The Index of Banned Words

By Carl Zimmer | August 18, 2009 1:52 am

laighton440.jpg[Update: See my continually updated edition of this list here.]

Over the past week I held my first real class, teaching a roomful of students writing about science on Appledore Island (along with a few ornithological auditors, shown in this picture of my classroom). They put up with a relentless schedule of researching and writing and ended up with some excellent pieces about everything from robot sharks to the right way to hold a warbler in your hand. I’ll be posting the fruits of their labors in a couple days at Science on Shoals.

Along the way, we talked a lot about words. Time and again, as I reviewed the assignments from the students, I came across words would fit comfortably in a textbook or a scientific paper, but, like an invasive insect, wreaked havoc when they were introduced into a piece of writing intended for the wide world. This is a problem I’ve observed across the scientific board, from professors I’ve edited in magazines to the science majors who made up the majority of students in my class. If you talk to them face-to-face, they will never say, “I utilized my spear gun.” But somehow they can’t avoid using utilize when they are writing, when use will do just fine.

As the week unfolded, I built up a list of words I came across in assignments (and which I have seen many times before) on the classroom whiteboard. I declared them banned from the class. When I twittered about my decree, I got some groans of agreement from assorted writers and readers. But there were also some protests from scientists. I banned marine environment if ocean could take its place, for example, only to be informed that not all marine environments are oceans.

I still say that in the overwhelming majority of cases, there’s a solid word that can take the place of a scientific term. What’s most important about pushing people to use plain English is that they will have an easier time expressing the passion and poetry of the scientific life. You won’t find marine environment in one of the best books ever written about marine environments.

Here is a far-from-complete list of words to be banned…

Breakthrough (unless you are covering Principia Mathematica)

Captive observation

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

Context

Demographic leveling

Impact (verb)

Intermediate host

Interaction

Marine environment

Material properties

Missing link (don’t get me started…)

Molecular systematists

Morphology

Non-marine environment

Paradigm shift

Phylogenetics

Predator-Prey Relationship

Processes

Utilize

I’m sure some readers can add more to this list. Next summer I will probably write up a list and hand it out at the start of class.

Update, 6/18 11:20 am: Thanks for all the conversation, both in the comments and on Twitter. It’s made me realize that I should divide my banned words into a couple categories. Some of them, like utilize, are science words that should not be allowed to escape scientific journals. But others, like breakthrough, are words that both scientists and non-scientists alike may be tempted to use like steroids, to artificially boost their writing. These words often end up being just wrong, and in some cases–like referring to a preliminary experiment in mice as a miraculous cure–they can be cruel by raising hopes in the sick that may later be dashed.

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Comments (56)

  1. If you would like your list to begin with A, might I nominate “access” as a verb? While I try to come up with a Z word, let me ask what’s wrong with “interaction.” Yes, it’s four syllables and Latinate, but sometimes it’s the only word that’ll do. “Context,” while overused, also seems necessary in certain – um – situations. Also, it’s more precise and half as many syllables as the alternative.

    Carl: I’m thinking of hardcore scientific terms that use “interaction,” like predator-prey interaction. This is just a mental cut-and-paste, not writing. A similar problem exists with context.

  2. Jim Croft

    Let me paradigm it for you: any noun keyboarded as verb is suspect.

  3. Scott

    “novel”

    (at least in 99% of cases)

  4. Dr. Kate

    These may not be specific to science writing, but:

    author (verb)
    syllogism
    epistemology
    ontology
    seminal (unless you’re writing about male reproductive systems)
    discretize
    monetize (maybe more common in business)
    conflate
    grow (transitive verb, e.g., “grow your business”)

    Some of the above are useless (really, is there EVER a situation in which “to write” cannot be substituted for “to author”?), some are endlessly misused (“conflate” is NOT a synonym for “confuse”), some are overused, and some are just needlessly obscure.

  5. Eskimo

    How about words that have established meanings for the layperson, such as “insult”?
    Cardiologists talk about the heart muscle receiving an insult.
    This isn’t somebody in a bar telling me I look stupid.

    Carl: “Trivial” falls in the same category.

  6. Hi Carl, your decision to ban impact (verb) interests me. When editing I sometimes replace it (or suggest replacing it) with affect, influence or some other such term, but I try not to be too prejudiced against it. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out that impact was a verb in English before it was a noun, and even its figurative usage was primarily literary to begin with. In science writing, though, there is perhaps a stronger case for restricting its use to teeth, astrophysical collisions, etc.

    A story on New Scientist‘s website yesterday, about a statistical method for decoding ancient scripts, reported on a research team measuring what they called the “entropy” of a word. Not a helpful loan, I think.

    Looks like a beautiful location for teaching, by the way.

  7. Kevin K

    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/07/blackholescience/

    Wired magazine had a similar piece a month ago although they focused on cliches:

    Holy Grail
    Silver bullet
    Shedding Light
    Missing Link
    Paradigm Shift

    There are a ton more in the comments.

  8. “I authored my biography with the aid of my ghostwriter”

    Eskimo, agree on a lot of such medical terminology. I read neuroscience papers for a living, but I’m ready to tear my hair out when it’s a physician – rather than a neuroscientist – who’s written the paper.

    Take those directional terms like dorsal/ventral where you have no idea if the physician reporting findings in, say, the rat is talking about the human mapping or the animal one. Worse, I’ve seen examples where they manage to confuse themselves and fail to stay with one meaning throughout their own text. That terminology is frankly one I would love to see disappear from scientific texts as well.

  9. How about systems biology which in most cases is used to refer to, well, biology.

  10. The solid virtue of this idea is that more careful selection of words for their intended purpose to communicate an idea is probably good general advice. Beyond that, I’m uncomfortable with it because of the same underlying spirit of good communication. One of the biggest challenges to effective communication is getting other people to think in terms of the same concepts as you are rather than a completely different set that uses similar words. It greatly facilitates that process to use words with precise technical meanings when they are called for. It gives some basis for common understanding, rather than people just shooting wildly at the target with common but more ambiguous terms and hoping to gradually get closer over time. Words are tools, don’t ban the right-angle circular left handed metric screw-driver, just use it in the right circumstances.

    Todd: I banned these words not from the English language, but just from my class, which is explicitly about writing about science for a wide audience. Many of your terms may be eminently suitable for other kind of writing. But when people relying on them in my class, they stop thinking about new and creative ways of using ordinary English to reach the same goal.

  11. Sheltieowner

    For business writing, can we ban “leaderful” and “impactful?”

    Carl: Leaderful? Please tell me you’re joking. Oh my Lord…

  12. johnk

    Carl,

    Can I have “context” back?

    I study the hippocampus. We struggle to find a concept that describes the role of the hippocampus in learning, and the idea of “context” has proven useful. When using this term, combined with a working definition and a lot of explaining, people get the idea. But, to use “context” usefully, you need a crisp definition that is both scientific and fits with intuitive, everyday use. I agree that loose use of “context” is not useful.

    —-

    Another topic. I hate it when scientists appropriate everyday words, give them non-intuitive definitions, then claim authority because they’ve used a scientific approach. One example: Damassio’s definition of “emotion” as a set of behavioral actions that excludes inner feeling. (“Feeling” is his word for inner feeling.)

    A word that defies scientific definition: consciousness.

    A pretentious word in spoken English that I can do without: “indeed”. I can’t remember seeing it in written English.

  13. Here are my two:
    novel (new)
    elucidate

    Scientists love these words. I do not.

  14. johnk

    Personal story:

    I teach in a medical school. A number of years ago I was reviewing an exam with a dozen nursing students. They complained of complex word usage in the questions. A student gave as an example the word “interdigitate”.

    My immediate reaction was that the students were poorly educated. I didn’t think “interdigitate” was a scientific term or a complex word. I guessed that I learned it in middle school. I told scientific colleagues, and they agreed.

    I then told the story to people outside of science and none had heard the word. They could usually figure it out, but universally said they had not heard it before.

    I came to the conclusion that “interdigitate” is a technical term that is very easy to learn — so easy that it doesn’t seem technical. I think this is a common mistake. To learn technical words or jargon and forget that the words are technical or jargon. Especially if the words are easy-to-learn and useful.


    interdigitate (verb): (of two or more things) interlock, like fingers in a clasped hand.
    A very useful term in anatomy. I’d guess I learned it in anatomy courses.

  15. johnk

    One more thing: acronyms, when not essential. I hate reading scientific papers that use dozens. I need a cheat sheet to remember what each set of initials refers to. Overuse of acronyms makes reading very difficult. In this case, the abuse is more common in scientific papers than in science written for a general audience.

  16. Another Kevin

    Bravo! Learning how to express our conventional terms in plain language is key to writing for a broad audience. Another suggestion: If you’re using a word with a technical meaning, define it where it first appears.

    Another thing to ban: the passive voice. It has a place in scientific writing, because we traditionally us it to divorce the experimenter from the experimental system in our minds: “5 g of resublimated thiotimoline were placed in a round-bottom flask,” as opposed to, “I placed 5 g of ….” But in popular prose, it weakens every statement in which we use it.

    But – I despair sometimes of teaching the skill of untangling, “For rapid administration of the agent, central venous access was achieved by cannulating the animals’ inferior venae cavae,” into “The scientists placed needles in the rats’ tail veins to get the drug into the bloodstream faster.” (Biologists, don’t start on the difference between a cannula and a needle or where the tail vein ends and the IVC begins. The only people who know or care about the differences are those who put the needle in the rat. They aren’t the audience you’re writing for.)

  17. Edward Winstead

    How many readers know what “gene expression” means? Not many, I’m guessing.

    Carl: This is one of the big challenges of science writing. In the early 1990s, you still had to define DNA if you mentioned it. Now it’s fine on its own. But gene expression–not yet.

  18. Wilson Fowlie

    Carl, I wish you’d been the editor on the book The First Idea by Stanley Greenspan and Stuart Shanker. Maybe they didn’t intend it for “the wide world”, but they should have, and if they did, they needed to tone down the language a lot!

    A typical sentence: “Our work with nonhuman primates thus provides us with a striking insight into how critical the function of attachment must have been for the survival of early human groups, for it is through attachment with its caregivers that nonhuman primate babies, as much as human, come to absorb their group’s distinctive manner of emotional communication.”

    The book’s ideas are well worth absorbing, but it’s like trying to have a sponge absorb yogourt instead of water. You could probably double the length of your banned words list in a couple of pages of it.

    Carl: Wilson–The passage is terrible, but at least you gave us a lovely metaphor to ease the pain.

  19. I’m not sure that I agree with this list. There are different audiences even among non-scientists. For example, a reader of a story in the main section of the New York Times likely has less science background than reading an article in the Science Times who may have less than one who reads your blog regularly. I don’t think any blog reader would have trouble understanding if you used “phylogenetics” and in that case the word is much shorter than explaining the idea as a whole. Would it maybe make more sense to just get your students to try to be more conscious about the expected background of their audiences?

    Carl: I don’t make that assumption, so that I can reach for more readers. Obviously, we are all free to write however we want on blogs. But our choice of words will influence the audience we attract.

  20. Don

    Ah, so you are imposing demotic language on them!

  21. Dennis

    Carl, I’m in trouble. I am writing a book on extinct and endangered plant-animal…interactions (pollination & seed dispersal). I’ll be darned, if I can get through all the stories without using this word as a noun or verb at least once. What should I do?
    Troubled greetings,
    Dennis

    Dennis: Try.

  22. cat glickman

    Police do the same thing. E.g. “I exited my fully marked patrol vehicle . . .”

  23. Michael Bedward

    “Methodology” has to go.

    I’m guilty of peppering papers with it, in mindless peer fashion, but never again. I can’t see that it provides anything more than simpler alternatives such as method, design or procedure.

  24. David B. Benson

    Methodology:
    3. Usage Problem. Means, technique, or procedure; method.

    from
    http://www.answers.com/topic/methodology
    which goes on to point out that “In recent years, however, methodology has been increasingly used as a pretentious substitute for method in scientific and technical contexts, …”

    As Strunk used to say, “Simplify, simplify simplify!”

  25. Robinki

    Ban “parameter”! And its horrid verb form “parameterize”. And ANY use of “system”; it never adds clarity.

    I like the list but you should include the common language equivalent. One can’t just not use words at all, one has to use the word that best conveys meaning.

    “Utilize” has a legitimate meaning – when one grabs something and uses it as something else:
    “I utilized my high heel shoe to drive the nail.” Although it still comes across as stilted and pretentious. Perhaps an outright ban is best.

    Carl: This index is not a code wheel. It’s a way to push students to think about new, precise, and evocative ways to say what they mean.

  26. David Lewin

    As a science writer/editor with the government, I find that social science jargon becomes as much of a problem as scientific/medical jargon. My least favorite usage is “actionable.” Most dictionaries still lead off with the meaning “cause of a lawsuit,” rather than the applied social science meaning “able to be put into action.” However, I’ve found that it is a losing battle to fight the second usage. C’est la vie!

  27. Please, please, please… Book reviewers must STOP using this term:

    pitch-perfect

    I’d love to eliminate it from the face of the earth. I feel the same about so many other common reviewing terms, but this one makes me feel physically ill.

  28. Marlene Zuk

    As a scientist who also writes for the general public, I applaud the list — and am guilty of using lots of the words Carl mentions, ultimately editing out most of them. But what’s the problem with “intermediate host”? Sure, you have to explain what it is, but I am drawing a blank at a suitable substitute.

  29. Li

    The words “god”, “religion”, and “miracle”, and their adjectives and adverbs should be omitted, unless describing psychology, sociology, or another related field.

    I think if there is enough space and time that it would be nice to include both the scientific jargon and then a layperson’s translation so that the average person can get used to and see how scientists work.

  30. Chris Caprette

    Elegant — when was the last time a mathematical formula or ecological model strolled into the room in an expensive finely-tailored suit or formal evening gown?

  31. gillt

    There seems to be two criteria: cliches and jargon. Maybe we need a two-column list of banned words.

  32. Old Grey Geologist

    I strongly agree with Michael & David (comments 23 & 24) – methodology has to go. Another horrendous phrase I saw a couple of months ago that made me wince in serious pain: “watery” meteorite.

  33. fra

    Narrative – once I punched a guy for using this word :)

  34. But why phylogenetics? Wait… people even talk about that out in the public? What should it be instead – ‘treestuff’? Actually, I think I like ‘treestuff’… should start using it =P

    Cancer (unless actually relevant)… for the love of FSM, why does everything in biology have to culminate in cancer? Those of us who have not the slightest shred of interest in the subject are not only marginalised by the media, but also by certain high impact factor weekly journals too! *mutters to self* Oh, and do try to read cell cycle literature when outside the cancer erm…’context’! For some reason we now have “retinablastoma-like” genes in fucking -plants-… *grumble*


    Oh, and also for the love of FSM, “living fossil” – what the flying FUCK is that supposed to mean!?


    And lastly, the one that REALLY gets me off on a multipage rants: “Gene for [x]“. Grrr.

    /rant

  35. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Not having English as native language I was surprised to see the seemingly innocuous word “impact” on the list?! How is “having an impact” different in impact from “causing a reaction”? For me it causes the same reaction.

    [Note: I see why interaction is iffy, but physicists tend to use “interaction” as a (technical IMHO) term since “force” is somewhat ambiguous. For example, gravitation is AFAIU not (causing) a force, say for photons that obey it (no acceleration in their inertial frame as massless particles follows geodesics). It is however an interaction.]

  36. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Oh, and to contribute positively: “technology” is often used instead of technique.

  37. wjv

    As a materials scientist, I find your ban on material properties and processes procrustean. :)

    material properties are what us materials scientists study, how can we avoid it? also process is a useful word that is common enough among lay people, why ban process?

    Carl: No one loves material properties more than I do! But I also love the words that convey those material properties in a visceral way to those few, few readers who are not materials scientists: words like strong, bright, cold, brittle, gooey.

    Process is not actually that useful in a non-scientific piece of writing, I find, because it is just a nondescript placeholder of a word.

  38. Yes but here’s another thought. I think that you’re right on target with the jargony writing hat many scientists use when talking to a lay audience. However… I also think that we should not dumb down the understanding of science by the public by not using scientific words at all. Rather what I like to do is introduce a word or two into an article, clearly defining it and not overusing it. I think that educating the public on scientific terms used accurately is every bit as important as engaging them with dynamic and colorful writing.

  39. And I didn’t mean to imply that you said in any way that we shouldn’t use scientific words “at all” – poor choice of words on my part. But I was just making a suggestion in addition to your excellent points!

  40. My big one is often seen in grants and press releases – “furthers our understanding”, or “leads to a better understanding of”.

  41. John Kwok

    Carl,

    Morphology, Phylogenetics and Predator – Prey Relationship(s) should not be banned since they refer to size and shape and overall appearance (morphology), phylogenetics (either as a simple short-hand for Cladistics or Phylogenetic Systeamtics or in general, referring to phylogenies) and a fundamental ecological relationship between some organisms (predator – prey relationship).

    John

  42. I hereby nominate “impactful”.

    I know it seems absurd that anyone would use such a word, but I have heard it used multiple times, usually by people in educational psychology, sociology, and social services. In general it is used as an intensified version of “effective”, as in “that speech was very effective/had an impact on me/was very impactful”.

    Almost every time I hear it, I think of someone developing impacted feces: eating a lot of white bread while dehydrated is likely to be very “impactful”…

  43. Chris

    As a legal writing teacher, I nominate “regarding.” I’ve slogged through hundreds, maybe thousands, of regardings, and almost all of them would have been better off changed to “about” (“our conversation regarding the proposal”), while the remainder should have been something more specific like “governing” (“the statute regarding hazardous waste disposal”). I beg my students not to use it, and not to substitute something equally vague and wordy, like “concerning” or “with regard to”.

    Also “is applicable” and “is inapplicable.” What ugly phrases. “Applies,” or “doesn’t apply.”

  44. Chris

    Also, I’d ban the noun “individual,” unless the writer is distinguishing individuals from groups. If all you mean is person, say person. It’s another staple of the police report language that Cat mentions above (“I apprehended two individuals adjacent to the vehicle.”)

  45. IST

    How about anything commonly used in post-modernist discourse (including “discourse”?) The objective of writing, especially scientific writing, should be communication of methods and findings. If you’re trying to obfuscate the dearth of information with excess and pretentious verbiage (/snark), maybe you should spend more time on your research than trying to baffle your readers with bovine excrement.

  46. lylebot

    I hate “utilize”, even in science writing. I have a collaborator that uses it all the time. To me it’s like a big stone weighing down any sentence it appears in—it deadens any rhythm of language that might be there otherwise.

  47. Chris Johnson

    Dear Carl

    Interesting list. You could consider adding the following words

    increase
    decrease
    positive
    negative

    There is nothing really wrong with these words. The problem is that we often use them when we can’t be bothered thinking of the most apt and precise word to characterize the nature of a change or effect. I keep a look out for these words, because they are signals that my writing is becoming lazy.

    Chris

  48. Thumpalumpacus

    It’s not specifically scientific, but do eliminate “moreover”. It is sludgy filler.

  49. Emmanuel

    Thanks for this interesting discussion. You could consider adding most adverbs to the list. They are often added because people don’t have confidence in their adjectives. Adverbs can be really, truly, definitely, very much useful, but sparingly, like butter.

    I feel a lot of these concepts are well laid out in Strunk and White and George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language.

    Cheers,

    Emmanuel

    Carl: I agree. If I’m editing a piece, I usually strike out about 90% of the adverbs.

  50. Cambrico

    Epistemology.
    Once a Sociologist mentioned epistemology in a class and one student had the audacity to ask what the word meant. The sociologist was so offended that didn’t answer. And we never understood what he was trying to teach with that word.
    We were lawyers, engineers, administrators, and would had been gratefull of somebody explaining the word, just for our enlightment. Now, 20 years later, I remember this as an example of how a professor or teacher should not behave.

  51. Jane Amanda

    Yay! I’m all for eliminating the unnecessary perplexing words when the simpler ones are readily available.

    But could it be a difference between the American professors and the British ones?
    Most of those who comment here seem to be teachers/profs in the States, and I like it that a lot of you are genuinely okay (correct me if I’m wrong though) to banning these lofty-sounding words.

    I’m a PhD student and the univ I attend follows the British education system.
    I think it’d probably kill my supervisor if I wrote ‘use’ instead of ‘utilise’.
    Recently I attended a workshop on ‘Writing the Discussion section of your thesis’ and I swear I was struggling to understand what the guy was saying what with words like ‘epistomology’, ‘operational definition’, ‘warrant’ vs. ‘claim’ and ‘false positive’ in abundance.

    Cheers!

  52. Janice Koler-Matznick

    I hope you think the word “morphology” should only be banned from writing for the general public. My best friend is a morphologist in a wildlife forensic lab! Since “morphology” is correctly used for the study of form and structure, or the actual form and structure of an organism, I assume you mean writers should not use morphology as a subsitute for specific terms such as “shape,” “design” or “structure.”

  53. Kyle

    I think there should be categorized lists of banned words by field of science. Being an organic chemistry PhD student, the toughest adjustment for me from being an undergraduate to a graduate-student was reading the chemistry journals and understanding what was actually being said. Three years into my time in grad school, I still have a difficult time reading and fully understanding chemistry journals, not for lack of chemistry knowledge, but since the “language” chemists use amongst themselves is unnecessarily confusing. It does become easier over time though, seeing the same fancy words used over and again.

    However, it is obvious, in talking to chemists from around the world that chemists never use most of the words they so “poetically” use in their articles. My favorite word used is concomitantly, a word I’ve never once heard in common discussion, but which I come across every day in reading articles to describe two things happening at the same time.

    Unfortunately, I doubt much change will ever be made in this front, because I (and I’m sure every student who has ever written a paper) use words that sound better and more intelligent when typed out, but awkward in face-to-face discussions. It a way to make yourself seem more intelligent than you may really be to the reader, something which is important to scientists–no one wants to appear dumb by using easy-to-read language. Furthermore, Word and similar software can show you a list of synonyms of any word you type. This makes it much simpler for anyone to have what appears to be a very broad vocabulary, giving that person a facade of intelligence.

    If there was no competition in the education system to get the best grades, to get into the best universities, and then onto the best graduate programs, post-doctoral positions, and eventually best career positions (whether it be outside of academia or within it), I could see this massive difference in written and spoken languages disappearing. However, that will never be the case, students will always try to one-up their peers by one of the simplest methods, using highfalutin words.

    Lastly, one argument for keeping these annoying words in use, is that they can allow the author to use words others may not use to avoid being accused of plagiarism. Obviously, a good thing.

  54. EKA

    @Kyle
    Don’t forget that obfuscating technical jargon also keeps outsiders from accessing types of knowledge. Those who “belong” understand it – it creates boundaries and also allows for a refashioning of this knowledge to the masses. Part of me hates myself for pointing out the Foucauldian power/knowledge concept, but in my opinion, it strongly applies to what you are describing.

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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