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Writing Basics

Avoiding Vague Language in Academic Writing

 

Dr. Danny M. D’Amore, Publications and Marketing Specialist

November 2021


What is considered “vague” in academic writing?

Vague language is imprecise, fuzzy, or inexact, often leading the reader to make guesses or assumptions about the author’s intended meaning. Importantly, vague language may be viewed as misleading by the reader or audience, and thus using specific and direct language is essential in scientific writing.

Science is often a very precise activity, in which measurements are taken and recorded, and data is critically analyzed. Reports on scientific studies should be concise, accurate, detailed, and as rigorous as possible to reflect the work itself that has been performed. Vague language can creep into a manuscript for many reasons, such as the author’s familiarity with their own work. In other words, an author may forget their audience is not as well-versed in their specific niche and may leave out details that readers would consider important. While brevity is often valued, going so far as to remove detail for overly general statements will reduce the quality of the manuscript.

Below we offer some examples of vague language as well as examples of how to revise the writing to reflect the intended meaning more accurately .

Vague: Many rats were used in each group.
Problem: How many rats were used? Were the same number of rats used in each group? How many groups were there?
Detailed: Six rats were used in the control group, and six rats were used in the treatment group.

Vague: The sediment was collected after it fell out of solution, and then it was washed three times.
Problem: What was washed, the sediment or the solution?
Detailed: After falling out of the solution, the sediment was collected and then washed three times.

Vague: The response in Trial 1 was greater than the response in Trial 2.
Problem: How ‘great’ was this difference? Was it minimal or large? Was it statistically significant?
Detailed: The positive response in Trial 1 (11/16, 69%) was significantly higher than the positive response in Trial 2 (6/16, 38%) (p < 0.05).

We note that these answers might appear obvious to the researcher writing the manuscript, but it is much more difficult for the reader to interpret what the author might intend. This is especially critical when describing methods and results. The purpose of the methods is to be so clear that any method used could be repeated by another research group, if desired. Similarly, results should be explicit, so readers are able to interpret them on their own without reaching out to the author.

Some common words that are often used in vague scientific statements include they, it, them, these, and those. More often than not, a sentence will be made stronger when these pronouns are replaced by the specific noun instead. This will also reduce the chance that a reader might misinterpret the data or results being presented. It is also important to be specific regarding comparisons (more, less, greater, larger, and smaller); when making a comparison, it must always be specified what is being compared to what. For example:

Vague: Trial 1 had a greater positive response.
Clearer: The response in Trial 1 was greater than the response in Trial 2.
Detailed: The positive response in Trial 1 (11/16, 69%) was significantly higher than the positive response in Trial 2 (6/16, 38%) (p < 0.05).

While there are several levels of detail that can be achieved in scientific writing, we note that generality is not always a problem. The key is to know when your readers will need specific details and when they will not, and to tailor your manuscript accordingly.

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