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Cautious language

In this article Jonathan discusses the use of using cautious language in academic writing.

In the academic world knowledge is socially constructed, that is to say that for new ideas or knowledge to be widely accepted, substantial evidence has to be provided and where possible, findings for research need to be validated with further research conducted in different contexts.

For this reason, try avoid claiming “this is true and everyone agrees” and instead suggest “this seems to be true, but more research is needed to confirm this.” This is called cautious (or tentative) language. Here are some more examples.

Don’ts Do’s
All international students have problems adjusting to a different culture” “International students may have problems adjusting to a different culture”
Everyone knows that the first Europeans to visit America were Vikings” There is general agreement that the first Europeans to visit America were Vikings”
“The results prove that class size is the most significant factor affecting student performance.” “The results suggest that class size is a significant factor affecting student performance.”

From the examples, you can see the ways this is done by:

  • using a suitable modal verbs (eg can, could, may, might, should…)

  • using a suitable reporting verb (eg claim, suggest, assert, maintain, argue)

  • avoiding words like “all, everyone” (unless this is actually true).

These examples all have slightly different meanings and express different degree of cautiousness, so make sure you really understand their differences in meaning before you use them.

Please note that you can still make bold claims, if they are justified. For example, “Smoking tobacco is clearly bad for your health” is better than “There is some evidence to suggest that smoking may be bad for your health”.

Here is some more cautious language that you can use, presented in context so that you can see how they fit into a sentence:

  • As people get older, they tend to have more difficulty remembering things.

  • There is a growing tendency for women to have children later in life.

  • Young drivers are more likely to have accidents than older ones.

  • The situation is unlikely to improve.

Vocabulary

Informal or imprecise language tends to be avoided in academic writing.

Don’ts Do’s
Many kids find it difficult to adjust to a new school. Many children find it difficult to adjust to a new school.
The results were very good. The results were very positive.
There were lots of problems with the engine overheating. There were many problems with the engine overheating.
These crops don’t require the use of as much pesticide These crops do not require the use of as much pesticide.
The students made big improvements in their reading skills. The students made significant improvements in their reading skills.
Private cars are more convenient than public transport. Private cars offer more privacy and comfort than public transport, and in most cases save you time.
© University of Reading
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