By Susan Carter

In the latest doctoral writing group, we blitzed words that were the cause of inaccuracy, often because the tone they added was too informal. This post gives our list of words that are treacherous. We welcome comments or offers of posts that identify more words that might be tricky. Here are words that we think should be used with caution by doctoral writers.

Firstly, ‘very’ probably does not have a place in a thesis. (Please add a comment if you disagree.) I’d recommend ‘significant’ as an alternative, one that may require a little rephrasing.

Myriad is a tricky word. My Shorter Oxford Dictionary (SOD) says that literally a myriad is ten thousand, and can also mean countless numbers, hordes. So whenever I read that there are myriads of challenges, I replace ‘myriads of’ with ‘many.’ So in that case, the problem is wild overstatement. Wild overstatement is acceptable in many circles, those inhabited by people who like to shriek “OMG!” often, and declare that they would die rather than revise their chapter again. However, the academic community tends not to be like that and can be disapproving. It is better to stay within the reality factor.

Another word that I have commented on in two different writers’ work in the last week is ‘useage.’ SOD spells out that usage means ‘habitual or customary practices or procedure’. Now, arguably when you use a theory or method you could claim that your use is habitual, but just as arguably it is not because use in one research project is not customary. Quite simply, ‘The use of X theory/method is justified by…’ is stronger than ‘The usage of X theory/methods is justified by…,’ which I regard as inaccurate.

And I have sadly accepted that usage with preference for ‘utilize’ or ‘use’ has shifted in the last ten years. I’ve long taught, in accordance with Strunk and White, that if there is a short simple word it is kinder to your reader to use it in preference to a longer Latinate word. I like using ‘use’ and I never utilize anything. A friend did argue that utlize suggests deliberate purposefulness; I still cannot see why ‘use’ discounts deliberate purposefulness. We seldom use a tool, theory or method without deliberate purpose, and in a thesis we usually spell that purpose out.

I recommend not using ‘proper’ for methods or theory. It is true that SOD lists one meaning as ‘suitable, appropriate, fitting,’ but, in a list of meanings that runs from 1 to 10, that is in meaning 9. Other meanings include ‘owned (meaning 1), belonging or relating to distinctly or exclusively’ (meaning 2); ‘genuine, true…normal (meaning 5).

One of the doctoral students identified that the use of ‘all’ as in a sentence we’d been looking at—‘Interactivity is a shared point of all social learning theories’–can also be a good example of the need for caution. ‘Many’ or ‘quite possibly all’ offer defence positions. More examples can include the use of ‘always’, ‘never’, ‘the only study’. These are risky words because the writer might not know as much as their examiner about how many variations there are. In thoroughly reviewing literature, you might find only one study on something, but it is possible that an examiner might have used different search terms or engines and found more. Defence options include ‘frequently,’ ‘seldom’ and ‘a rare example.’

Really, caution with accuracy is needed for defence. As Trang noted: ‘Some words should be avoided since they may make our arguments indefensible and push us to a corner without being able to retreat. The moral lesson is use hedging or soft language, not to overstate our arguments but to play it safe.’

I’ve probably mentioned before that I recommend avoiding superlatives for the same kind of reason. A writer may believe that something is the earliest of its kind; an examiner may know of a similar thing that is earlier. The safe bet is to write ‘an early example of X’ rather than ‘the earliest example of X.’ However, if there are facts that are irrefutable, then you use superlatives.

We swung to talk about how caution does not mean always understate what you think. Inaccurate understatement leaves the writer open for challenge too. This was endorsed when I later read in a draft that ‘The University of Auckland is one of the biggest in New Zealand’. Figures show that the University of Auckland is far the biggest in terms of student numbers, so in that case, ‘one of the biggest’ is not accurate.

Now, could you help us to build a bigger list of words that might be stated too emphatically to be defensible. Have you come across any? We’d welcome another post if you wanted to submit it (with the usual proviso that we review first), or you could start a comment conversation so that this blog site gathers a useful list of accuracy accident-prone words.

Strunk, William Jnr. & White, E.B. The Elements of Style. 3rd Edition. Needham Heights Mass.: Allyb & Bacon.