No Foolin’: Assuming Words and Overused Adverbs

This round of blogs is a series aimed at students who engage in academic writing. In all, the series will constitute a kind of primer on academic writing for students. Each post will tackle a problem I’ve seen in papers from my classmates, my students, and myself.

This week’s Tips from a Tutor focuses on two topics. The first is a serious problem in paper-writing. The second is more of a gentle suggestion that should help clean up your papers and make them stronger.

And…no. This is not a bad April Fool’s joke. I mean every word in this entry!

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The first problem to discuss today is the misuse of what I call Assuming Words ™. (No, not really trademarked.)

Many students fall into this trap. Let me give you one example of how you might use this particular bad habit. Maybe you heard your professor argue for a particular understanding of an issue repeatedly over the course of the class, so now that it is time to write your term paper, you incorporate that argument because it is relevant to your topic. Except many students have introduced their professor’s preferred argument with words or phrases like “it is clear,” “obviously,” “of course,” and other words that presume that the following is unquestionably the only way to view it.

There are two reasons why this is a problem in academic writing.

To begin with what might be the most pedantic item in this list, your term paper is supposed to convince your reader of your position. If you utilize Assuming Words casually, especially if you use them throughout the paper, you will not convince most readers. Instead of listening to winsome evidence and the logic of your argument, they are hit over the head with your presumptions.

The second reason comes out of the first. If you use Assuming Words casually, you miss an opportunity to flex the evidence you need (and may even have found in your research). This results in a weaker paper because it relies on your Assuming Words to move the paper along rather than evidence and analysis. At best, casual use of Assuming words is a wasted opportunity to convince your reader(s). At worst, it is laziness and (spoiler alert!) your teachers were once students, and as teachers they read a lot of papers, so for those two good reasons (and more), they recognize lazy work when they see it.

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The second topic on the docket today rests on adverbs of manner, circumstance, and degree.

Words like “easily,” “simultaneously,” and “very” can be helpful. I don’t mean to warn you off them entirely. (Ahem.) Instead, I would caution you to avoid using them too much. I cannot tell you how many papers I have read where any given page is littered with words that end in “-ly.” This is clutter akin to a public speaker uttering the “um” noise after every clause.

In addition, the use of the adverb “very” should be limited. If you modify one or more verbs in every paragraph with “very,” then how is your reader to know the difference in value between your various points? Everything cannot be “very important,” for example. Some things are less important.

I suggest you purchase a good thesaurus or visit to find ways to better communicate that same idea without a constant stream of adverbs. I point you to the almost-cliche KISS acronym. Keep It Simple, Sam! (Note: This proverb is not only applicable to people named Sam.)


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