11 Essay Phrases To Outlaw Something

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The Index of Banned Words (The Continually Updated Edition)

By Carl Zimmer | November 30, 2009 3:35 pm

Over the summer, I posted a list of words I banned from my science writing class at Shoals Marine Lab. Readers offered some equally abysmal suggestions. And this fall, teaching a seminar at Yale, I came across some others. I suspect that this list is just going to keep growing. So I’m giving it a home here, where I can add in new entries as they arise in assignments in my classes. You can easily direct people to it through this url: http://bit.ly/IndexBanned (caps required).

By assembling this list, I don’t mean to say that no one should ever use these words. I am not teaching people how to write scientific papers. What I mean is that anyone who wants to learn how to write about science–and to be read by people who aren’t being paid to read–should work hard to learn how to explain science in plain yet elegant English–not by relying on scientific jargon, code-words, deadening euphemisms, or meaningless cliches.

[Update: Here’s a post where I go into more depth about why words matter–along with sentences, paragraphs, etc.]

Access (verb)

And/or (Logic gates do not belong in prose)



Breakthrough (unless you are covering Principia Mathematica)

Captive observation

Clinical setting

Community ecology (this ban does not extend to the subject of community ecology)



Cracked the code (especially when it comes to sequencing DNA. DNA is not the same thing as the genetic code)

Demographic leveling


et al


Food source (when just “food” will do)


“Further research is needed” (or anything like that)

Holy Grail


Impacted (unless you’re talking about teeth or bowels)

In (when used in phrases like “experiments in mouse“)

In vitro

In vivo

Informed (people can be informed. As for “The discussion was informed…”? Ack.)

Insult (referring to an injury)



Interface (especially as a verb)

Intermediate host

Interested in (as in, “Dr. Frankenstein is interested in tissue regeneration.” Transforms passion and excitement into a boring parlor game)

It has been shown (noxious in many ways)

Literally (even if it’s used accurately, the word is generally useless)

Marine environment

Material properties



Miracle (or Miracle cure)

Missing link (don’t get me started…)



Molecular systematists


Multiple (as in many? Then just use many)

Musty (when referring to museum collections, unless those collections are in fact in an attic with holes in the roof through which rain steadily falls)

Non-marine environment

Novel (the adjective is banned. The noun, as in War and Peace, is fine.)



Paradigm shift

Parameter (also, parameterize)




Predator-Prey Relationship



Recently (when you actually mean “ten years ago”)

Recruit, recruitment (unless you’re writing about the Army)

Regime (unless you’re referring to Mobutu in Zaire)

Robust (as in, robust data. But robust wine? Yes, please.)

Scientists have learned in recent years that… (A dodge to escape explaining what actually happened)



Substrate [try things like dirt, mud, rock, etc.]


System (as in, “He chose mouse as a system to study”)

This (if there is no antecedent in sight)


Trivial (in the way scientists like to use it: “This problem is trivial.” Non-trivial is even worse.)




We (as in “We now know the fatality ratio of the current H1N1 influenza epidemic.” We includes your readers, most of whom don’t know–yet.)

[Image of crier: Wikipedia]


Classroom Poster: Phrases to Outlaw in Students’ Writing

Ask any teacher who has ever spent every single minute of a beautiful weekend grading student essays and he or she will tell you this: In the garden that is student writing, certain “weeds” pop up again and again, and yes, again. Every year, teachers work hard to eradicate these should-be-outlawed phrases, yet still they persist. So we decided to make a list of the worst offenders. We asked middle- and high-school teachers: “What are the phrases in student writing that make you cringe, wail, and gnash your teeth?” From hundreds of responses, we narrowed it down to a carefully chosen list of Outlawed Words and Phrases.

Download it now, and put to use with your students. Here are three great ways:

  • Editing Guide: Print or photocopy individual 8 1/2” x 11” copies for your students to place in their writing notebooks or binders. Have students refer to it as they edit their own essays or in peer editing.
  • “Outlawed Phrases” Bulletin Board: Print the poster and place it in the center of a bulletin board. As you and your students come across more phrases to “outlaw,” write them on strips of paper and add them to your bulletin board display.
  • Flip It!: Share the poster with your students and challenge them to create their own list of 11 rules for powerful essays.

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