Things Not To Write

This is a self-indulgent list of things I, personally, wish no undergraduate student would ever write in a paper that I have to grade, ever again. In some cases, this is because the item in question is ridiculous, factually wrong, essentially meaningless, or logically head-explodey. In other cases, the item is used incorrectly so often that it seems best to just prohibit it, in hopes that whatever replaces it will be more carefully thought out. Comments are welcome, if anyone should happen to see this page.

Dear Students: Please Do Not Ever Write These Things:

Throughout History… This ranks among the most shudder-inducing phrases one could possibly find in a student paper. Also avoid even more horrible variants such as “since the dawn of man,” “since the beginning of time,” “from time immemorial,” etc.

Society. That’s right; just don’t ever ever use this word in a paper. I estimate that perhaps 1% of students use it in an appropriate context, so it’s safest to avoid it completely.

Humanity. Even worse than “society;” consider setting your word processor to flash a red screen and a loud buzzer if you ever type this word.

Nowadays. …and all synonyms, such as “in modern times,” “these days,” and the bafflingly common “now a days.”

Basically. …also variants like “essentially.”

Prove. I teach science courses. Empirical scientists don’t prove things. On a very good day–usually after many years of trying–we might disprove something, but proving is not our gig. In the great majority of cases, you should also avoid “true,” “false,” and even “disprove.”

Obviously. If it’s obvious, you probably don’t need to advertise that fact–or maybe even to say it. If it’s not, then writing this is pompous and mean.

It is well known that… Or anything similar, such as “It is common knowledge…” or the especially horrible “everyone knows…” If it’s so well known, then surely it won’t be too difficult for you to find a reasonable citation.

People just need to… Don’t even start with this stuff.

In ancient times… or the ever-popular “in olden days.”

Betwixt. Forsooth, live we then in ye olde days of the Bard?

Amongst. Seriously… what’s wrong with “among?” A little too normal for ya?


Vague or Abused Relationship Descriptions

This deserves its own section. When students want to talk about a relationship, but they don’t actually understand the relationship (or haven’t thought about it carefully enough), they tend to insert one of several vague (or simply misused) relationship-type phrases. Sure, any of these could be used in appropriate, informative ways; however, they’re not. Their appearance in student writing always seems to mean, “I really don’t know what’s going on here, but there are two things… maybe they’re variables factors or, like, concepts or something? and they might be, like, I don’t know, something? with each other? Therefore, I would prefer never to see the following phrases in a student paper ever again (with exceptions as noted):

Based on… Or, even worse, “based off…”

As Regards… or “as regarding…”

Taking into account… (Dear Students: Please, please, please stop saying this. It unfailingly indicates that the paper I’m about to read is going to be the logical or grammatical equivalent of dadaist poetry (not that there’s anything wrong with that… if you are a dadaist… and if you’re writing for a poetry class instead of a science class…)

In Relation To… I know it sounds like “related to,” but it almost always means the writer doesn’t have a clue about the relationship he/she is trying to reference.

Correlation, Association, Relationship, Difference, Distinction, Discrepancy: These are (conditional) exceptions to my “never write these” demand/rant. You need to use these words, and probably fairly often, but students frequently use these very badly–with correlation probably being the most-frequently abused of the group, in my experience. These are not interchangeable. Most of them have clear, technically distinct definitions (e.g., don’t write “correlation” unless there’s an actual correlation coefficient involved), and all of them are unique in connotation. Learn what these mean, learn what kind of relationship each can validly describe, learn how to use these words to clearly and accurately describe their respective relationships, and learn when not to use them at all.

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