Having worked with academic writing from almost every discipline and level, our editors have extensive experience of what you should – and shouldn’t – do. The following presents their ideas on the most common, and detrimental, mistakes.
Aversion to the Verb:
I have noticed that many inexperienced researchers go through quite complicated convolutions in getting to the primary verb of a sentence. Among the most structurally problematic of these is using the noun form of what is actually the primary verb and appending a supplementary verb to this. For example, rather than saying, “I shall interpret the phenomenon”, people will write “I shall make an interpretation of the phenomenon”; instead of “X and Y interact”, they will use “an interaction occurs between X and Y”. The weaknesses of this are obvious: it uses almost twice the amount of words and distorts and blurs the force of the statement. It also tends to irritate the reader: the waste of words can easily be construed as being meant to make an idea seem more complicated and difficult than it actually is, and it calls for excessive and undue interpretation on the part of the reader. When writing, try and be as clear as you can about what the main verb of any sentence is, and organize the other information around it.
Vague Pronouns and Antecedents:
While excessive repetition of terms and phrases can be tiresome, it’s important in academic writing, and especially in those portions in which the skeleton of the argument is being laid out, to be as clear and specific as possible. This can often be impeded by the use of pronouns the antecedent of which is ambiguous or unclear. Consider the following example: “Ethnic diversity in classrooms can thus be considered among the primary causes of lagging curricular development. This means that some fundamental aspects of the predominant conception of education need to revised.” The ‘this’ that begins the second sentence could possibly refer to the implication of the entire sentence, ethnic diversity in classrooms, or lagging curricular development. The tactic is often used to mask fuzzy or lazy thinking, and allows possibly questionable argumentative moves to be made in the shadows, as it were. Whenever you use ‘it’, ‘this’, ‘that’, or another pronoun, consider whether you know what the antecedent is, whether this is likely to be one hundred percent clear to the reader, and whether or not any ambiguity is possible. If it is, it’s better to run the risk of being repetitive than being unclear.
Many people instinctively feel that, when it comes to matters of culture and thought, what is old must be good. Perhaps it’s based on the idea that only quality stands the test of time, or the ever-prevalent assumption that culture is always in a state of decline. Whatever the case, many people tend to use, for example, ‘upon’ when writing instead of ‘on’ (“I draw upon structuralist theory”). The substitution provides nothing in terms of significance, seems affected, and quite often adds unnecessary verbiage.
Which and That
A similar case as that outlined above is the use of “which” as the reflexive pronoun instead of the more natural “that”. Many people write “which” when they would use “that” in spoken conversation. “Which” is used in conjunction with pronouns, but, with conversational English now tending to place the pronoun at the end of the sentence, this is no longer called for. For example, people tend to say “The chair I sat on” instead of “The chair on which I sat”. Perhaps because the latter construction is technically more correct, and reminiscent of a more formal register, people associate “which” with formality and “that” with casual discourse. Writers thus often use something like “The results which were obtained support our first hypothesis,” where it should be “results that were obtained”. (For a guide on the difference between “that” and “which” when used as a reflexive pronoun, see this article.)
Instead of “due to the fact that,” why not just say “because”? The two mean exactly the same thing, and you achieve a saving of four words with the latter. The same goes for the phrase “effective and efficient.” Technically, ‘effective’ and ‘efficient’ mean exactly the same thing – having the capacity to bring about a given end – and you might as well say “effective and effective”. I realize that in colloquial parlance “efficient” now carries connotations closer to something like “non-wasteful” or “parsimonious”, but surely it’d be better to use those terms and be absolutely clear than make use of lazy phrases and formulations that sound good but haven’t really been thought through? Here’s an example I came across recently (in an otherwise excellently written, philosophically rigorous and highly self-aware work, which shows that such errors can creep into even the best writing): “these dispositions have not only not gone away entirely but persist”. The first thing one wonders on reading this is what the difference between not going away and persisting could possibly be. Surely “persisting” is simply “not going away”? I think the basis of this error is the desire to follow quite deeply ingrained rhetorical conventions, and thus adhere to an implicit and subtle notion of what constitutes elevated registers, often on the basis of rhythm rather than sense, regardless of whether the content actually calls for the formulation. Try and say what you have to say as clearly and concisely as possible, and the rest will follow from it.
While the majority of the errors listed above result from attempting to adhere to some preconceived idea of what a sufficiently elevated academic register would be, it’s also common to veer too far in the other direction by using overly colloquial formulations. Now, only pedants will penalize you for using neologisms that add semantic value to the language without detracting from clarity and brevity – (and each marker is likely to have their own idiosyncrasies, which means it’s well worth your while you pay attention to what your professor or lecturer likes and dislikes) – but much colloquial language is vague, lazy and lax. Rather than saying, “Participants really liked the sample product,” which only indicates that they were in favour of whatever is under discussion, try use something like, “The participants’ responses ranged from satisfaction to extreme satisfaction, with only one expression of disapproval recorded.” You should also avoid contractions – can’t, isn’t, didn’t – except when they’re part of a quotation, and “a lot”: for this latter, use “much” or “many”, as required by the noun.