choosing your words – starting the phd

Beginning academic writers often look for academic phrase banks and word lists to help them write ‘right’.

The most popular of these is the Manchester Academic Phrase Bank – now also available in print. There are also general lists of common academic words and lists of academic synonyms and antonyms (words that can be substituted for each other to avoid repetition). And there are compilations of sentence stems – for instance this set referring to writing the methods section of a journal article:

  • (my method) analyses … in order to …
  • (my method) looks at how … and suggests …
  • (my method) looks at … and their influence on …
  • (my method) describes … and their involvement in …
  • (my method) looks at the process by which …
  • (my method) critiques … and describes how …
  • (my data) was analysed to test the hypothesis that …
  • (my data) was analysed to determine whether a relationship exists between …

These kinds of list-ish resources can be handy. The sentence stems above, for instance, position the writer to explain, and in some instances to argue. The stems require you to state the choice you made – a mode of analysis or a method – and explain it, say why, say what it did. Using one of these stems might be helpful if you’re not yet sure about what to include and exclude when writing about method.


But these resource lists are not simply about choosing words and phrases that sound academic. Nor are they simply ways to winkle you out of a stuck point, although they might do that. No. These lists do more.

Academic phrase banks and word lists do two kinds of work:

Text work – the lists offer you scholarly writing conventions. They present what some see as the lingua franca of academia – the way we speak in here, as opposed to out there, say at the pub. At work in here, the scholar investigates; in the pub, they are simply finding out about something. At work in here, the scholar discusses; in the pub, they are having a chat. At work, the scholar prefers; in the pub, they simply like. You get the picture. The academy has its own way of writing and talking.

Now, the stuff that goes in these academic word and phrase banks is a pretty conservative version of in here academic talk. The words and phrases are inevitably pan-disciplinary, and generic. They are also a selection – they are not the only way to talk about scholarly pursuits. So, in using the lists, you are not only producing your own text and contribution, but also reproducing a particular kind of academic writing.

Another caution – if you focus hard on the right words you do run the risk of concentrating on the surface features of your text, rather than with what you actually want to say. You write worrying about whether you sound “classy” (see my recent post about this), rather than worrying about what you have to say.

Identity work –  the word lists offer you a particular kind of scholarly identity – a scholar who talks and writes just-this-way… formal and distanced. This is a scholar who  speaks and writes dispassionately and evenly about their topic. Stephen Pinker would call this the worst, not the best, of academic writing and by inference, it’s writing produced by your average scholarly writer.

If you want to be something other than the same as everyone else – a creative, imaginative, surprising, inventive, and quotable scholar – you probably won’t find much benefit in continued use of word lists and phrase banks. They might work well as initial props to get you going when you start writing papers and reviews. When you are learning how to join in the academic conversation. But then they will become something that you use only occasionally, if at all, once you have your own academic writing practice in hand.

We all know that words are the basic building blocks of any form of writing. And, once we know the general rules and conventions, we get to make choices about how we use them.  As Francine Prose ( Isn’t that just the best name for someone who writes about writing and reading?) puts it in her book Reading like a writer

Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices. (P 15)

Yes, this post is not only about the usefulness of word lists, but also their limitations. It’s encouragement to keep the use of word banks and phrases in their place. To focus instead on the kinds of choices that you can make about your own vocabulary.

Know the conventions. Yes of course. Academic writing isn’t the same as chatting in the pub.  But then focus on putting your own stamp on your writing. Do the text work that creates the scholar you aspire to be.


Image credit: Katie, Flickr Commons



About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, text work/identity work, word bank, words and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to choosing your words – starting the phd

  1. Colin says:

    I absolutely agree that a lot of ‘proper’ academic language seems plodding and soulless but what if that’s what your examiner expects of you?


    • pat thomson says:

      Clearly you need to use the correct technical language for theories and concepts. And the ‘in here’ language where it matters. But you usually have lots of room for choice too. However you also need to be guided by you supervisors/advisers on what you can make decisions about.


  2. Yunying says:

    This post is useful for us academic writing beginners. Academic phrases banks and word lists help erasing the worries of choosing the “right” words. There is also a good reminder of creating our own academic writing bank with gradual and enough practice.


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