Introducing Carl’s Banned-Word Scanner

I’ve taught writing semi-regularly over the past few years. Over that time, I’ve come to realize that one of the biggest challenges in learning how to write about the natural world is to learn how to skillfully wield beautiful, plain language . Scientists and scientists-in-training often lard their writing with jargon, rather than looking for a conversational equivalent. This addiction to jargon can leave a piece of writing sterile. It can mystify everyone except the experts–which is a bad strategy if you aspire to write for the public. An addiction to jargon can even create catastrophic misunderstandings. Readers may apply a non-technical definition for a word that a scientist uses with a very technical meaning in mind. (Think of “theory” as a hunch.)

All writers, scientist and non-scientist alike, can be tempted by clichés and other useless constructions. Clichés like “Holy Grail” are just lazy surrenders to the challenge of inventing fresh phrases. And “miracle cure” is really just a cynical promise of false hope.

So I’ve gotten very persnickety about the individual words and phrases that students choose. I’ve built up a list of “banned words” that I’ve come across in assignments and which I never want to see in class again. It’s not that those words are absolutely wrong in terms of their meaning. It’s just that writers–both new and veteran–should try to do better. My index of banned words was a pretty modest enterprise–just a blog post that I updated from time to time (either from assignments or from suggestions from weary readers). But recently I got a chance to turn it into an interesting experiment.

The opportunity came to me thanks to Charles Best. Best is a former public school teacher who founded the philanthropy site Donors Choose, where you can give money for supplies requested by public school teachers. Wearied of dealing with tired, redundant, or pretentious language in writing, he decided to launch a web site called Irregardless. It allows people to crowd-source a list of words and phrases that writers should avoid, explain why, and offer alternatives.

What’s interesting about this site is that you can use it in a number of interesting ways. You can just read through the entries. You can pick out a list made by someone in particular. Author Reza Aslan explains why he loathes “essentializing the sacred,” for example.

You can also check your own writing. Choose the “check your writing” box, and paste text into the field that appears. You can choose to run your writing by all the tips, or just use a style guide. Best asked me to set up a science writing guide, and so I’ve poached my banned words, along with other good sources (like this paper). If you’re interested, check out Carl Zimmer’s Science Writing Guide at http://irregardless.ly/carlzimmer

You’ll see any flagged words highlighted in your text, with comments and suggestions appearing next to them. It can even distinguish between different uses of a word (I dislike “access” as a verb.)

Both Irregardless and my own style guide are works in progress. If you find any bugs, let the owners of the site know. And remember that you can add your own tips too. If you think I need to add a particular word to my own guide, let me know (this blog post’s comment thread is a good place). I can’t promise I’ll dislike it too, but it’s always worth learning about a word that sets someone on edge.

 

 

20 thoughts on “Introducing Carl’s Banned-Word Scanner

  1. I strongly disagree with a good deal of what’s written here, both the original list and most of the comments. Efficiency and clarity dictate that a word should not be used if there is a shorter, simpler, or more accurate word to represent the intended concept, but for many of the proposed bannings there is no such word; for example, ‘context’. The author may find the words often misused or the concepts irritating, but those are different problems which are not solved by banning. Indeed, they may be made worse.

    [CZ: I find that the word “context” is woefully abused. I sometimes ask people what they actually mean by the word when they use it, and they draw a blank. Yes, the word has its proper use. But when a word becomes a crutch, then I want to prod people to think harder about what they’re trying to say.]

  2. Without science education, the generation(s) that are now dependent on the internet for “information” -mostly rumor and junk that is designed to be sensational, possess no intellectual skills with which to examine what they are reading, changing a few words is fruitless. (Not that writers shouldn’t clean up their efforts.) Few Americans can follow simple logic, nor do they respect that there is a NEED to understand physical processes. Children are taught that emotions, especially their own, drive a (supernatural) reality. They will attach to any idea that sparks an emotional response. Imagine living that way! Can an emotion-addicted mind care about the larger environment?

  3. Ban “The” as in “The mouse” or “The elephant” as a careless equivalent of “Mice” and “Elephants”.

    For example: “The mouse breeds at 21 day intervals” nearly always actually means “Mice breed at 21 day intervals”. “The elephant drinks once or twice a day” nearly always means “Elephants drink once or twice a day”. The only circumstances in which “The mouse…” or “The elephant ….” would be appropriate are when a particular individual mouse or elephant is the subject.

    I have had to have rather blunt exchanges with a book editor who carefully went through all my draft text and inserted “The elephant …… etc etc” when I had deliberately written it as “Elephants ……..”, and the equivalent for about 120 other southern African mammals.

  4. How about authentic as used in education circles?
    authentic learning
    authentic lesson
    authentic teacher
    ?

  5. “Efficiency and clarity dictate that a word should not be used if there is a shorter, simpler, or more accurate word to represent the intended concept”

    Yeah.Nah. That assertion is not complete. The word used must also be known to the audience of readers and have a clear meaning. Otherwise you are not communicating, or worse, communicating the wrong thing.

  6. 1. …i try not to use the article “the”…finding it usually superfluous, annoying, & obfuscating…”the” is, also, a “hard” article that, in my opinion, takes the emphasis &, possibly, attention, off of other words…
    2. …when i was in graduate school, 1 professor advised never to use the word “pattern”…overused, unclear, not specific…sort of like a “filler” in Science writing…
    3. …my oldest son is a Cultural Theorist and, IMO, a v fine writer…he often uses common phrases to break the tension or to otherwise denote some sort of change in “mood” or topic when writing an essay…i have found his convention effective, have sometimes tried to incorporate the style into my own writing, but have found it “tricky” to pull off seamlessly…

    Blog: http://vertebratesocialbehavior.blogspot.com

  7. Also, variety, please. Don’t repeatedly use the same damn word/phrase – at least not in consecutive sentences. It takes some effort but it doesn’t completely obviate the eschewing of otiose prolixity in the pursuit of erudite engagement.

  8. The list updates Strunk & White admirably. Style is necessary to help get communication to work better. The previous commenters have decent points, but just accentuate the need to break out Roget when writing more than a quick note.

  9. I think writing to your audience makes sense. It also makes sense to use technical jargon when there’s no substitute. It won’t hurt for laymen to use a dictionary once-in-a-while. I have never looked up “ameliorate” although I can guess at it’s meaning, I have no concept of the nuance it provides. What’s the difference between curing a disease or condition and ameliorating the symptoms? My son has Angelman Syndrome and I like to read about neurological research, but most of the articles are written for fellow researchers and not for parents and media. It would be great to have someone like Carl Zimmer explain AS and why it’s so interesting, why scientists are dedicating their careers to find the best way to ameliorate the symptoms. 🙂 If you can offer a better word, I would request that “ameliorate” be added to the list. It’s awkward to sound out in my head, it’s like a mental / auditory tongue-twister, if you will. Thank you!

  10. The idea of a list of banned words worries me, most of the words listed in your blog are absolutely fine when used in the correct context. The fact that many people use them incorrectly is the problem.

    [CZ: I clearly stated that I made this list of words to avoid with science writing for a general audience in mind. In that context, these words do a writer no favors.]

  11. “Men speak with a florid tone because they wish to match the beauty of simple speech. They prefer to be misunderstood, than to fall short of its exuberance.” — Henry David Thoreau

  12. I apologize for an off topic comment, but the skeleton pictured in the link to subscribe to your newsletter looks an awful lot more like a moose to me than an elk. (The caption underneath says, “Click on the elk to subscribe.”)

    [CZ: It’s an Irish elk.]

  13. ‘Yeah.Nah. That assertion is not complete. The word used must also be known to the audience of readers and have a clear meaning. Otherwise you are not communicating, or worse, communicating the wrong thing.’

    My statement was made in an assumed context that seemed to be implicit in the banned-words list, such as that the subject is serious expository writing, rather than poetry, fiction, humor, polemic, propaganda, etc., which require different strategies. Another of my assumptions is that both writer and audience have similar vocabularies and concepts. If not, there are greater problems to be overcome than tired clichés and inappropriate vocabulary choices.

    I myself would prefer it if science writers would stop using words like ‘incredibly’ to intensify already dubious adjectives like ‘large’ and ‘small’. If something is incredible, we are not supposed to believe it; so why are we hearing about it from a scientist or science writer about science?

  14. “Exponentially” as a sloppy substitute for “very rapidly” needs to be banned, and exiled back to the technical literature that it come from.

    [CZ: Agreed]

  15. I want to tackle a word confusion issue, one that often pops up in science writing. If you run something, it’s a “gantlet.” If you are a falconer and put something on your hand as a landing point, or are a welder and need something larger than a glove, it’s a “gauntlet.” Don’t mix them up. (Carl — I caught NG doing this a few years back; to its credit, it apologized.)

    In addition to “incredible,” I’d kill all things like “impossible-to-tell story,” etc.

    Not a word issue but a grammar issue — avoid the passive voice!

  16. The passive voice is quite useful, as when one wants to focus on the object of an action, rather than the agent. ‘The city was mostly destroyed in World War 2.’ Some languages permit subjectless statements, but English doesn’t, so when the subject is uninteresting or distracting, we can use the passive.

  17. The passive voice is also weak, and often used to avoid specifying a particular agent, as in the classic political “mistakes were made.” (Or not telling who destroyed that WWII city.) That’s why Journalism 101 says avoid it.

  18. Let’s say you’re writing about Cologne. Your write, ‘The city was mostly destroyed in World War 2, and so most of it is of recent construction….’, because you’re going to talk about its prevalent style of architecture. Your audience presumably already knows about World War 2, and war in general, so they don’t need to be told who the agents of destruction were. Moreover, those agents are irrelevant to the subject of the text. The passive voice is exactly what is needed, and there is nothing ‘weak’ about it. It is strong, to the purpose, and exactly what you want.

    Should you desire further denunciation of the no-passives rule, I recommend reading Geoffrey Pullum, who appears regularly in Language Log . Pullum is a linguist with a lot of good advice about language use and about other people’s advice about language use, which often isn’t so good, the mindless prohibition of the passive being one widely distributed example.

    ‘Mistakes were made’ was Pol Pot’s classic. In fact, he was probably speaking Khmer, and the translation, of which so much has been made, may be be seriously inaccurate. Khmer is a ‘pro-drop’ language in which, unlike English, some elements of a sentence can be dropped if they can be understood from context, and of course context is completely missing from this sound bite. In any case, if one is deliberately trying to avoid specifying the agent, and the passive enables one to do so, it has functioned well; what should be criticized is not the grammar, which is faultless, but (maybe) the obfuscatory intentions of the writer or speaker.

  19. Starrygordon has kinda said it wrt passives. I can’t resist pointing this out though:

    “The passive voice is also weak, and often used to avoid specifying a particular agent,”

    Haha, and there you have the passive in the very sentence you write decrying it! (As well as horrible grammatical parallelism, with ‘is’ doing service both as an active verb and as the auxiliary in your passive. Now that’s a pet peeve of mine in writing, unless it’s being used to deliberate humorous effect…).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *