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I am in the field of computer science (more specifically robotics), and as I am writing, I must actively avoid using the words "however", "therefore", etc... every few sentences. This is especially an issue in proofs, as I feel like every other sentence follows from the previous.

For example, I am tempted to write something like the following:

This constraint is satisfied because... However, if blah blah..., then blah blah. Therefore, something something. However,.... (and I can go on forever).

Often, I can just delete some of the "however" or replace "therefore" with words like "consequently". I can also sometimes change the wording to use "then", "so", or "but". However (see I can't even help myself), I feel compelled to use words like "however" to help with flow.

How can I avoid using words like "however" so many times? Is this bad writing? Is this normal?

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    FWIW, I struggled with this in my master's thesis. Especially with 'nested' howevers (in parentheses). I found the trick of letting it rest a day or two then proofing it afresh helped, but sometimes I was just pushing the issue to the next sentence. Some topics just are complex 🤷🏻‍♂️. – Lamar Latrell Dec 3 '20 at 23:13

11 Answers 11

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Let me suggest an alternate view. This is in regard to writing proofs and other very technical things. You want, above all, for your intent to be clear. It may be that "however" and "therefore" are the best available words and that they clearly express the flow of the argument.

After all, if you were writing the proof purely symbolically you would "overuse" certain logic symbols in order to be exact.

And, don't let "fancy words" get in the way of your readers deep dive into the ideas themselves. Sometimes the most obvious word is the one that is most quickly understood to express your intent. This might be especially important for those who know your subject, but are not native speakers of your language.

OTOH, I haven't actually seen your prose. If an editor or reviewer objects, then you can change it to suit, of course.

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    Are the first words of each of your paragraphs meant to be examples? – GoodDeeds Dec 1 '20 at 22:08
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    @Buffy However, we could assume they were. Therefore, your answer is a good example. – Pierre Arlaud Dec 2 '20 at 10:47
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    @PierreArlaud "We could assume they were, and your answer is a good example" works just as well. Use these linking words if you need them, but they can often be removed entirely. – Jack Aidley Dec 2 '20 at 11:07
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    Agreed. When reading articles, I am often confused by the author using different words for the same things. I get like "Wait, did I miss something, isn't he talking about the same as before?". If you feel the need to use the same word a hundred times in a row, please do exactly that and not switch around for fancyness. – MaxD Dec 2 '20 at 13:32
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    Great answer (+1), however using "OTOH" is a perfect example of a fancy expression that might confuse the reader. I am not a native speaker and don't know what it means. – Vincent Dec 2 '20 at 17:28
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It sounds to me like you're actually doing everything that you need to do already.

In fact, when you are initially writing a paper, I would suggest that you not worry about it at all. Write things as they come out most quickly and naturally, focusing only on conveying the substance of your argumentation.

Only at the very end, when you are polishing before submission, is it worth worrying about the wording. At that point, you can read the paper out loud to yourself and see if you start feeling repetitions or stumbling over sentence structure. Reading out loud is valuable because it slows you down and forces you to really hear what you have written. If your words feel uncomfortable when you read them out loud, then fix them just like you are doing already: deleting when you can, and substituting synonyms when you can't.

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    +1 for reading out loud! It's an incredibly effective trick for easily spotting things that can be surprisingly tricky to spot when just reading. – Carl-Fredrik Nyberg Brodda Dec 2 '20 at 15:26
  • (The exclamation mark is made to be read out loud, too) – Carl-Fredrik Nyberg Brodda Dec 2 '20 at 15:26
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    ARGH! Don't substitute synonyms just to avoid repetition. If I had a nickel for every time I had to puzzle over whether an "iteration" was the same as a "step" because the author felt they were overusing one of the words, I'd never have to work again. – Nobody Dec 2 '20 at 16:38
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    @Nobody Terms of art should not of course be varied, but connector prose like "however" and "therefore" most certainly can be. – jakebeal Dec 2 '20 at 17:48
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    @Michael My observation is that it's very easy for people, especially inexperienced writers, to get stuck on wording and fail to produce the core content. – jakebeal Dec 3 '20 at 15:07
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Aggressive Pruning

I agree with other answers that your repetition of however and therefore might not be a problem in this context. However, I would like to point out another option. These words are usually included as signposts for the reader, but do not change the meaning of the text. Therefore, I suggest omitting them. For example,

I agree with other answers that your repetition of however and therefore might not be a problem in this context. I would like to point out another option. These words are usually included as signposts for the reader, but do not change the meaning of the text. I suggest omitting them.

Just try removing the offending words in each sentence where you feel it might be getting repetitive. In most cases, you'll find you can remove "therefore" or "however" without impacting the argument. If the transition of ideas is jarring, leave the words in.

You mention that you remove instances like this already, but you may not be aggressive enough. In your question, you state

Often, I can just delete some of the "however" or replace "therefore" with words like "consequently". I can also sometimes change the wording to use "then", "so", or "but". However (see I can't even help myself), I feel compelled to use words like "however" to help with flow.

To me, the "however" in the last sentence is optional. You add it to emphasize contradiction with the previous statement. You could replace with

Unfortunately, I still feel compelled to use words like "however" to help with flow.

I would suggest an exercise where you remove all "however"s and "therefore"s and then wait an hour or so. After the wait, re-read your text and re-add the words where necessary. The time gap will give you time to forget where the words originally appeared and allow you to read with a fresh perspective. This should help with more aggressive pruning.

Rephrasing

As regards to synonyms, sometimes rephrasing the sentence works better than rarely used synonyms like "ergo". For example,

I agree with other answers that your repetition of however and therefore might not be a problem in this context. I would like to point out another alternative. These words are usually included as signposts for the reader, but do not change the meaning of the text. When this is the case, I suggest omitting them.

Rephrasing can also emphasize contradiction and support in the same way that "however" and "therefore" do. For rephrasing, the same exercise as above can help, but I also find proof-readers invaluable. They often find ways of stating the same thing more succinctly and elegantly because they have a fresh approach to the text.

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  • I'd heartily agree with the idea of trying out dropping these "connectors" entirely. The prose itself has a direction. Unless you start a new paragraph, most readers would (reasonably) assume that the next sentence follows in some way from the previous... – paul garrett Dec 2 '20 at 16:28
  • The example in the first paragraph is really cool (+1), but note that both of your examples from OP's question are actually about replacing rather than pruning. Sometimes there is no way of pruning without compromising on clarity. – lighthouse keeper Dec 2 '20 at 16:31
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I must actively avoid using the words "however", "therefore", etc... every few sentences

Says who? There is nothing wrong in repeating the same linking word every few sentences, in my view. Don't let the language majors guilt-trip you into thinking otherwise. That rule is way overrated.

If you are writing about matrices, you wouldn't look for synonyms to avoid repeating the word "matrix", would you? Just use the clearest and most appropriate words, and raise your threshold for how much repetition is 'unacceptable'. Unless every third word in your text is "however", I wouldn't worry.

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    To be fair, using the same (non-technical) word in every other sentence (barring obvious exceptions like "and", "so", "or"...) can make a paper unpleasant to read. Knowing a few synonyms (or using a thesaurus during later editing passes) is not a bad idea. – tomasz Dec 3 '20 at 19:17
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Consider the argument structure in the paper.

I find that I have the however/therefore problem when I'm writing in flow-of-consciousness narrative voice, rather than making an effort to structure my arguments.

So I write something like:

  • Premise P1
  • Therefore, Conclusion C1
  • However, Counterargument to C1
  • Premise P2
  • Therefore, Conclusion C2a
  • Therefore, Conclusion C2b
  • However, Counterargument to C2a
  • Therefore, Counterargument to C2b

Given this experience, here are some structural things I try to consider.

1) Give back-references.

Would "Therefore"/"However" be better replaced with a simplifying restatement of the point that the arguments are building upon or tearing down?

  • Premise P1
  • Given P1, Conclusion C1
  • Despite P1, Counterargument to C1
  • Premise P2
  • Given P2, Conclusion C2a
  • Given C2a, Conclusion C2b
  • Despite P2, Counterargument to C2a
  • Given C/C2a, Counterargument to C2b

2) Consider the flow of points.

Looking at the sequence of premises and arguments you have in the paper, is it the clearest way to communicate your point? Would it be better split into separate sections? Perhaps "premises/assumptions", "conclusions/inferences/extrapolations", and "counterarguments" sections?

  • Premises
    • Premise P1
    • Premise P2
  • Inferences
    • Given P1, Conclusion C1
    • Given P2, Conclusion C2a
    • Given C2a, Conclusion C2b
  • Counterarguments
    • Despite P1, Counterargument to C1
    • Despite P2, Counterargument to C2a
    • Given C/C2a, Counterargument to C2b

3) Maintain a consistent direction or thrust.

Heavy use of "however" may indicate that you're regularly flipflopping between each side of an argument, rather than presenting one side in full, then presenting the other in full.

4) Reserve them for building up or tearing down a point.

If you're using "therefore" in a way that doesn't build upon prior information to form a further conclusion, or "however" in a way that doesn't present a counterpoint, then examine why you're using it.

Compare this, which neither builds on, not provides a counterpoint, but appears to do both:

  • We gathered the data.
  • However, this was not easy, as we were in the field.
  • Therefore, we only took a few readings.

to this, which avoids that appearance:

  • We gathered only limited data, due to fieldwork limitations.

5) Don't thesaurize.

Contrary to other advice, I wouldn't advise trying to conceal this issue by changing the words to synonymous terms.

You can't build a good wood-framed house without knowing exactly what the solid foundational posts are, the exact position of all the beams from foundations to lintel, and exactly how the joints tie each one to another.

You can't write a good paper without knowing exactly what the solid foundational premises are, the exact position of all your conclusions from premises to final, and exactly how the arguments tie each one to another.

That means knowing when you really mean to use "therefore", rather than spackling over all your joints to hide them behind weak weasel-word phrases like "and", "so", "then", "but", "yet", "though".

Like a good joiner makes the joints a visible feature of their work, make those words a feature of your writing, calling out its structure.

6) OK, maybe sometimes thesaurize, but deliberately.

This is an edge case, but perhaps worth mentioning.

Sometimes, we use different bullets at different levels, to avoid confusion:

  1. blah
    • blah
    • blah
  2. blah

In a similar way, it can be useful to thesaurize in order to separate subarguments from the main argument flow. Be careful, it can end up a mess, but it's worth trying:

  • Premise P1
  • Therefore, from P1, Conclusion C1
    • Note as an aside that tangential premise Pt1
    • And so tangential conclusion Ct1
    • But tangential counterpoint to Ct1
  • Therefore, from C1, Conclusion C2
  • However, Counterargument to C2

It's almost always better to slice the tangent off into another section, an infobox, or even leave it out completely, though.

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Both are perfectly normal in academic writing. You can mix things up by using:

However

  • nevertheless
  • nonetheless
  • X notwithstanding
  • This is not always/seldom/never the case for...
  • ..., yet, ...

Therefore

  • Thus
  • Ergo
  • Hence
  • Accordingly
  • For this/that reason
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    Also see phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk for more options to express this and other common ideas in academic writing. – user3780968 Dec 2 '20 at 2:20
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    To be honest if I saw 'Ergo' in a text I would think the author is trying way too hard to sound fancy. – AccidentalTaylorExpansion Dec 2 '20 at 13:39
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    @AccidentalTaylorExpansion Cogito for this/that reason sum. – Carl-Fredrik Nyberg Brodda Dec 2 '20 at 15:27
  • @AccidentalTaylorExpansion: Or had watched The Matrix Reloaded too often. – J W Dec 4 '20 at 10:24
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Very often, you use a "however" because you're describing some developing process of thought. Thoughts change or turn to something else, and this reflects on earlier assertions. But a written document is not a speech - your text does not have to be chronological relative to your thought processes (certainly not relative to your original thought processes). You can also use structure and visual appearance in your writing, which an oral presentation can't have.

Let's take your example:

This constraint is satisfied because... However, if blah blah..., then blah blah.

You could make it:

Let us now consider the whatever constraint:

  • blah1 : The constraint is satisfied because ...
  • blah2 : blah blah

This is usually a good idea. But, as other answers point out, sometimes the "however" makes perfect sense and the narrative sounds reasonable/engaging/exciting with it in place.

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  • I like this a lot. The "looping" linear line of thought needs not be reproduced in the text which can be better structured (although I don't quite understand your example here). – Peter - Reinstate Monica Dec 3 '20 at 6:45
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EDIT: My answer here does not directly address your problem, but I see it is useful to look for synonyms sometimes, at least we avoid to use same words repeatedly.

I would suggest to consider this website to find synonyms (www.thesaurus.com). For example, I have looked for synonyms of "therefore".

enter image description here

As you can see in the results, there are a number of synonyms, sorted by relevance. You can check the meaning of each word by clicking on it. You can also see examples showing how the words are used in sentences.

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    Using a thesaurus for academic writing is a very bad idea. If the author is not sufficiently familiar with alternative word choices to pick them on their own, it is likely that the reader is not overly familiar with them either. Academic English is supposed to be very simple. – Arno Dec 2 '20 at 10:27
  • I mean the writer should not choose like a machine. Other dictionaries (e.g., OALD) are essential to check the meaning of the word before using in a particular context. – TrungDung Dec 2 '20 at 10:36
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    @Arno: It often happens to me that I have to look up "simple words" and then remember, hey, there is this simple world I am familiar with. Definitely words I would understand when I reas them. – user111388 Dec 2 '20 at 11:12
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    @Arno "Using a thesaurus for academic writing is a very bad idea" I don't think so. – KratosMath Dec 2 '20 at 13:29
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    Blindly using a thesaurus for academic writing is a very bad idea, but it's not because academic writing should be simple. It's because synonyms have similar meanings, but not exactly the same meaning, and academic writing should be precise. You shouldn't use a synonym to avoid repetition; you should use a synonym iff it more precisely matches the meaning you want. – Ray Dec 2 '20 at 16:14
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This is an answer that could be applied to almost any question about writing style, and may get dinged for that, but I'm going to add it anyway: Look for examples to follow. When you read papers, take note of ones that are a pleasure to read, and then read them again to see how they do it. People have given some good answers with examples, and I think they are helpful, but they are made-up examples. It's really valuable to see how actual problems of exposition have been solved in ways that are clear and satisfying to you. Maybe they turn out to use "however" rather frequently, and maybe they don't. You will learn from what you see.

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  • In writing as with all performances: That which looks easiest is in fact the most accomplished. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Dec 3 '20 at 6:47
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In other answers, people have suggested using synonyms, rephrasing, or omitting the conjunctions. I would like to add some extra insight on this.

I believe that “however” and “therefore” should be treated differently.

However” serves the important purpose of preparing the reader for a contradiction or a problem that will arise following the conjunction. Therefore, it is hard to omit. The solution for avoiding the overuse of “however” is to use synonyms or to rephrase the sentence.

As for “therefore”, it shows that the next phrase or sentence follows from the previous one, and it can often be omitted. Of course, the other options are also possible.

Example

I will illustrate with a random example I came up with:

The constraint is satisfied because the Σ-value is 1.5. However, we need to be careful since the standard deviation was quite high. Therefore, the experiment needs to be repeated for improved reliability.

I recommend repeating the experiment while changing the value of Ψ to 3 so that the results will be compatible. However, setting Ψ to 3 might affect the consistency of the results due to Ω being 5. Therefore, I also recommend changing Ω to 4. This solves the consistency problem, however, precautions should be taken since this value for Ω is quite low.

Now, I will rewrite this text without using “however” and “therefore” at all. You don’t need to go this far in reality.

The constraint is satisfied because the Σ-value is 1.5. Although this is within the acceptable range, we need to be careful since the standard deviation was quite high. For this reason, the experiment needs to be repeated for improved reliability.

I recommend repeating the experiment while changing the value of Ψ to 3 so that the results will be compatible. This introduces a new problem, where setting Ψ to 3 might affect the consistency of the results due to Ω being 5. Since this may undermine the experiment, I also recommend changing Ω to 4. This solves the consistency problem, but precautions should be taken since this value for Ω is quite low.

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An option is to use grammar checking tools. Most LaTeX editors do not include this, but you could, for example, copy & paste a paragraph into a word processor and see what synonyms it suggests.
I also have good experience with Grammarly, but it isn't cheap and may not be worth it. But it both tries to tell you when your text is repetitive, and you can click words to see synonyms. Just really make sure that you do not blindly accept and suggestions, as it sometimes wants to replace technical terms with something that's no synonym in that context. On the other hand, it works well with LaTeX, which is a big plus.
In the end, I think some online thesaurus and word processor features are suitable for native speakers. Non-native speakers may consider using a more costly tool, especially when your reviewers notice that you're not a native speaker.

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