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? Seriously, this is archaic.

Based off (of). This is not a thing. The metaphor is of a building, with a base. You’re comparing one concept to that base, and other concepts or arguments, which depend on the base concept, to the building on top of it. It’s based on. (Yes, I know I’ve lost this battle. It’s still wrong and it still looks really silly).


Vague or Abused Relationship Descriptions

These deserve their 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 often not. Their appearance in student writing frequently 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?

Writing about ideas (and science writing is a subset of this) is hard. Every word on the page can represent minutes or hours of thinking, false starts, and brilliant ideas that didn’t turn out to be so brilliant. Please don’t feel bad if this is difficult for you; it’s difficult for everyone. Perhaps you’ve got an idea in your head that you’re a “good writer,” because teachers have told you so. well, if you’re an undergrad then there’s a very, very high likelihood that those teachers were talking about general prose or creative writing. Nobody has natural science writing ability. Anyone who makes it look easy has tens or hundreds of thousands of hours of practice, failure, correction, embarrassment, and rewriting behind them. Anyway, on with this sub-list:

Based on. Even when they avoid the cringeworthy “based off,” students often do not have a clear idea of what idea is based on what other idea. If you find yourself using that, maybe draw a diagram to make sure you have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to say.

As Regards. or “as regarding.” This is another phrase often used as a stand-in when a writer doesn’t qu

ite know what the relationships are. Believe me, it’s obvious when that happens.

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…). There’s nothing technically wrong with this; it’s just that I seem to see it misused or used as filler for ideas or relationships between ideas that the writer clearly does not fully understand about 100% of the time.

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. It’s another one of those “I don’t really understand exactly what I’m saying, but I’m sure if I use this phrase, nobody will notice” things. Again, it’s not wrong in itself; it’s just used wrong a lot.

Correlation, Association, Relationship, Difference, Distinction, Discrepancy: You need to use these words, and probably fairly often, but writers frequently use these very badly–with correlation probably being the most-frequently abused of the group. These are not interchangeable. Most of them have clear, technically distinct definitions in (psychology) science writing (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. I’m quite serious when I advise that you draw a little scatterplot or bar graph or means plot with labeled axes to make sure you’re using these words correctly. If you can’t, then don’t use these words (even better, work with the ideas until you really understand them, then use one of these words).


Interesting Malapropisms Seen in the Wild

We all know a bunch of malapropisms, right? People write or say “for all intensive purposes” when they should say “for all intents and purposes,” and things like that. I am finding that the internet (and sometimes student writing, but mostly the tubes) brings out new ones, sometimes. They’re kind of fun, and occasionally they illuminate new meanings in our language. Here are some I’ve found recently:

  • “Step foot in…” (should be set foot in…). Bad Example: “I will never step foot in that house.”
  • “Reap havoc” (should be wreak havoc). Bad Example: “That policy will reap havoc among the poor.”
  • “You’ve got another thing coming” (should be another think coming). Bad Example: “If you think you can just take away my lollipop, you’ve got another thing coming.”
  • “Hoarding on” (should be holding on). Bad example: “I have a habit of hoarding on to useless objects.”

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