Dear Students, Please Never Write Like This

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Are you a student who wants to write better academic papers in order to get the best grades? Wondering what professors want from you when it comes to word choice? I want to mention an unfortunate tendency I often see in student work: the use of absolute and/or superlative language. The problem is that the statements made using these words are usually wrong. Here is a short list of examples that demonstrates what I’m talking about. As you read through, keep in mind that these statements are usually wrong. Examples:

Everyone was glad to be a part of the group.
No one left the appointment unsatisfied with the outcome.
All of the people who showed up knew one another.
No one was disrespected.
People are so rude.
• Their meetings always start on time and never run late.
• She is the most active member in this community.
• He is the most thoughtful leader in history.
Everyone had equal opportunity to participate.
All of the rules were fair.
Nobody disagreed with me.
Everybody disagreed with me.
• The committee was in complete agreement.
Nobody liked her.
Everybody liked her.
All players on the team had the same opportunity.
• This group is exactly like that group.
• They never fight.
Everyone was comfortable with the new thing.

Do you see how each of these is problematic? I mean, you do not know how everyone felt. You can’t possibly speak to what everyone thought. And really, they never fight, ever? How can you possibly know that? This all-or-nothing language is always problematic (do you see what I did there?). 

A lesser consideration is to consider whether using second person (“you”) pronouns in your academic writing conveys your intention. This pronoun refers to the reader or the listener, by definition. When you write “you” and I am your reader, you are writing about me. Do your sentences sound right, when you think about them in this way? Read the following sentences as examples.

• You need to be careful in that place. (How do you know that? I can see that you feel that, but it’s a bold statement for you to make about me.)
• Because this is bike week, you’re going to be scared. (In my experience, bike week is a safe event. Are you projecting?)
• You always know when Michael is presenting. (How would I know this? I don’t know Michael. Maybe you always know?)
• When you first get there, you don’t know anyone and you just want to find a back row seat. (I don’t like back row. Are you projecting again?)
• You can’t just memorize the date and time for all three meetings. (Maybe I can.)
• You don’t know who is going to take the lead. (I agree that some people don’t know this, but I don’t see how you can say what I don’t know, as your reader.)
• Because the gym oversells memberships, you just want to get in and out as fast as you can. (Presumptuous about what I want…)

TL;DR (which means “too long; didn’t read”)

Think about your word choices. Okay? These are really common errors made in student writing, at least in my Community Psychology course. They negatively impact the quality of your writing, and they can be avoided. Take out all of the dramatic, extreme, superlative and absolute language (best, worst, nobody, everyone, always, never), and refrain from writing to me personally (“you”) in your academic papers.

About Erika Sanborne

Erika is an award-winning, long-time educator, who consults with individual faculty and administrators on how to meet their teaching goals. She is now also a population health researcher and sociology PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota, which means for now, she is a senior adjunct professor, a consultant, a research assistant, and a PhD Candidate, all at the same time. This has enhanced her understanding of the teaching and learning issues we're facing in academia today on all fronts.

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