Misused words in academic writing


In the realm of academic writing, navigating the complexities of misused words is necessary for clarity and accuracy. This article serves as a guide to some of the most often misused words in English, offering insights into their correct application. By focusing on these misused words, we aim to improve the clarity and effectiveness of your writing. Misused words, if not addressed, can lead to confusion and weaken the impact of academic arguments.

Among the misused words we will explore are ‘research,’ which often gets trapped in its noun and verb forms, and ‘however,’ a word with dual meanings that can dramatically change a sentence’s tone. Additionally, this guide will cover other commonly misused words such as ‘Principal vs. Principle’ and ‘Compliment vs. Complement,’ clearing light on their proper usage. For academics and students alike, understanding these misused words is key to preparing clear, compelling, and accurate scholarly work. Join us in solving the complexities of these misused words, guaranteeing your academic writing is both powerful and precise.


Research is a frequently misused word in academic writing, as it functions as both a noun and a verb. This dual role often leads to confusion among writers.

Examples of correct usage include:

  • “I engage in research on renewable energy.”
  • “I research ancient civilizations.”

A common error is using ‘researches’ as a plural noun. However, ‘research’ is an uncountable noun, similar to ‘information’ or ‘equipment,’ and does not have a plural form. The correct usage of ‘researches’ is only as a third-person singular verb.

Example 1:

  • Incorrect: “She conducts various researches on marine biology.”
  • Correct: “She researches marine biology.”

To correct this misuse, one should use ‘research’ as a singular term or opt for a countable alternative like ‘experiments’ or ‘studies.’

Example 2:

  • Incorrect: “The paper discusses several researches into quantum physics.”
  • Correct: “The paper discusses several studies in quantum physics.”

By understanding and applying these differences, the accuracy and professionalism of academic writing can be significantly improved. This section aims to clarify these nuances, making sure the term ‘research’ is among the misused words no longer confuse writers.

Misused words: The dual use of ‘However’

The word ‘however’ is an excellent example in the category of misused words in academic writing due to its dual meanings. It can function either as a contrasting tool similar to ‘but,’ or to indicate a degree or manner, as in ‘in whatever way.’

Identifying the correct use of ‘however’ depends on punctuation. When used to contrast, ‘however’ usually comes after a semicolon or a period and is followed by a comma. In contrast, when ‘however’ is used to express ‘in any way’ or ‘to whatever extent,’ it does not require a comma following it.

Examples to illustrate:

  • Incorrect: “He enjoys classical music, however, rock is not to his taste.”
  • Correct: “He enjoys classical music; however, rock is not to his taste.”
  • Incorrect: “She would attend the meeting; however she could arrange it.”
  • Correct: “She would attend the meeting however she could arrange it.”

In the first correct example, ‘however’ introduces a contrast. In the second, it indicates the way in which an action is to be carried out. Understanding and applying these differences can greatly improve the clarity and accuracy of academic writing, helping to steer clear of common mistakes with this adaptable yet often misused word.


Who vs. that

A common error in the realm of misused words involves the confusion between ‘who’ and ‘that.’ In academic writing, it’s important to use ‘who’ when directing to people, and ‘that’ when referring to objects or things.

Examples to highlight the difference:

  • Incorrect: “The author that wrote the groundbreaking study was honored.”
  • Correct: “The author who wrote the groundbreaking study was honored.”
  • Incorrect: “The scientist that made the significant discovery was interviewed.”
  • Correct: “The scientist who made the significant discovery was interviewed.”

Understanding this difference is important as it not only improves the grammatical accuracy but also the readability and professionalism of your writing. This clarification is key in avoiding misused words that can affect how credible your academic work appears.

This/these vs. that/those

In academic writing, the demonstrative pronouns ‘this/these’ and ‘that/those’ are also often misused words. The key difference lies in the sense of distance they convey. ‘This’ and ‘these’ suggest something close or recently talked about, while ‘that’ and ‘those’ point to something more distant or not mentioned just now.

Consider these examples:

  • Incorrect: “The theory explained in the book, those ideas are revolutionary.”
  • Correct: “The theory explained in the book, these ideas are revolutionary.”
  • Incorrect: “In the previous chapter, that argument was thoroughly analyzed.”
  • Correct: “In the previous chapter, this argument was thoroughly analyzed.”
  • Incorrect: “The experiments conducted last year, this data has changed our understanding.”
  • Correct: “The experiments conducted last year, those data have changed our understanding.”

Correctly using ‘this/these’ and ‘that/those’ is essential for clarity. These words help in pinpointing the subject’s position in time or space. ‘This’ and ‘these’ refer to subjects that are immediate or just mentioned, improving the reader’s connection to the topic. On the other hand, ‘that’ and ‘those’ are used for subjects from earlier discussions or further in context. Properly using these words is crucial in academic writing to support clear and effective communication, steering clear of the common errors associated with these often misused words.

Who vs. whom

Correctly using ‘who’ and ‘whom’ is vital and often a point of confusion. Use ‘who’ in sentences where it can be replaced with ‘he’ or ‘she.’ ‘Whom’ should be used in places where ‘him’ or ‘her’ would fit, especially after prepositions like ‘to,’ ‘with,’ or ‘from.’

In terms of grammar, ‘who’ is the subject (the one doing the action) of the sentence, while ‘whom’ serves as the object (the one receiving the action).

Example 1: Subject vs. Object

  • Incorrect: “The woman whom won the award was honored at the ceremony.” (Her won the award)
  • Correct: “The woman who won the award was honored at the ceremony.” (She won the award)

Example 2: Following a Preposition

  • Incorrect: “The teacher, who they admired, received an award.” (They admired he)
  • Correct: “The teacher, whom they admired, received an award.” (They admired him)

Example 3: In Complex Sentences

  • Incorrect: “The athlete in who the coach saw potential excelled.” (The coach saw he)
  • Correct: “The athlete in whom the coach saw potential excelled.” (The coach saw him)

Understanding the correct usage of ‘who’ and ‘whom’ improves the accuracy and formality of academic writing, addressing one of the key misused words in scholarly contexts. This knowledge is instrumental in ensuring grammatical accuracy and clarity in communicating ideas.


Which vs. that

The confusion between ‘which’ and ‘that’ often arises from not understanding the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. Restrictive clauses, essential to the meaning of a sentence, use ‘that.’ Nonrestrictive clauses provide additional, non-essential information and typically use ‘which,’ marked by commas in American English.

Example 1: Restrictive clause

  • Incorrect: “The car which has a sunroof is faster.” (Implies all cars with sunroofs are faster)
  • Correct: “The car that has a sunroof is faster.” (Specifies a particular car)

Example 2: Nonrestrictive clause

  • Incorrect: “The novel that I bought yesterday was a bestseller.” (Implies the timing of the purchase is crucial)
  • Correct: “The novel, which I bought yesterday, was a bestseller.” (Additional detail about the novel)

Example 3: UK English usage

In UK English, ‘which’ can be used for both, but the use of commas still applies to nonrestrictive clauses.

  • “The building, which was renovated recently, has won awards.” (Nonrestrictive, UK English)

Understanding the correct application of ‘which’ and ‘that’ in these contexts is a key aspect of avoiding misused words.

Affect vs. effect

The words ‘affect’ and ‘effect’ are frequently misused in academic writing due to their similar pronunciation. They can function as both a noun and a verb but have different meanings.

Example 1: Verb usage

  • Incorrect: “The weather effected our plans for the day.” (Implies the weather resulted in our plans)
  • Correct: “The weather affected our plans for the day.” (‘Affect’ as a verb means to influence)

‘Affect’ as a verb means to influence or make a difference, while ‘effect’ as a noun refers to the result or outcome of an action.

Example 2: Noun usage

  • Incorrect: “The new policy had a positive affect on the community.” (Uses ‘affect’ incorrectly as a noun)
  • Correct: “The new policy had a positive effect on the community.” (‘Effect’ as a noun refers to the outcome)

In certain cases, ‘effect’ is used as a verb meaning to cause something to happen.

Example 3: ‘Effect’ as a verb

  • Incorrect: “The manager affected changes in the department.” (Suggests the manager influenced changes)
  • Correct: “The manager effected changes in the department.” (‘Effect’ as a verb means to bring about changes)

Additionally, ‘affect’ can be a noun in psychological contexts, referring to a shown or noticed emotional response.

Example 4: ‘Affect’ in psychology

  • “The patient’s flat affect was a concern to the therapist.” (Here, ‘affect’ as a noun refers to emotional expression)

This knowledge guarantees precision in describing cause-effect relationships and emotional states in various academic fields.

Principal vs. Principle

The words ‘principal’ and ‘principle’ are often misused in scholarly writing, despite having different meanings. ‘Principal,’ used as a noun, typically refers to a person in a leading position, such as the head of a school, or describes the most important item or aspect in a group. On the other hand, ‘principle’ represents a fundamental truth, law, rule, or standard.

Example 1: ‘Principal’ as a noun

  • Incorrect: “The main principal of the theory is easy to understand.”
  • Correct: “The principal of the school addressed the students.” (‘Principal’ in this context addresses a person in a leading position)

Example 2: ‘Principle’ as a fundamental concept

  • Incorrect: “She adhered to her main principal of honesty.”
  • Correct: “She adhered to her main principle of honesty.”

‘Principle’ is used to represent a fundamental truth, law, rule, or standard.

By carefully differentiating between ‘principal’ and ‘principle,’ writers can avoid common errors in academic writing, improving the clarity and professionalism of their work. These words, while similar in sound, carry very different purposes and are essential to use correctly as they are frequently misused words.


Compliment vs. Complement

The final pair of often misused words we will discuss are ‘compliment’ and ‘complement.’ While they sound similar, each word has a unique meaning, and confusing them can greatly change the message of a sentence.

Example 1: ‘Compliment’ as praise

‘Compliment’ refers to an expression of praise or admiration. Here, ‘compliment’ is used to indicate a positive remark made about someone’s presentation.

  • Incorrect: “She received a nice complement on her presentation.”
  • Correct: “She received a nice compliment on her presentation.”

Example 2: ‘Complement’ as an addition

‘Complement’ means something that completes or improves something else. In this case, ‘complement’ is used to express how his skills effectively complete or improve the team’s dynamics.

  • Incorrect: “His skills are a great compliment to the team.”
  • Correct: “His skills are a great complement to the team.”

Be careful to guarantee that your words accurately describe your intended meaning.

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This guide has clarified the complex area of commonly misused words in academic writing. We’ve explored language’s tricky aspects that often lead to confusion, equipping you with the knowledge to overcome such challenges. Grasping these nuances is not just about academic precision; it’s about enhancing your communication and ensuring your writing effectively represents your thoughts and ideas. As you continue your academic journey, keep these lessons in mind to improve the clarity and accuracy of your work, making every word count towards your scholarly work.

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