrase I think when explaining your point of view. This is your paper, and it should contain your original thoughts or findings, so it is redundant to include the phrase I think. Doing so will weaken your writing and your overall argument.


Similar to the word "always," avoid using the word never in your academic writing. Always and never will overgeneralize your statements. If you absolutely must use never in your academic writing, make sure that you specify that it applies only to the participants in your study and should not be applied to the general population.


Avoid using subjective terms such a normal in your academic papers. Instead, use scientific or academic terms such as control group or standard. Remember that what you consider normal might be abnormal to someone else, but a control group or standard should be objective and definable.

Passive voice

Passive voice is one of the most frequent issues that I correct when editing academic papers. Some students think passive voice provides a more formal tone, but it actually creates more confusion for your readers while also adding to your word count. As the UNC Writing Center explained, The primary reason why your instructors frown on the passive voice is that they often have to guess what you mean. Most style guidelines (APA, MLA, Chicago) also specify that writers should avoid passive sentences. Whether you're writing your first draft or proofreading for what feels like the hundredth time, you can change passive sentences by making sure that the subject of your sentence is performing the action.

One way to look out for passive voice is to pay attention anytime you use by or was. These two words do not always indicate passive voice, but if you pay attention, they can help you spot passive voice. For example, the following sentence uses passive voice:

"The study was conducted in 2021."

If your style guideline allows you to use personal pronouns, specify a subject and reword the sentence to say:

"We conducted the study in 2021."

If your style guideline dictates that you avoid personal pronouns, you can make the sentence active by saying:

"The researchers conducted the study in 2021."


There are exceptions to most writing tips, but not this one: You should never use profanity in your academic writing. Profanity is informal, and many people might find it offensive, crude, or rude. Even if you enjoy creating controversy or getting a rise out of your readers, avoid profane words that might offend professors or other readers.

Academic writing can feel overwhelming, but hopefully this list of words and phrases to avoid in academic writing will help you as you navigate your next big assignment. Although there are exceptions to some items on this list, you will grow as a writer if you learn to avoid these words and phrases. If you consult your professor or advisor's rubric, adhere to style guidelines, and avoid the words or phrases on this list, you might even have fun the next time you have to stay up all night to finish an academic paper.

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