By Susan Carter

Academics tend to agree that, all else being equal, a simple word is better than a pedantic one. There’s one curious exception: we all know to avoid saying ‘says’ in academic writing.

Words that say ‘says’ without saying the actual four-letter word convey a complex signaling system. Careful choice of ‘says’ words shows critical evaluation of the literature—it is the literature that usually does the saying in research writing.

I once heard a doctoral student say that their supervisor told them to always use ‘suggests.’ The student believed it was a discipline preference relating to an objective voice–I think it was simply bad advice.

For all disciplines need to show critical analysis: ‘suggests’ is simply the wrong word in some cases. Maybe the supervisor didn’t trust this person to signal correctly in their choice of options and thought ‘suggests’ was a pretty safe default position. Yet, encouraging students to think about the degrees of difference in what those ‘says’ words convey is one way to explicitly show them how to achieve more accurate and nuanced academic writing.

‘Suggests,’ is neutral, a tad on the tentative side. A suggestion doesn’t stridently take a stance. So although ‘suggests’ seems harmless, it won’t be the most accurate word if the author actually was really emphatic. If an examiner wants sound evidence of critical interpretation, ‘suggests’ often won’t give that.

Gathering ‘says’ words into a list shows more clearly the nuances of meaning between them. ‘Says’ words can be collected up by individuals or as a group exercise. Then they can be put together for ones that might be used in similar situations. This includes, for example, when an author

  • really is tentative or explorative;
  • endorses someone else;
  • disagrees with someone else;
  • picks something apart to show better how it works;
  • pulls things together in new ways; or
  • takes things further.

I’ve drawn up a list of some of these words, and put them into clusters. At the shallow end of the pool: ‘explores,’ ‘speculates,’ ‘suggests,’ ‘proposes,’ ‘finds,’ and ‘shows.’

There are also ‘describes,’ ‘clarifies,’ explains’ or ‘unpacks’ for the times when authors make things clearer.

They may ‘theorise,’ ‘refine,’ or calibrate.’ With just a little more force, it might become ‘asserts,’ ‘endorses,’ ‘demonstrates,’ ‘affirms.

An author may ‘emphasise’ or they may actually ‘argue.’

When an author wants to say that those they are citing came across something really very new, the cited author can be said to ‘discover’ or ‘find’. And there are two uses of ‘finds:’ the literal one when something is actually found that was missing before; and the metaphorical one to mean when a position about previously know things has been found and taken by this individual thinker.

When an author makes headway by clearing aside misconceptions, they may ‘doubt,’ ‘refute,’ ‘rebuff,’ ‘challenge,’ ‘dispute,’ ‘disprove,’ or, more graphically, ‘explode the myth/misconception/belief.’

Or they may follow someone else’s lead but continue the vector further, as when they ‘add,’ ‘expand,’ ‘develop,’ or ‘take further.’ Sometimes they ‘synthesise’ by pulling different discourses together.

When a research writer says an author ‘reveals,’ ‘illuminates,’ ‘dissects,’ ‘explicates,’ ‘develops,’ or ‘anatomises,’ they are also saying that they found that work helpful, and learned from it. They are endorsing the author they are citing, and aligning their own work with it. My own favourite, my highest praise for a cited author, is ‘anatomise,’ because it conjures up the cutting open to show how things work inside. Rembrandt’s Dr Tulp with his solemn anatomy lesson springs to mind.

Any other ‘says’ words, or comments on this curious social phenomena?