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Scholarly Voice: Using Academic Diction

Introduction

The following guidelines clarify what types of words to avoid in academic writing, including in discussion board posts.

Do Not Use Colloquialisms

A colloquial word or phrase is one that is better suited for a familiar, face-to-face conversation than for scholarly documents. Many times, this is a common word or phrase that is being used in a nontraditional, informal way.

  • Example: Debra could see that her student was fixing to disrupt the class.
  • Example: Mart-Co would eventually dump Well-Health Management for another insurance provider.
  • Better: Debra could see that the student was planning on disrupting the class.

Do Not Use Slang

Like a colloquialism, slang is better suited for a face-to-face conversation. The difference between slang and a colloquialism is that the latter could still be used in a more formal instance (Example: “The garbage was dumped in the harbor.”) Slang, on the hand, has no original meaning outside of its slang usage.

  • Example: As expected, the company released a series of sympvertizements. [Someone outside of the advertising world might not realize that this term is a combination of sympathy and advertisements.]
  • Example: The nurses were concerned that the patient would be a bounceback. [Someone outside of the medical field may not know that this term is loosely defined as a patient who continually returns to a hospital to receive additional and perhaps unnecessary medical attention.]
  • Better: The nurses were concerned that the patient would return in a few days.

Do Not Use Jargon

Jargon confuses or muddles a word or expression, perhaps intentionally, with the purpose of swaying its reader towards a particular reading of the presented information.

  • Example: McDonald’s eventually decided to right-size their employee-to-restaurant ratio. [The author seems to be massaging the meaning of the sentence: McDonald’s didn’t lay off employees (a negative); it right-sized its employee-to-restaurant ratio.]
  • Example: In 1998, Bill Symons made elective, body mass reallocation surgery a reality for those living in Alapaha, Georgia. [The author seems to be massaging the meaning of the sentence: Bill Symons didn’t make cosmetic surgery (a term with a stigma attached to it) available; he made elective, body mass reallocation surgery available.]
  • Better: McDonald’s decided to lay off three employees at each restaurant location.

Do Not Use Vague Adjectives and Adverbs

An inappropriate adjective or adverb would be one that holds little or no quantifiable meaning.

  • Example: The teachers were very pleased with the results. [To what quantifiable degree is very modifying pleased?]
  • Example: The students were really engaged in the activity. [To what quantifiable degree is really engaged more than engaged?]
  • Better: The students enthusiastically participated in the activity by clapping their hands and stomping their feet at the appropriate times. [This sentence more precisely defines the students’ engagement.]

Do Not Include Feeling Words

  • Example: I believe that Washington (1993) misinterpreted the findings.
  • Example: I feel that Proposition 8 is unjust. [A critical reader wants to know how you know something to be true, not why you believe or feel a particular way.]
  • Better: Washington (1993), however, misinterpreted the findings. [This sentence would then be followed by supporting evidence.]

Do Not Use Big Words Just for the Sake of Using Big Words

Difficult words force your reader to have a dictionary nearby.

Remember: Your reader should have to do as little work as possible to understand your writing.

  • Example: Lynn (2003) blatantly defenestrated the survey results. [Clearer: Lynn (2003) dismissed the survey results.]
  • Example: The students formicated around the teacher. [Clearer: The students gathered around the teacher.]

Do Not Use Meaningless Words

You will find that some words or phrases hold little meaning when you consider the potentially diverse backgrounds of your reading audience.

  • Example: The daycare was affordable. [By whose standards? How are we defining affordable?]
  • Better: The daycare charged $560 a month.
  • Example: It took the Soviet Union a long time to recover from World War 2. [By what standards? What constitutes “a long time”?]
  • Better: It took the Soviet Union over 20 years to recover from World War 2.

Do Not Use Metaphors

Metaphors are never precise; the strength of an academic document, meanwhile, is determined by its precision.

  • Example: The purpose of Bill 774 was to use Medicare and Medicaid as economic soup strainers. [No matter what, Medicare and Medicaid cannot function exactly like soup strainers.]
  • Example: Like George Washington, President Reagan could not tell a lie. [No matter what, Reagan cannot be exactly like Washington in his inability to tell a lie.]
  • Better: President Reagan never lied.

Do Not Use Clichés

A cliché is a phrase so often used that it has lost all meaning.

  • Example: The employees at Mart-Co were hung out to dry. [What does this mean? Were they not paid? Were they fired? Were they left without health insurance?]
  • Better: Mart-Co rescinded its employees’ health insurance.
  • Example: A cutting-edge company like Mart-Co is always one step ahead of the competition. [What does it mean to be “cutting edge”? How specifically is someone or something “one step ahead”?]

Do Not Use Platitudes

Platitudes are clichés that also pretend to offer advice, lesson, or moral guidance.

  • Example: Firming and Associates had proven that the early bird always gets the worm.
  • Example: Toy-Max knew that when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade!
  • Better: Toy-Max was able to recycle the defective yo-yos and reuse them as wheels for their Charles the Truck line.

Do Not Use Pejoratives

A pejorative is a word or phrase that expresses the bias of the author.

  • Example: Herman and Dean (2003) surveyed 500 junkies in Southern California.
  • Example: Scientology and other pseudoreligions are becoming more popular.
  • Better: Herman and Dean (2003) surveyed 500 individuals suffering from heroin addiction in Southern California.