One of the easiest ways to begin streamlining your writing and preventing your research from getting weighed down is to recognize some of the most common (and most commonly overused) fluff words that find their way into academic work.
There’s an interesting thing about the metaphors that characterize these words. I’m only a title and a sentence into this post and already I’ve referred to them as “inflated” and as “fluff” but also as “weighing down” one’s writing. These metaphors connote both unnecessary heaviness and unnecessary lightness, which might seem contradictory, but what both types of metaphors share is the impression of taking up space without offering substance.
It may be that you include these words not because you are consciously trying to “sound smart” but only because they have seeped into your academic vocabulary from others using them to that end before. That doesn’t make them useful, though, and rather than making you sound smart, they are more likely to make you “sound like you’re trying to sound smart.” You probably don’t want that.
So let’s look at some of the worst offenders, most of which have appropriate uses along with their inappropriate overuses.
I’ve known people who harbored such strong resentment against “utilize” that they considered the word’s “utilizers” to be greater language imbeciles than those who use “u” as a pronoun somewhere other than a text message. I am not one of those people, and in certain contexts, there’s nothing wrong with it.
How not to use “utilize”: Don’t use it as a fancy synonym for “use.” That’s the use that gets the nitpickers’ blood pressure up. Rather than making you sound smart, it will make you sound like you’re trying to sound smart.
How to use “utilize”: Erm, sparingly. Utilizing is a certain kind of using. It has legitimate uses in scientific contexts, while for uses outside of that, I like the explanation at a blog called Grammar Party. Basically, if you’re using something the way it’s meant to be used, just say “use.” If you’re putting it to a different type of use, then “utilize” is excusable (though some peevers will still think you’re trying to sound smart).
In place of “utilize,” also consider using (in moderation) “apply” or “employ,” but pretty please not…
Using “leverage” as a verb to mean, well, “to use” has the same kind of detractors. Many people won’t care, but most language aficionados will consider it an error, and some will be passionate about their irritation.
How not to use “leverage”: Avoid the verb form, aside from a couple of specific contexts I’ll explain below. Here is an especially provocative explanation why not: Are You Stupid Enough to Use Leverage as a Verb? If someone asked me, I’d just suggest not to use it because it will make you sound like you’re trying to sound smart. And pretentious.
How to use “leverage”: Feel free to use the noun form of this word; you won’t often be criticized for saying that “Lady Bracknell used her leverage to get the legislation passed through Parliament.” There are also legitimate uses of the verb in the field of business, so I tend not to correct my MBA clients on it. Even there, though, overuse might invite dissent.
Within, Upon, Via
Instead of in, on, and by or through. Unlike the two examples above, these obviously aren’t jargony buzzwords that you need to completely avoid. They are, however, valid words that writers sometimes replace their simpler cousins with.
There are resources that can explain the proper uses of in and within, on and upon, and via (which doesn’t compare via specifically to “by” or “through” but explains nuances in its use). In many cases, the use of the fluffier option in each of these word pairs or sets isn’t necessarily incorrect, but it is fluffier.
That is, you might be adding superfluous syllables that aren’t bringing any actual substance to your text along with them, which can weigh the text down if you do it too much. Occasional word inflation isn’t a big issue, but I recommend being aware enough of the fluff effect to keep it from becoming a habit. I’ve edited authors who only ever said “upon.” I’ve edited authors who have a “via” fixation. It is distracting, and it doesn’t sound smart. Well, you know how that goes.
I'm Lea, a freelance editor who specializes in academic and nonfiction materials. More info about my services is available throughout this site.