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10 words to AVOID in your English essays

Thursday 26th, May 2016

Lauren White

Why you should avoid certain words.

A strong vocabulary is a huge advantage in English subjects. Hell, it’s a huge advantage for life in general. You can articulate your thoughts better, you can communicate clearer, and you can impress people with your wordy prowess! That said, there are some words that you should endeavour to avoid if you want to score well. Some of them are highly restrictive and are often used incorrectly, while others are just too plain to be worth using. Sometimes you can get away with sneaking them in under the radar, but the really fussy assessors will be thoroughly displeased if they read this kind of stuff, so it’s best to find more sophisticated language sooner rather than later.

Without further ado, here are the ten worst offenders for you to scratch out of your mental vocabulary to be replaced by something better.

1. ’emotional’

Okay, I’ll confess, this is probably one of my biggest pet peeves when marking essays over on the forums. I get that sometimes, you need some general filler words to use in your essays when you don’t really know what to say. But calling something ’emotional’ is a bad idea. To be honest, it’s worse than saying nothing at all. Because calling something ’emotional’ is so generic, and so plain, and so awful, and ARRRGGGHHH!

Let me explain why you should avoid this word: EVERYTHING IS EMOTIONAL!

– Doing an exam = emotional.

– Having your house robbed = emotional.

– The birth of your first child = emotional.

– Stabbing someone to death because they kept calling you ‘too emotional’ = emotional.

See the problem?

When you say something is ’emotional,’ all you’re really saying is ‘this makes us feel stuff,’ to which your assessor will most likely reply: WHICH STUFF??? If you’re specific about which emotions are being conveyed, evoked, or depicted, then you can gain marks. But if all you write is ‘this scene is highly emotional’ or ‘the author uses emotive language’ then you’ll struggle to win your assessors over.

So the next time you use the word ’emotional,’ I want you to imagine me suddenly appearing behind you, shaking my head and tutting before yelling WHICH EMOTIONS!? That should do it, I hope.

2. ‘good/ positive’

Here’s another very problematic kind of word to avoid. Just think: what does it mean to call something ‘good’ or ‘positive’? That breakfast you ate this morning might’ve been a ‘good breakfast,’ and the friend you spoke to at lunch might’ve been a ‘good friend,’ and you may’ve gotten a lot of work done in the afternoon, making this a ‘good day.’ But a ‘good breakfast’ means one that is tasty and nutritious; a ‘good friend’ is one who is compassionate and interesting; and a ‘good day’ is one that was productive and worthwhile.

If we swap those things around, you can see just how broad the definition of ‘good’ is.

I had a compassionate and interesting breakfast today, and the spoke to my productive and worthwhile friend. I also got a lot of work done, which made this a really delicious and nutritious day.

The word ‘good’ can mean so many different things, that it’s often too vague to be of much use. The same goes for the word ‘positive.’ It might sound a bit more sophisticated, but it’s still a very simplistic word that could potentially undermine your discussion.

Note that you don’t have to get rid of these words entirely, but you may find it helpful to be more specific in your analysis after you’ve used them.

For example: ‘the author uses words with positive connotations like “fun” and “celebration” which convey a sense of enjoyment and happiness…’

3. ‘bad/ negative’

See above. ‘Bad’ and ‘negative’ are both incredibly generic words, and you should avoid them wherever possible unless you then get more specific.

Ask yourself what kind of ‘bad’ you’re trying to express here? A thesaurus might be of some help here.


4. ‘the human condition’

Yeah, I know this one’s technically three words, but my point stands. This phrase is incredibly overused, and whilst it’s sometimes good to try and say something about people on a broad scale, you should try and be a bit more precise than simply saying ‘this is a reflection of the human condition’ or ‘the author exposes key facets of the human condition.’

It sounds lovely. But it means nothing.

For those moments where you are trying to say something profound (like in your conclusion, or at the ends of your paragraphs,) specificity is still important. What part of ‘the human condition’ are you dealing with here? For example, if you’re trying to say that the text you’re studying explores ‘the human condition,’ does that mean it explores common values? Morality? Relationships? Perception? Subjectivity? This is a great chance to create some links to the prompt, or integrate a discussion of a major theme or idea, so just using ‘the human condition’ is a bit of a cop-out.

5. ‘states’

Yet another awfully generic word – ‘states’ is one that you should definitely avoid and replace with a more descriptive alternative. The problem with this word isn’t that it’s lazy or simple, but that it’s a wasted opportunity! Instead of saying ‘the author states that people need to recycle more,’ you can use a way more interesting combination of adverbs and verbs to analyse what’s going on, like: ‘the author empirically asserts that people need to recycle more’ or ‘the author emphatically calls upon people to recycle more.’

The word ‘states’ is kind of like the word ‘says’ in that, whilst it’s plain and mostly accurate, it’s often kind of boring. Since your teachers will be expecting you to showcase your magnificent vocabulary, being overly reliant on words like ‘states’ tells them that you don’t have any better options up your sleeve, and as a result, your arguments and essays will seem weak or ineffective.

6. ‘utilises/ utilisation’

Urgh. I know I was definitely guilty of utilising the word ‘utilises’ in Year 12, but I’ve since realised the error of my ways. Once again, this word isn’t wrong, but because so many students just use it as a more “sophisticated” alternative to the word ‘uses,’ a lot of teachers now regard this as a really clunky term that should be avoided (especially if you’re using ‘utilises’ ugly older cousin ‘utilisation.’ No one likes him.)

Simply put: don’t say ‘utilise’ when ‘use’ would do just as well.

If you want to sound more impressive, use a more impressive word than ‘utilise!’ Some alternatives like ’employs’ or ‘adopts’ (as in, ‘the author employs the metaphor of life being “like a box of chocolates” ‘ or ‘the author adopts an empathetic tone’) can be worthwhile, but you can also look into other verbs. Perhaps the author is vilifying, extolling, or censuring something, in which case you can use words like that to make your points stand out, rather than a stoick word like ‘utilise’ that’s only pretending to be sophisticated.

7. ‘etc.’

You probably know to avoid acronyms and abbreviations in formal essays wherever possible, but it’s amazing how many essays contain things like ‘this character experiences many hardships like inner turmoil, grief, unhappiness, etc.’ That sends a big red flag to assessors telling them that you’ve run out of words and/or ideas!

Either: try and find another word to replace the ‘etc.’ and add a bit more development to your discussion

Or: just get rid of the ‘etc.’ and end the sentence there.

8. ‘firstly/ secondly/ thirdly

This is a bit more debatable, but in my opinion, you shouldn’t need to begin your first paragraph with ‘firstly…’ and your second paragraph with ‘secondly…’ and so forth. WE ALREADY KNOW IT’S YOUR FIRST/ SECOND/ THIRD PARAGRAPH!

Realistically, it’s not like any assessor is going to penalise you for starting a paragraph in this way (and there are even some teachers who like this really obvious kind of signposting.) However, using words like ‘firstly/ secondly/ thirdly’ is characteristic of mid-range responses. Statistically, the essays that use these terms tend to be scoring 4-5/10. Now, this doesn’t mean that you automatically limit your score just by using these words. But it does mean that your assessors will be thinking ‘this seems like a mid-range essay’ right from the start of that paragraph.

Assuming the rest of your piece is well-argued and well-expressed, this kind of minor setback can be overcome, but you don’t want to start off with a bad impression. Instead, aim for stronger linking words that are based on the connections between your ideas rather than the order in which they appear. Even basic ones like ‘Furthermore…’ ‘Likewise…’ and ‘Contrarily…’ are far more preferable to ‘firstly/ secondly/ thirdly.’

9. ‘then’

When studying novels, films, and texts in general, many students run into trouble when it comes to retelling the story or summarising the plot. A prime culprit that’s involved here is the word ‘then,’ which is frequently used as a way of progressing from one plot point to the next.

As above, your linking words should be based on ideas rather than just the chronological order of events, so you should try to spell out the connections by going beyond a basic word like ‘then’ or ‘next’ or ‘also.’

Is there a causal relationship between the two points you’re raising? (e.g. She didn’t study at all throughout the year. Then, on the day of the exam, she realised what a horrible mistake she’d made.) If so, you can use a word like ‘consequently’ or a phrase like ‘as a result’ instead. (i.e. She didn’t study at all throughout the year. Consequently, on the day of the exam, she realised what a horrible mistake she’d made.) It’s a minor shift, but at least you’re establishing some kind of link that’s more substantial than words like ‘then’ are capable of.

10. ‘in conclusion’

Finally, you should never say ‘in conclusion.’ Why? Well, much like the whole ‘firstly/ secondly/ thirdly’ thing, we know it’s your conclusion. And pointing out that the paragraph you’re writing is your conclusion isn’t actually all that valuable. I’m a fan of using words like ‘ultimately…’ or ‘in essence…’ if needed, but often you can just avoid this and begin your conclusion by returning to your contention or thesis statement to do all the necessary wrapping-up of ideas.

So in conclusion, try to focus on being more precise with your vocabulary, and ensure that you’re avoiding anything that’s overly generic or boring.

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