You can improve your philosophical writing by removing certain words and phrases. Some phrases weaken your papers by introducing vagueness and ambiguity, by wasting words, or by acting as a crutch to prevent you saying what you really need to say. Here we’ve compiled a list of “banned” words and phrases. By banning yourself from using these, you can improve your philosophical style.
- A lot; Lots
How many specifically? It’s much more compelling to use specific examples or cases than to just claim that there are “lots of problems” or “lots of examples” or “lots of evidence”.
- “A valid point”
In philosophy, “valid” is a technical term which describes arguments. Even though in everyday language we sometimes say someone has a valid point (or an invalid one), you should avoid this in philosophical writing. Don’t confuse the issue by using a term which has a technical meaning in a different way.
- Accordingly; Hence; So; Thus; Thusly
Use “Therefore” instead. Generally, use “therefore” instead of “hence”, “so” and “thus” too, as it’s more precise – “Therefore” means that the statement follows from the previous statements. But don’t use ‘therefore’ unless you mean it. Anything that comes after a ‘therefore’ must logically follow from what preceded it. Please never use ‘thusly’!
- Additionally; Also; Another; As well; In addition
Especially when placed at the start of a paragraph, these words indicate weak structure. To a marker or reviewer, they will demonstrate that you have a number of loosely connected (or unrelated) points, and little idea of how to piece them together. If you feel like you need to use “Also…” to set up your next point, then you should consider whether the next point relates to the one you just made (and if so, how), and either provide that context or revise the structure of your paper.
- Always; Never
Generalisations are always false. An amusing paradox. Exceptions abound to statements including ‘always’ and ‘never’. Unless you’re sure you can justify a generalisation like this, avoid making one. Always and never are often redundant too. Consider: “You should always wash your hands before eating.” What is lost by rephrasing as: “You should wash your hands before eating”?
“In America, people often…” – be precise. Use the United States, USA, US or the United States of America. Or if you mean it, North America.
- “And also”
This is a basic redundancy. You only need “and”. Eliminate the “also” and reclaim your word count.
- “As to whether”
Again, just “whether” will do the exact same job.
- “Ask the question”
What else would you ask other than a question? Can be replaced with just: “ask”.
- “At this point in time”; “At the present time”; “At some point”
A classic use of far more words than necessary. Use “At this point” or “At this time”…or even better, “Now”.
- Bad; Good
Unless you’re discussing the moral concepts of good and evil, avoid “bad” and “good” to evaluate philosophical arguments and positions. These descriptions are too simplistic. To use a term like this, you’d need to establish a set of criteria for what makes an argument or position good or bad. Try to be more precise about what makes it bad or good, and use that descriptor instead. So, instead of “Smith’s argument is very bad”, say: “Smith’s argument is unsound because the 3rd premise is false.” Instead of “Jones’s position is good”, say: “The arguments for Jones’s position are convincing.”
- Basically; Essentially; In other words
These phrases signify that you are about to “dumb-down” what you just said. This is not a good sign – (1) it means you’re about be repetitive, and (2) it means your first go around wasn’t clear enough. Just rewrite whatever you’re about to re-express in a clearer way, rather than wasting the words on a second go at it.
- “By means of…”
Replace with “by”.
- Certainly; Clearly; Naturally; Obviously
Eliminate these terms. They are either a wasted word (if it really is obvious or clear, just state it – no one will disagree) or they act as a crutch to prevent you having to explain why you think the claim you’re making is so obvious or clear. Remember: if you think you need to tell someone that something is clear, obvious or natural, it isn’t.
- “could of”; “should of”; “would of”
You should have written “would have”, “should have”, “could have”.
“Current research shows” is another way of getting out of specifying whose work you’re actually addressing. “Current trends” and “current opinion” can be replaced with just “trends” and “opinion”. “Currently” can usually be axed without losing anything.
- “Dependent on each other”
Use “interdependent”. Same goes for ‘mutually dependent’.
- “Each and every”
You only need one.
- “Further research/work is needed…”
This is a conclusion cliche so overused that it’s almost expected. It also goes without saying. Show that you are aware of the limitations of your work, but do so with specifics – “While I have shown that …, I have not here established that…”
“I give three arguments…”, “Russell gives an overview…” These phrases sound informal and simplistic. Instead use ‘provide’, ‘present’ or ‘offer’: “I present three argument”, “Russell provides an overview”.
“Got” is a multipurpose word which tends to make your writing less clear and sound less professional. “I have got to write my essay” is better phrased as “I must write my essay”. “I have got two arguments for my claim” can just be replaced with: “I have two arguments for my claim”.
- “has the ability to”; “has a tendency to”; “has an impact on”
These cumbersome phrases can be replaced with more active forms: “I can” rather than “I have the ability to”; “They tend to” rather than “They have a tendency to”; “It affects” rather than “It has an impact on”.
- “In my opinion…”
Don’t express your view as your opinion. Philosophers don’t have opinions, they have positions, views, theories, etc. The main difference is that your position is backed up by argument. Your opinion is not significant.
- “In order to”
You can almost always just use “to”.
- “In the event that…”
- “In the year”
“In the year 2000, Smith wrote a paper…” – Replace with “In 2000,” or even better: “Smith (2000) writes…”
- “It can be argued…”; “It could be said…”
First of all, whatever you’re about to say can always be argued or said. Anything can. Does anyone actually say or argue that? If so, just like before, specify who says it, who argues it. Are you the one arguing or saying this? Then say so. Taking ownership of your paper makes it more engaging. But even more importantly, making your position clear is vital for your reader to follow your argument.
- “It has long been…”
“It has long been known that…” or “It has long been believed” or even “It has long been the case that…” All of these phrases are vague and unsatisfactory. If you don’t know how long it has been, then just omit the reference to time. The longevity of an idea is, after all, no argument for its correctness.
Never use “logical” as a word of praise. For instance, “This argument is logical, but I disagree with it because…” What is presumably meant by this is logically valid. But “logical” itself is not a useful description. Instead, say “This argument is valid, but…” Also avoid describing a person or people as ‘logical’ – instead use ‘rational’, ‘reasonable’, etc.
- “More valid”; “Less valid”; “More/Less sound”; “Very valid”; “Highly valid”
Philosophical terms like “valid” and “sound”are binary. They don’t come in degrees. An argument is valid or it isn’t. That means it can’t be more or less valid than another.
Only use this to refer to the natural world. Eliminate uses like “The theory’s philosophical nature” or “The ethically dubious nature…” In these cases, save space and deflect potential criticisms of essentialism by rephrasing: “The philosophical theory”, “The ethically dubious action”, etc.
- “Of course”
A straightforward waste of words.
- “On the one hand… On the other hand…”
This is a cliched phrase, and not one appropriate to philosophy – we’re building arguments for positions, not reviewing the range of positions of available.
- “One of the most”
A common opening for paragraphs and even essays: “One of the most important objections…” or “One of the most interesting developments…” This is a weak and unspecific phrase.
‘Quote’ is used only a verb in philosophical writing, never as a noun. You can write: “I quote Nietzsche as saying … “. You should never write: “In this quote from Nietzsche…” or “The quote implies that…” Replace these uses of ‘quote’ with ‘quotation’. You should rarely need to use ‘quote’ as a verb either. It’s usually redundant. For example, instead of writing: “To quote Nietzsche … “, simply quote him, and cite your quotation.
- Really; Very
Cut this wherever you see it. You will never know the difference or lose anything really important. It’s very rare that these words add anything.
- “Some say…”; “Some have argued…”; “Some people think…”
Who says that? Who made that argument? Who thinks it? This makes it look like you haven’t done enough reading. Find a specific person, group or paper which makes this claim or argument. You’ll always have an easier time arguing against a specific opponent, and your paper won’t sound so vague.
- Stuff; Things
The epitome of vague and unspecific. These words betray that you haven’t taken the time to think what exactly you mean.
- “That said,”
This is a replacement for “However,” but with the added bonus of making it seem like you only just thought of the issue, and didn’t mean to say what you just said.
- “Try and…”
Instead use “try to”. Minimize your use of “try” when describing what you are doing. State precisely what you do and do not achieve.
- Undeniable; Undeniably
Even worse is the claim that something is undeniable. It’s very easy to deny things (it’s much harder to justify that denial). Never claim that something is undeniable – a single counterexample of a person denying it (which the reader can provide themselves, if they wish) will refute your statement. Usually, this is meant as “I can’t think of any reason to deny” (showing lack of reading or imagination) or “My arguments have ruled out all the possible justifications for denying…”. In the latter case, you’re probably still wrong (you can’t get through every reason someone might deny a claim in an essay). Even worse, you’re inaccurate – this means someone cannot deny the claim with good reason, but they could still deny it. Undeniable is a claim about capacities, not justifications.