This list does not follow the exact order or recommendations of other word lists, such as Averil Coxhead’s Academic Word List (AWL). Instead, it is a simple collection of my own recommendations as a teacher of writing and literature who has taught in large state universities, science and technical universities, and in United States universities abroad. For each word, I include not a definition but instead a kind of usage guide or the context in which that word might appear in your academic life. For good, clear definitions of these words and phrases, visit Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary.
a. You might need to “account for” bias, variables, or factors when completing your analysis of something. This means think about, consider, plan for, and explain.
b. If you are asked to “account for” something odd, troubling, or problematic (see number eighteen in this list), you should try to explain why it exists. It probably contradicts or complicates something else that author/speaker has written/said.
a. Texts can be “ambiguous,” meaning that they cannot easily be defined in a singular way. Your task is to recognize this ambiguity and to analyze it, not necessarily to force it into a clear, singular definition. When discussing artistic creations, “ambiguous” tends to have a positive connotation.
b. Your writing or explanation might be “ambiguous,” meaning that a reader/audience cannot easily determine your point or argument. In this case, you should try to clarify and strengthen your statement. When discussing student writing, “ambiguous” tends to have a negative/critical connotation.
a. When discussing an effect (for example, a decline of the American economy), a professor might ask you, “What can we attribute this to?” or “And what does the author of our text attribute this to?” This is asking you to identify the cause for that effect.
b. In citations, works cited entries, and bibliographies, you will be asked to “attribute” quotes and paraphrases accurately and honestly. This means you must give credit to a source or document your research. Students who forget to include proper citations such as quotation marks or parenthetical information might receive a comment asking, “Are you attributing this to anyone?”
a. Many students wonder if instructors want to know what their opinion is about readings or topics. The answer is “yes,” but most often only if your opinion is “informed,” meaning that you know something about the readings or the topic. For example, an assignment might ask you to “provide commentary” on how the author of a text builds their argument. The instructor here is not asking for your simple reactions or quick thoughts. Instead, “commentary” is a synonym for “explanation” or maybe even “analysis.”
a. Many university assignments are made up of multiple “components,” meaning there are several small related tasks all tied together as one assignment. Sometimes these components are graded separately, but other times a singular assignment might have multiple components that are all necessary for the assignment to be considered “complete.” For example, the components of a drafted essay might include a brainstorming activity, an outline, a first draft, a revision, an office hour meeting, and a final draft. Each assignment is clearly different, but they are all components of a larger assignment. In a different example, a final exam essay question might have three components: summarize a reading passage, evaluate the author’s claims, and forward the author’s ideas using your own arguments on the subject. To succeed on this final exam, you must complete all three components.
a. Longer is not always better for academic writing purposes. In fact, if you write unnecessary information or use more words than needed to convey your ideas, you might lose points on university assignments. Professors call these kinds of words “filler.” If an assignment prompt asks you to “Write a concise and well-organized essay on X,” take that word “concise” seriously; make every word you write important. If the assignment asks for 500–600 words for that “concise” response, 500 words with no filler will often get you a higher grade than 600 words that includes 100 words of filler.
a. Concrete support or concrete analysis refers to something connected to numbers or provable facts. If you offer your analysis of an issue in a text and your professor asks for some “concrete support,” you should include a direct quote from the text or some data presented in the text that can support your analysis.
a. In many academic subjects (and in life generally), context is crucial. In your composition and literature courses, instructors will ask you to quote from texts that you write about. However, you cannot simply find a good quote and insert it into your essay. Before and after doing so, you need to establish the context for the quote or the situation or reasoning from which that quote came. This might be done by summarizing prior events, paraphrasing the setup for a major argumentative claim, or by positioning (see number seventeen in this list) an author against other contemporary scholars writing on the same subject. Similarly, in subjects such as anthropology or political science, many students are eager to analyze actions based on their own systems of belief. However, your professors will advise you to take context into account (see number one in this list). Only by considering the context can you effectively analyze a situation or a line of reasoning.
a. Authors and sources need to be credible to be used in academic research. The author should be an expert in the subject on which they are writing. This doesn’t mean they need a university degree or a certification; they must be highly knowledgeable about their subject. Sources also need to be credible, meaning they should be up to date, should not edit authors in ways that distort (see number ten on this list) their meaning, and should fact-check their authors who do not have a high level of credibility.
a. In science or mathematics, you might distort your findings or results by not calculating correctly, not accounting for (see number one in this list) variables, or by exaggerating an interpretation (see number sixteen in this list) of your results.
b. In working with texts, you might distort an author’s opinion or argument, particularly when you are summarizing or paraphrasing that text.
c. Texts might also distort the way we normally view an issue. This kind of distortion can be appreciated if the issue is normally seen through one dominant history or mode of analysis.
a. A professor might ask you to “elaborate” on a text. This means you should give your explanation of its themes, symbols, or issues.
b. After you give an answer in class, your professor might ask you to “elaborate” on what you said. This means you should further explain and possibly offer some examples that others can understand.
a. If an essay or assignment prompt asks you to “explore” an issue or theme in a text, you should try to present all of the different sides or options or parts of that thing. For example, a prompt asks you to “explore how music and singing function in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” To complete this assignment, you would find all of the places in the text where that thing happens, identify how it functions in the story, and you would then present all of your findings in organized paragraphs. In an exploration, you might not have a clear argument or thesis statement. Instead, you are showing that you understand how complex a thing is.
a. If a concept is singular, then a “framework” is a collection of concepts that help build a frame. Once a writer has a frame of concepts, they can continue to build upon it with their own ideas. Your professors might ask you to discuss an author’s particular framework. In doing so, you would try to identify all of the various concepts they weave together to build their frame. Similarly, if your professor suggests that your research project needs a more solid framework, they are telling you to make your research based on a more integrated and complete set of concepts. Perhaps you are relying too heavily on just one concept. Instead, you will need to strengthen your frame by making it more of a “work” and not just something made from a single piece or source.
a. This term is not widely used in the humanities. Instead, it is used in the sciences to identify an idea or theory that hasn’t been proven but does lead to further thinking, questioning, or discussion. In a humanities class, unless your topic is of a scientific nature, it would be strange in your thesis statement to write: “My hypothesis is X.”
a. “Inferring” is a great skill to practice. However, when you are doing textual analysis, sometimes inferring can get you into trouble. If your assignment asks you to analyze particular quotes within a particular context, you cannot simply infer additional information about the characters, the plot, or the themes of the narrative. Instead, you should stick to what is written and not bring in any assumptions beyond those words.
a. Everyone might “interpret” the meaning of a poem or the ending of a play or the moral of a story differently. And you might have heard some people say that there is “no wrong interpretation” of art. However, some interpretations are better than others. In fact, not all interpretations can be easily accepted. Your interpretation comes from the way the words of the story or the images you see connect with your own personal experience and how you perceive the world. When you share this interpretation with others, you need to help them see things the way you do. If you are unable to make these connections with your audience, they will have a hard time accepting your interpretation. If your interpretation is not grounded in personal experience nor in commonly shared views of the world, then it will be extremely difficult for others to understand how your interpretation makes sense in this context.
a. Writers have to “position” themselves with, between, and against other writers. When you analyze a non-fiction text, that text’s author probably agrees with certain others in their field and disagrees with more. If you analyze a character in a story, that character has probably positioned themselves to defend someone while attacking another. You yourself as a writer must show that you understand your position; you do not exist alone in your thoughts about a subject. You should show that you know who you agree with and that you know who is against you. You must consciously position yourself within the conversation that precedes your ideas and that will undoubtedly continue after your ideas are shared.
a. “Problems” are not bad; they give us an opportunity to rethink things and come up with solutions. However, when a professor says that a text is “problematic” or that someone’s reading of a text is “problematic,” most often they mean there is something bad about it.
a. Imagine trying to walk a mile or a few kilometers through a metropolitan city using a navigation app. You type in your destination, but when the app gives you your route, there is only one step: “walk until you reach your destination.” The route has turns and stops, but the app simply tells you to walk. You would be confused and frustrated, wouldn’t you? Similarly, when you write an essay, you need to tell your reader about the smaller steps and stops along the way to your ultimate destination. This signaling process is called “signposting.” When you signpost, you tell your reader what is coming up next, what follows that, what further follows, and what comes after that before arriving at the final destination. You do this in the thesis statement, in the topic sentences of paragraphs, and in the transition sentences of paragraphs. By letting your reader know where they are going before they start walking, they feel more comfortable. And by planning the route in advance, you as the guide feel more comfortable. Instead of just saying where you will arrive by the end of the essay, signpost and tell your reader all of the important stops you will make along the way to the ultimate destination.
a. When you “summarize” a text, your job is to pick out the important information for your usage and then to accurately and adequately restate that information in your own words. A summary is not the same as a quotation. When you summarize, you must take the information into your head, process it, and then re-present it in your own way. Summarizing well is an important skill to learn. Bad summaries can result in two major problems: inaccurate information and plagiarism questions.