Ask any teacher who has ever spent every single minute of a beautiful weekend grading student essays and he or she will tell you this: In the garden that is student writing, certain “weeds” pop up again and again, and yes, again. These words and phrases—we’ll just call them bad writing habits—obscure meaning and undermine even the strongest argument. Every year, teachers work hard to eradicate these should-be-outlawed phrases, yet still they persist.
So we decided to make a list of the worst offenders. We asked middle- and high-school teachers: “What are the phrases in student writing that make you cringe, wail, and gnash your teeth?” From hundreds of responses, we narrowed it down to a carefully chosen list of Outlawed Words and Phrases.
(Click here to download and print a mini-poster version for your classroom).
Throughout the whole of history…
Example: “Since the beginning of time, countries have fought in wars.”
Why It’s Outlawed: These statements are vague, hyperbolic, and very difficult to prove as we have no historical reports on the moment time began.
Hi, my name is ______, and I am going to tell you about …
This paragraph is about…
Example: “Hi, My name is Bryce and I am going to tell you about cell reproduction.”
Why It’s Outlawed: Just tell us. Don’t tell us what you’re going to tell us or write how you’re going to write about it. If using phrases like these help you to get started on a draft, that’s fine. Just remember to remove them before submitting your final version.
Example: “Benjamin Franklin was a very fascinating man.”
Why It’s Outlawed:Very is a word that is often over-used. Be sure you are adding meaning, not It weakening the point you are trying to make. Cross it out!
Example: “The War of 1812 was kind of an important turning point in the history of the United States.”
Why It’s Outlawed: Using “kind of” and “sort of” makes you sound unsure of your argument. Was it an important turning point or wasn’t it? And sorta isn’t a word at all.
Example: “A wise man once said: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”
Why It’s Outlawed: Who is this “wise man” you speak of? If you can find the source, identify it. If you are quoting a commonly used idiom or cliché, chances are you should cross it out and use your own words instead.
Example: “Macbeth and Lady Macbeth decide to murder King Duncan. The reason why is because they want Macbeth to become the next king.”
Why It’s Outlawed: The phrase “the reason why is because” is grammatically incorrect and unnecessary. Cross out these four words, “The reason why is,” and combine the remaining words with the previous sentence to make one sentence. Then, re-read the sentence. It still makes sense, doesn’t it?
Example: “It’s just my opinion but I think Teddy Roosevelt was a better president and leader than Franklin D. Roosevelt.”
Why It’s Outlawed: Own it! The whole point of an essay is to express your point of view. Delete this timid phrase and any others like it.
Example: “The Supreme Court made like the wrong decision in Bush vs. Gore. Like the course of history was decided by a hanging chad.”
Why It’s Outlawed: If the word like appears in your writing and it is not used as a verb (“to like”) or as a synonym for “similar to,” remove it immediately. Enough said.
Example: “There were a lot of things wrong with the way the Southern states viewed slavery.”
Why It’s Outlawed: Most of the time, there’s a more specific and accurate word than things you could use in your writing that would strengthen your argument. In the case of the example, a good writer would look for a more powerful word or phrase that means “things wrong with” such as faults, errors, or defects.
…And that’s what my paper was about.
Example: “I hoped you liked my essay about why kangaroos are dangerous. Thanks for reading.”
Why It’s Outlawed: Your conclusion is your last opportunity to persuade your reader not to beg your reader to like you.
Example: “The ending of The Diary of Anne Frank was so sad OMG.”
Why It’s Outlawed:Text-speak does not belong in a formal essay. Such acronyms and abbreviations are general and vague. Expressing outrage in writing demands more than an “OMG” and joy should be represented more than by a smiley face. OMG and LOL have no place in writing. Unless, of course, you want your teacher to LOL!
Teachers: Download the Poster of these Outlaws and then tell us: What phrase do you come across in student writing that belongs on this list?
Classroom Poster: Phrases to Outlaw in Students’ Writing
Ask any teacher who has ever spent every single minute of a beautiful weekend grading student essays and he or she will tell you this: In the garden that is student writing, certain “weeds” pop up again and again, and yes, again. Every year, teachers work hard to eradicate these should-be-outlawed phrases, yet still they persist. So we decided to make a list of the worst offenders. We asked middle- and high-school teachers: “What are the phrases in student writing that make you cringe, wail, and gnash your teeth?” From hundreds of responses, we narrowed it down to a carefully chosen list of Outlawed Words and Phrases.
Download it now, and put to use with your students. Here are three great ways:
- Editing Guide: Print or photocopy individual 8 1/2” x 11” copies for your students to place in their writing notebooks or binders. Have students refer to it as they edit their own essays or in peer editing.
- “Outlawed Phrases” Bulletin Board: Print the poster and place it in the center of a bulletin board. As you and your students come across more phrases to “outlaw,” write them on strips of paper and add them to your bulletin board display.
- Flip It!: Share the poster with your students and challenge them to create their own list of 11 rules for powerful essays.