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20 Words and Phrases Your Examiners Are Tired of Reading and What to Say Instead|
Examiners have to read countless essays each year. When you think about it from their point of view, they probably get pretty bored of reading answers to the same questions over and over again.
You’re in with a better chance of impressing them if you avoid using the words and phrases they’ve inevitably read umpteen times before. Today, we take you through some of the commonly used words and phrases that examiners are sick of reading, and give you some suggestions for what you could write instead to make your writing stronger and more distinctive.
Starting an essay is difficult; just as a novelist has to use a compelling opening line to make people want to keep reading, so the first line of an essay needs to be attention-grabbing. Unfortunately, many students struggle with writing a strong opening line, and end up with something rather less engaging. A common one is to state the obvious, or summarise too broadly, and the expression “in many ways” crops up frequently. For example, in answer to an essay title of “How does Shakespeare show that Beatrice and Benedick are attracted to each other?”, a student might be tempted to begin their essay with the words, “Shakespeare shows the attraction between Beatrice and Benedick in many ways…” This “in many ways” construction is a weak and vague opening, and the essay would be better off without it. It would be better to be more specific, perhaps by making some opening observations about the role of this attraction in the play. This introduces the subject of how Shakespeare shows it without stating the obvious.
On the subject of weak opening lines, many essays begin by the student saying, “In this essay, we will look at such and such.” This is stating the obvious, so the words “in this essay” are unnecessary. Incidentally, the use of the ‘royal we’ as seen in this example is also a cliché, and best avoided in an academic essay if you can.
This phrase is an obvious attempt at padding an essay out to increase the word count. You don’t need to signpost an essay in this way, and what’s more, this is a weak way of moving from one argument to another. Ideally, you should make thematic links between paragraphs or points, moving logically through your arguments, rather than simply listing them one by one in the manner implied by a phrase like “The next point I want to make”. If you can introduce the subject of the next paragraph in the previous one, as a follow-up to what you’ve just been saying, then you will avoid the need to make a jarring leap with a phrase like this.
Simply writing “to” without the “in order” almost always results in a more elegantly worded sentence, and reduces the impression that you’re trying to pad out the essay to achieve the desired word count.
Another reason for students using overly long-winded or clichéd phrases in their essays is that they are often labouring under the misapprehension that certain phrases make their essays sound more intellectual. Introducing a point with the phrase “It is interesting to note that…” is an example of this. Students perhaps imagine that it gives of an air of intellectual curiosity, but it’s really a waste of words. The sentence will almost certainly work – and be stronger – without it. For example:
“It is interesting to note that Larkin neglects to mention…”
It’s a stronger, more decisive statement if you remove the first few words:
“Larkin neglects to mention…”
An alternative, and more elegant, construction might be: “such and such is notable by its absence in Larkin’s work”.
Another cliché in student essays – specifically English essays this time – is to make points by saying “the author uses…”, as in “The author uses such and such a literary device to draw the reader in” or “The author does such and such to catch the reader’s attention” or “The author uses such and such to show…”. Simply stating what the technique is and what effect it has will be sufficient; it’s obvious that it’s the author who’s using it, so you don’t need to say as much.
The irritating thing about this phrase (for example, “The main way in which Brontë creates a feeling of gloom is by…”) is that it suggests that you don’t have a full grasp of the facts. It’s implying that there are other ways too, but that the writer thinks they can get away with not discussing them properly. Leaving aside this, it’s still an annoyingly over-used phrased, so if you can’t avoid it, replace it with “primarily”. Otherwise, try to be more specific.
You should try not to repeat yourself, as implied by mentioning something you’ve said already; and ideally you shouldn’t refer to “this essay” at all. If you do need to refer to something you’ve mentioned previously, you could use the word “aforementioned” instead.
A staple of History or Politics essays, referring to something happening as “the situation” weakens your essay because it’s too vague. An example would be, “The situation in London was no better” or “Octavian took stock of the Mark Anthony situation”. It’s always better to be specific in essays, as being vague makes it look as though you don’t quite know what you want to say, even if you do.
If you find yourself using the expression “various aspects” in an essay, remind yourself that this is too vague and try to qualify what these “aspects” actually are.
There’s no place for the second person (for example, “you would think that the experiment would show that…”) in an essay; academic prose should be written in the third person.
It’s an oft-quoted piece of essay advice, but to a large extent avoiding the first person pronoun “I” is also advisable. However, it’s a balancing act because, for humanities essays at least, it’s good to include your own opinion. The trick is not to allow the essay to become dominated by your opinion, or continually to make comments such as “I feel this is because…” or “I think such and such is being disingenuous.” The focus should be on an objective and balanced assessment of the arguments, with your own opinion included perhaps at the end, as you weigh up what you’ve been discussing. It’s still possible to include your authorial voice without using the first person pronoun, and even without saying “it seems to me that…”; simply state it in the third person: “The evidence appears to point more towards such and such…”
You’ll almost certainly find that changing “considered to be” to just “considered” makes your sentence flow better.
The formal conventions of essay-writing dictate that people (such as other authors, historical protagonists and so on) are always referred to people by their surnames, so first names are a no-no.
Just like “aspects”, the word “things” is too vague. If you’re tempted to write something like “Things in London had improved”, make it more specific: “Social housing had improved quality of life in London”, for example.
On the subject of vagueness, another phrase to look out for is “lots” or “lots of”. It’s not only vague – it’s too colloquial. It’s better to say “much” or “many” if you have to (so “there were many reasons” rather than “there were lots of reasons”, for example). Even better, be specific and include actual figures; “5,000 more immigrants arrived in the town this year than last” is far better than “There were lots more immigrants arriving in the town this year than last”.
Using three words when one would suffice is a symptom of not knowing what you want to say, and thus trying to bolster the word count. It’s much better simply to say “because” rather than “on account of”.
Some students use this word as an alternative to “also” and “as well as”. However, used in this context it’s weak – and it can be a tell-tale sign that you’re writing a boring essay that simply lists facts. Better phrases to use instead include “what’s more”, “furthermore” or “moreover”; all these help build an argument, while “additionally” makes it look as if you’ve tagged on an extra fact as an afterthought.
Words such as “always”, “never” and “everywhere” should be avoided because they’re difficult to defend and imprecise, coming under the category of sweeping generalisations. There are usually plenty of exceptions when you make a statement such as “People everywhere were feeling the effects of such and such” or “Never before had such generosity been witnessed”. Exact figures are preferable, and if these aren’t possible, then at least soften your statement to allow for the possibility of exceptions.
There can be few more hackneyed phrases than “in conclusion”. It’s infantile and puts one in mind of the essays one wrote years ago when in primary school. We know that the essay is coming to an end – we can see that – so we don’t need to signpost it by saying “in conclusion”. Instead, simply launch straight into your closing arguments.
We end by looking at some more general tips to help you write a more original essay. It’s not just individual words and phrases that examiners are tired of reading; what you write about, and the way in which you write about it, can also become tedious when everyone writes the same things. The following tips should help you increase the originality of your essay; you’ll find more detail on each of these tips in our article on how to write a more original essay.
We’ve already seen how the language you use can make your essay boring, so a more general piece of advice is to try to use more advanced language and syntax (sentence structures). You could try using techniques such as analogy to explain complex concepts, as most students will not think to do this. Providing you can demonstrate a firm understanding of what you’re writing about, explaining it clearly and confidently, it doesn’t really matter how you do it, so a well-chosen analogy could work well.
Though the essay question will give a pretty good indication of what your examiner wants you to write about, you can still add more interest to your essay, and make it stand out from the others, by including some less well-known facts and angles that you might not already have looked at in class. You can get inspiration by reading more widely around the subject, for example more obscure scholarship, or, for literature, other works by the same author. You can then make comparisons with other texts, bringing in opinions that the examiner probably won’t be expecting, and your essay will be a lot less predictable as a result.
Finally, a formulaic structure is a sure-fire way to guarantee that you’ll be writing the same essay as everyone else. Some of the language we looked at earlier is partly the result of a formulaic structure (“In this essay”, “the next point I want to make”, “in conclusion”, and so on), and writing an essay that doesn’t send your examiner to sleep might be easier if you try experimenting with a different structure or approaching the topic from a slightly different angle to the one you think they’ll be expecting. You’ll still need some sort of introduction and conclusion, but with a little imagination, you should be able to produce an essay that’s a bit different from the rest.
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