Avoiding Imprecise Vocabulary

Importance ★★★


You are not likely to find a published academic paper that begins with a sentence like: “This article will cover a lot of interesting things.” The phrase a lot of interesting things simply does not seem very academic. It is a question of register, but it is not simply a matter of wanting to sound fancy (register rarely is). The academic register requires a certain precision, and this phrase does not deliver that precision. Although it seems clear what its components mean, more precise alternatives would certainly be preferable:

a lot of We know that this phrase means many or much, but in academic writing we want to know more: much in relation to what, for example? Is the amount surprising or expected? Why is the amount significant at all?
interesting The problem is similar here. We are aware that interesting is used about an insight that makes us think or that sheds new light on whatever it is referring to. However, we also know that whenever someone says that something is interesting, it may mean a) “I like it,” b) “I dislike it,” or c) “I cannot really think of anything to say about it.” Try to say instead, why or how something is interesting: is it groundbreaking, ominous, fruitful, attractive, subversive, constructive, offensive, or something else?
things Things feels solid but is dangerously vague. Are you talking about artefacts, aspects, components, details, entities, facets, factors, features, objects or phenomena? Take the extra time to figure out exactly what you want to say (and look up the appropriate word if you have to).

In fact, a word’s lack of precision, the very reason why it should be avoided in academic writing, can also be the reason why it seems so attractive to a writer. For example, many learners of English tend to overuse get. The reason is that get seems so useful. However, like the examples above, get is more useful than it is descriptive. Consider the following sentences:

Did you get my assignment?
He is getting old.
Did he get the joke?

The verb get is very common, on its own (as in the sentences above) or as part of a phrase. In either case, get usually belongs to a casual, informal register. In academic writing, for example, these sentences would stand out because of their lack of precision. In each case, the word get can be replaced by a more precise alternative:

Did you get my assignment? Did you receive my assignment?
He is getting old. He is growing old.
Did he get the joke? Did he understand the joke?

If you still feel that the alternatives in the left-hand column feel more convenient or natural, that is because they look like what most people would say in everyday situations (and what you hear in TV series or movies). However, the alternatives in the right-hand column are what you write when you produce an academic text (or almost any professional text).

Why not challenge yourself never to use get at all? When you are tempted to use get, try to find a more precise alternative. Perhaps one of the following verbs would work: achieve, acquire, answer, arrive, be, become, begin, bring, buy, catch, come, contract, earn, fetch, force, gain, go, grow, have, hire, inherit, make, obtain, persuade, purchase, receive, recruit, start, or understand.


Precise vocabulary expresses your argument as clearly and concisely as possible.

Further Discussion

Naturally, imprecise vocabulary can cause problems in everyday contexts as well. Saying that somebody is nice, for example, can yield bad results, and it would be better to be more specific about why or how he or she is nice. Are you trying to say that they are considerate, helpful or kind? Or are you perhaps looking for fun or humourous? Or are you trying to say that you like someone? Or that you don’t really like them?

Related topics

Insufficient Genre Awareness, Overly Informal Language, Overly Formal Language, Inconsistent register