Cringeworthy: Bad Writing Habits that Hurt your College Writing, Part 2

On Dictionary Definitions and High-Falutin’ Words

This post builds on Cringeworthy: Bad Writing Habits that Hurt your College Writing (Part 1).

For this series of posts, I’m going to focus on words, phrases, and other writing habits that students should avoid. Fifty-seven college teachers across multiple disciplines shared the things that they commonly see in college papers that drive them crazy, make them worry about their students’ skills, and just in general signal that the student doesn’t yet have a good handle on how to write well in a college setting.

Students often perceive academic writing to have a sort of stilted, high-falutin’ tone that they then try to emulate in an effort to “sound smart.” It’s true that some academic writing has a tone that can charitably be called “dense,” but it’s also true that (1) tone varies by discipline and (2) over time and (3) most teachers don’t expect students to be able to fluently use that type of academic tone in their first years of college, even when it is appropriate for the discipline.

Part 2 focuses on mistakes that I suspect are artifacts of students trying to “sound smart,” but that that end up negatively affecting their grades.

Using a definition, or using a definition from non-course materials

Starting a paper with a definition may be an effort to sound smart by calling on the authority of a dictionary or encyclopedia. It may also be that the student has been taught that this is a valid way of starting a paper, similar to the measures I covered in Cringeworthy: Bad Writing Habits that Hurt your College Writing (Part 1).

In limited cases, beginning a paper with a definition may be appropriate, but this is only true if two conditions are met: first, that the definition is absolutely related to the course material, and second, when (usually) the definition is taken from the course material. Academic disciplines often fine-tune or even alter the meaning of common words, and when students mis-use them, what they are telling their teacher is that they did not pay attention in class.

For example, “affect” (emphasis on the “af”) refers to emotions. To affect (emphasis on the “fect”), in common usage, means to influence something. Make a mistake in which definition to use, and you look like you haven’t been paying attention. Likewise, if you are writing a paper about Foucauldian poststructuralism (and who wouldn’t love to do that!), then you’d better take your definitions of archaeology and genealogy from the text and not from the dictionary, because those are specific to Foucault.

To be honest, when I settle in to grade a paper that begins with a dictionary definition–particularly one that did not come from course material–I am already worried about the quality of the paper I’m about to grade.

Here are tactics to avoid:

  • “According to Merriam Webster, is defined as . . .” (This is such awkward phrasing; it’s like you jumped right into the middle of a conversation. More importantly, if you are defining a term that you learned in the course, you almost certainly have a textbook or other course material that you should be using instead of the dictionary (see above). You may well be showing ignorance of course material, and that is NOT a good look for the beginning of your paper.)
  • “According to . . .” (This is even worse. If you are using a well-established, reputable dictionary that has been in print for decades (like Merriam-Webster, Cambridge, Oxford English, etc.), then you at least have a reputable source. just looks lazy. It conveys “I’m writing my paper at the last minute.”)
  • “The dictionary defines as . . .” without naming the dictionary. (There are many dictionaries, and they do not all use the same definitions. What’s more, definitions change over time. Be precise.)
  • Failing to cite the source of your definition, whether you attributed it to the source or not. (Anything you use in your paper must appear in your references, or you have plagiarized.)
  • Copying and pasting the definition without any attribution at all in the text (this is plagiarism)
  • Using an encyclopedia, with all the same warnings as above.
  • Using quizlet. This one bears repeating: do not use quizlet. (Think about it: who builds quizlets? Other students. Do you really want to hang your grade on what some random student at some random university wrote about a term? Really?)
Using language that is more complex/cumbersome than necessary

Sometimes in an effort to make a paper “sound” academic, students reach for wordy turns of phrase or words with meanings they don’t quite understand. The result is often awkward.

Some examples of mistakes that fall into that category include:

  • “Due to the fact that” instead of “because”
  • “Man” or “mankind” instead of “people” or better yet, a specific group of people (Worse, by doing this, you are leaving out at least half of the population. Instead, use “humans” or “humankind,” if you must.)
  • Writing an opinion or analysis paper in the third person (he/she; “the researcher” or “it is the writer’s opinion” instead of I) (You may have been taught to never write in the first person, but there are genres (types) of writing for which the first person (I) is appropriate. If you aren’t sure, ask your teacher to clarify what they expect. Many times, which form is appropriate to use is discipline-specific.)
  • “He or she” instead of “they/their” (“he or she” may be grammatically correct where “they” and “their” is not, technically speaking, however, they/their has become the accepted way to refer to an individual without attaching gender. If you know the person’s gender, then by all means, use it – and use it correctly. If are writing about someone whose gender identity you don’t know, or whose identity should be protected (like someone you interviewed, for example) then they/their is an accepted form.)
  • Using a thesaurus to find alternate words without checking the dictionary for meanings (alternate words often have shades of meaning that are not appropriate for what you are trying to say. It becomes quite apparent when you use a thesaurus and don’t have a handle on the words that you are using)
Overuse of words and phrases

Many writers, or maybe most, have pet words or phrases that they overuse or misuse. Often when I re-read something I wrote long ago, I cringe at recurring words and phrases that I didn’t even notice at the time. I don’t have a list for this category because pet words and phrases will vary so much; however, one word that repeatedly came up was “that.” The best way you can avoid this is to leave yourself time to edit, and have someone else read your paper give feedback.

Filler words that convey uncertainty

This category actually refers to writing habits that do the opposite of trying to sound smart. As a college student, you are (likely) suddenly being asked to weigh in on things in a way that you haven’t before. You’re being asked to show off analytical skills that you may just be developing, while a the same time you may feel like you aren’t supposed to have a solid opinion. Trying to walk the line between making an argument and using the authority of academic sources is difficult, and doing so well is a skill.

A number of words regularly creep into student writing that convey that the student is either uncertain about their argument, or uncertain that they are allowed to have their own stance. These include, for example:

  • “I think . . .”
  • “I feel . . .”
  • “I believe . . .”
  • “It is my opinion that . . .”

What should you do? First, avoid filler words in general. Good writing aims for clarity (being clear) and conciseness (not being overly wordy).  Second, the purpose of the writing assignment (as discussed in Yes, your teacher DOES owe you a grade. BUT.), is to show what you have learned, in response to the writing prompt. You are expected to make a claim, which means that phrases like the ones listed above are not needed.

Consider the difference between these two statements:

  • “It is my opinion that essentials like clothing and food should not be taxed.”
  • “Essentials like clothing and food should not be taxed.”

Both sentences convey the same thing, but which one sounds more confident? Which one is less wordy? Which one will convey a strong stance to your instructor?

This discussion continues in Cringeworthy: Bad Writing Habits that Hurt your College Writing, Part 3.

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