Monthly Archives: November 2014

Scholarly language and writing


By Jim Goes and Marilyn Simon

Language Matters. One of the most common problems we see in mentoring doctoral students is also one of the most basic elements of being a scholar—writing and expressing oneself in a scholarly manner.  Being a scholar does not mean your writing must be full of long winded sentences or stuffy, obscure words.  Rather, being scholarly means being open and unbiased in tone and language.  This is essential in conducting and communicating honest, objective, and influential research.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when writing for a doctoral committee or an academic audience is to be open and non-judgmental in your language.  Never presuppose the outcome of a study.  Your dissertation or doctoral study proposal may involve speculating about relationships between variables, or discovering new patterns in data, but except for specific hypotheses that will be tested formally, you should never use language that suggests you think or know what the outcome of the research will be. You need to be tentative regarding how the findings from your study could influence policies and actions. Using words like ‘could’ or ‘might’ demonstrate ontological humility as opposed to using the word ‘will.’ The word ‘best’ means unparalleled, optimum, incomparable, ideal, and can be construed as hyperbolic. It is not possible to validate the term ‘best.’

Phrases like “this research will prove that X and Y are related”, or “the study will demonstrate the importance of A and B in relation to C” are indications of bias towards a specific outcome, regardless of what the data indicate!

Instead, all researchers, particularly doctoral students, should be open in their perspective and cautious in their inferences about a particular outcome for the study.  Here are a few examples:

Wrong: “The proposed study will prove that Variable A is related to Variable B”

Right: “The proposed study will be used to determine whether Variable A and Variable B are related”

Wrong:  The study will generate evidence that women are more effective at child rearing than men.”

Right: “The proposed study may generate evidence about differences in child rearing effectiveness between men and women.”

The scholarly writer “hedges” their language, using terms like “may”, “could”, “might”, “suggest”, “imply”, etc.

See the links below for further suggestions about how to be an honest and persuasive scholarly writer, and remember to get on the scholarly writing BOAT: Your writing needs be Balanced, Objective, Accurate, and Tentative.


The Importance of Tone in Scholarly Writing

Scholarly Writing

Scholarly Voice