Dressing Your Writing Assignment: Avoid These 3 Informal Words and Phrases

Your paper isn't the beach. Put on some good words. Credit: Flickr: Parker Knight, Creative Commons
Your paper isn’t the beach. Put on some good words. Credit: Flickr: Parker Knight, Creative Commons

Most everybody knows that academic writing means formal writing. I’ll bet you’d never start a paper, “So, I was thinking about the topic, dude, and…” But sometimes informal words and phrases are a bit less obvious. Watch out for these three informal words and phrases in your next writing assignment.

A Lot

This phrase is a tough one to root out of your writing, because it is so common in both speech and informal writing. Some people will tell you it’s off limits because it’s imprecise. After all, how much is a lot? The truth is it’s informal. Many is just as vague, but it is often an acceptable substitute for a lot.

Really for Very

Really isn’t an informal word all the time. Here’s the difference. For formal writing really should mean “in reality.” If you make that mental substitute and it doesn’t work, you probably meant to say very. Switching the word to very will fix the formality concern, but you can take it a step further for better writing. Often, there is a more powerful word that can replace very + the word that follows it, like this: very old = ancient, very angry = furious.

Vague You

The vague you is actually common in business copy and other semi-casual professional writing environments. In fact, I use it frequently in this post. Its presence in the working world makes it seem like it should be all right for academic use as well, but it isn’t. In the extra formal world of academic writing, never use the words you, your, or yours. Instead reword to be either more specific about who is doing the action or less directly addressing of the reader. Like this:

You should make sure your employees understand the rules.


Business owners should make sure their employees understand the rules.


When you look at the results, you will find…


The results clearly indicate…

Of course, all these off-limits words and phrases do have their time and place. When writing sales copy or a brochure or even informative material, you might want to use a certain amount of informal language, a business casual tone, to create rapport with your readers, make them feel at home. The key is understanding that these words are like a pair of slacks, great for the office or a day out, but not so appropriate for a black tie dinner. When you sit down to write an academic assignment (unless it’s mimicking a brochure or other informal real-world communication), put on your coat and tails.

Photo Credit: Parker Knight, Creative Commons

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