Seven Words You Can Never Say – in an Academic Paper

by Andy Wood on May 30, 2014

in Since You Asked

Writer's Prison

I make my living with words.

I decorate my house with words.

Okay, so my wife decorates our house with words.

I love to surround myself with words in my office or study.

I’ve been known to write or speak a few words.  Okay, a lot of words.

Words are fun and useful. Where would we be without them?  Not only do they communicate, but your choice of words reveals a lot about you – sometimes things you may not want someone to see or think.

Because I also work in the world of education, I see literally thousands of words every week.  Sometimes I see words from students that I have to stop and look up in the online dictionary.  For example, not long ago I had a student who loved to use the word “ken.”  For all I knew, she was using a man’s name.  Turns out, “ken” means “know” – and every single time you would have used the word “know,” she used the word “ken.”

Now I ken.  And you ken, too.

Anyway, in all the myriad of word possibilities, I have found seven words you should never use in an academic paper.

Only seven?  Far as I can tell.

All seven?  Definitely.  Use any of these and they say some things about you that you may not want to be said.

Now what’s tricky about these seven is that they’re common, ordinary words that you could use in conversation, blogs or magazine articles, fiction or popular writing, and they’re actually expected and complimented.  Use them on a research paper and someone will express their displeasure.

(Shhhh!  What’s that falling-in-a-hole sound I hear?  It’s your grade, sinking into the abyss, because you used one of the Seven Words You Can Never Say in an Academic Paper.)

Okay here they are… and if you don’t write academic papers (hey… who was that that said “hallelujah!”?), share this with somebody who does.  Or file it away for a couple of years, for when you go back to school.

1.  You/your

I have already used the word “you” 13 times in this little article.  It’s personal. Conversational. Totally fair game for informal writing.  But never – everEVER use the words “you,” “your,” “yourself” or any other member of the “second person” family in formal writing.

Count the stars in the sky if you can, and you’ll see how many papers I have read that start with something like, “Have you ever wondered…”

Okay I’m back.  I just went and beat my head against the brick wall of our back porch to relieve some of the frustration.

You are not writing your paper to your grandma, your teacher, or your friends.  Technically you’re writing it to the research community.  And they’ll think you’re less than intelligent if you address them as “you.”

Are there exceptions to this?  Only one – when you’re quoting someone verbatim and they use it.  That’s pretty much true of all these words.

2.  We

Some more traditional styles also forbid the use of any kind of first person, which includes “we” and “I.”  They do this sometimes to the point of absurdity, forcing people to refer to themselves as “the learner” or “the writer” or something. APA papers are the exception that this rule – refer to yourself as “I” all you want.

That, however, is not what I’m referring to.  What I mean is, never refer to yourself as “we.”

Seriously?  Would people do that?

Yep. Happens all the time.  Since I teach for Christian universities, I like to blame the preachers for this because preachers frequently refer to themselves as “we.”  Or when they teach/preach, they may say something like, “Today we’re going to look at some of the most beautiful words ever written – the 23rd psalm.”

In that setting, they’re correct.  But when a student sends me a paper that refers to one author (namely themselves) as “we,” the penalty flags will start to fly.  WHO is WE?  Unless you’re submitting a group project, never refer to yourself as more than one person.

Exception:  If you are presenting a group project of some sort, you may certainly refer to the group is “we” in an APA paper.  The Chicago/Turabian folks still need to get a life in this regard.

3. Say/Discuss

“As I said before…”

“In this paper I am going to discuss…”

Okay, call me picky.  I’m calling you names, too, and my names are meaner.

This is not as hardcore an error as the previous two, but your paper is a paper, not a talk.  You are presenting, not discussing.  Your paper may explore, examine, analyze, consider, evaluate, report, reflect, or a host of other things.  But it doesn’t “talk,” “say” or “discuss.”  If you are repeating a previous point, it’s ok to write something like, “as I mentioned previously” or “as stated earlier.”  It’s also OK to refer to an author’s work as speaking. (Example:  “Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that love is greater than any spiritual gift.”)  But try to be as precise as you can with your language. I think it’s better to word it:  “Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13 that love is greater than any spiritual gift.”

4.  In… It

This one’s hard to catch.  It’s not a death knell to your paper, but if you can avoid it, I promise you somebody will be impressed with the quality of your work.

Here’s how this one works.  Two examples…

“In Ephesians 1:3 it says, ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.’”

“In The Great Gatsby it says, ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one… just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”

It makes the point, and can even make for good preaching because it flies by so quickly, but it’s terrible writing.  “IT” doesn’t say anything.  People do.  Or the work does.  Far better to write:

“Ephesians 1:3 says…” or “Paul writes in Ephesians 1:3…”

In Fitzgerald’s opening to The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway says, “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. Whenever you feel like criticizing any one, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

5. Author  

I’ve been seeing this a lot in the last year or two. I blame the media.  If I’m a news reporter and I am introducing someone I have interviewed or researched for a general quote to a general audience, it’s totally appropriate to say, “Author Ken Blanchard…” or “Ken Blanchard, co-author of The One Minute Manager…”

But if you are citing someone in a paper, guess what?  Everybody already knows they’re an author, and it’s silly and redundant and redundant (couldn’t resist) to refer to someone as “Author” anybody.  Just name him or her. Oh, and if it’s an APA paper, they don’t even want to know the author’s first name. There you would simply write something like, “Blanchard and Johnson (1985) refer to three simple management practices anyone can perform.”

6. Article/Book  

Never, ever write in a formal paper, “In an article…” Name the author and move on. For that matter, only in the rarest of occasions (and then only once, please!) should you name the title of a book or article.  Just author and date.

If you want to send your teacher into muttering hysterics, put this in your paper:  “In an article I read in the library…”

Yes.  Yes.  I have seen that.  More than once.

7. Assignment

Want to turn your name into a flashing neon sign that says, “ROOKIE”?  Start your paper with the words, “For this assignment…”

First of all, of course it’s an assignment unless you’re a Ph.D.-type publishing your own research.  And you already know this stuff, so why are you still reading this?

Second and more importantly, anything you write should make sense to some degree to a general audience. And guess what?  Most people don’t know what the assignment is and don’t care. But you may actually be surprised that they may care about the content of your paper.

Again, I know this may be in the “picky” zone.  But I promise if you want to be taken seriously as a student, researcher, or grad-school candidate, you will shoot yourself in the proverbial foot if you use this word.

Well, there they are… the Seven Words You Can Never Say In an Academic Paper.  Just one more thing, as a special added bonus…

Steer clear of contraction action.

Never – yes never – use contractions.



{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob Gentry May 30, 2014 at 11:35 am

Ain’t it funny the things we learn after we shoulda dun them anuther whay. This author heard it said once, “failure is not an option”. The writer of this comment takes issue with that. Failure is an option; its through trying and failing that the path becomes clearer for the “kening”. Do you think kening should have two n’s?

Martha Orlando May 30, 2014 at 12:10 pm

I am still laughing, Andy! This was great and brought back memories of writing that “perfect” paper in college. Blessings!
Martha Orlando´s last blog post ..“Say Grace?”

Kim Jolly May 30, 2014 at 1:57 pm

Great post, Andy! Like, Martha, this brought back memories of my college days writing papers. Oh, and my thesis (master’s degree) did not have contractions–learned that in English class my freshman year of college.


Andy Wood May 30, 2014 at 2:00 pm

Bob, you still crack me up. Careful about that second “n” though – Kenning is a completely different thing… at least according to Wikipedia. And don’t get me started on Wikipedia. 🙂

Andy Wood May 30, 2014 at 2:01 pm

Bravo, Kim! Thank God somebody’s still teaching it.

Andy Wood May 30, 2014 at 2:04 pm

Martha, what’s hilarious is that once we all get through all this formal writing stuff, we can then break the rules to our heart’s content. Though I’m sure Dr. Gardner, Mrs. Godwin, Mrs. Pinnell and a few other teachers I’ve known may take exception to that.

This is sort of like learning scales on the piano. Once we learn to demonstrate the proper, we can do the “improper” to great effect.

By the way, you will notice that “y’all” is not on this list, and for good reason. An elegant word if there ever was one.

Katha Brady May 30, 2014 at 4:15 pm

Should the title read, ‘Seven Words to Leave Out of an Academic Paper’, rather than ‘Seven Words You Can Never Say’? The title you used uses the word ‘you’ and the word ‘say’. I had to put in my two-cents worth. 🙂

Andy Wood May 30, 2014 at 5:13 pm

Well, since this is a blog, I cheated! Publisher’s privilege. Take THAT, Kate Turabian!

joe June 2, 2014 at 8:57 am

Thanks for the heads up. I am now wondering the word usage of my last paper.

Stuart Kerr June 2, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Thank you for the list. After reading this post I examined my last two essays and found only one place where I had used one of the forbidden words. I had written “How do we [verb] and [verb] [noun]?” thinking that I ought to make an inclusive reference to the community that I was writing about, but should have instead typed, “How does one [verb] [noun]?” or, “How is [noun] [past tense verb]?” I now ken that I ought to pay better attention so I do not include personal pronouns.

Angelica June 10, 2016 at 5:59 pm

This article is so good! It helped me a lot, Thank you.

Tom Wilkins June 13, 2016 at 2:02 pm

I’m going to bookmark this for my last couple of papers.

Angela Barbee August 23, 2016 at 4:44 am

Thanks for the heads up. After reading this post, I am almost scared to go back and read some of my previous assignments.

Martin August 23, 2016 at 8:31 pm

This is very helpful to me.
Thank you.

Jeremiah Pendleton December 5, 2016 at 7:31 pm

Thank you, Andy.
This is very helpful.

G.W May 23, 2017 at 3:59 am

Nice tips!
Just wanted to leave a comment regarding the use of “we”. It does find extensive use in certain academic subjects, primarily mathematics where it is used in basically all academic papers. Much of the text is comprised of deducing formulas and rewriting them. “We” is then used to include the reader. For example:
“We then take expression (2.1) and compare it to (3.1) to conclude that…”
“Considering that the above holds we see that…”
“We then evaluate the funcation at x to get”
Personally I really enjoy this form of writing since it makes me as a reader feel engaged.

Andy Wood May 23, 2017 at 8:48 am

Good point G.W. about certain applications – particularly when writing from a co-creating or educational perspective.

bob May 23, 2017 at 9:24 am

Words, words, words.

Re-thinking the utilization of first, second persons, and all of their cousins: “we, they, them, us, I, me (etc)”, has now has created some personal turmoil. Turning to Matthew 12:37 for comfort, did not really help: “For by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned”. Yikes, even the Gospel writer failed.

Andy Wood May 23, 2017 at 9:37 am

Ha! That gospel writer, my friend, was gloriously free of academic writing, the American Psycho Association, and Kate Turabian’s ghost. As are you! (And as we can all wish for.)

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Jay June 19, 2018 at 7:44 am

Great Read Andy!

As technology causes society to move forward, words will be displayed and expressed in acronyms to reduce time. The knowledge and (what is now turning into) wisdom in this blog post makes sense more today compared to when the post was published.

Thanks for teaching me.

P.S. While writing this I kept going back and forth to the post to make sure I did not use those 7 words plus the bonus (contradictions) 🙂

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