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I'm working on a paper and found myself using certain words very frequently. For instance, the word "condition" or "study" or "group" or "participants" or "the results suggested"....?

I mean I was just looking at a paragraph and realized I had used the word condition 14 times!

Do you have a list of synonyms you use so as not to be repetitive? I've never been good at writing, so I'm finding this very frustrating. Thanks for your help.

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8 Answers 8

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For instance, the word "condition" or "study" or "group" or "participants" or "the results suggested"....?

Synonyms in technical writing are not always good. If you have been calling your groups "conditions" in the entire paper, switching to calling them "groups" or "categories" would be jarring. Are you referring to something else now? I would stop and scan back to figure out what you are talking about. Same for "study" or "participants."

You might have a bit more wiggle room with "the results suggested." Recall though, that most papers are not read beginning to end. It should be clear what you are referring to for someone to pick up your paper, find the paragraph they want, and get the information they need.

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    I strongly agree. Please don't use different words to refer to the same thing in order to have more variety in the language. It is confusing as it makes the reader wonder if you are talking about something different.
    – toby544
    Jan 12 at 8:22
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    This is good advice, but does not prevent the problem. The repetitions may be present because of an underlying problem with the writing. It may still be possible to avoid the repetitions by changing the structure of the sentences. OP should consult a native speaker or a more experienced writer.
    – Louic
    Jan 12 at 16:39
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    @toby544 in fact, let's liven up equations at the same time. Why would we always use the same symbol to mean the same thing? Booooring. There's no reason the gravitational constant has to be 'G'; why not make it 'Q' this time, or even 'Bob'? The novelty will help hold readers' attention.
    – fectin
    Jan 12 at 19:04
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    There's a difference between terminology, whether established by and for the paper itself or more broadly, and the general language in which the paper is expressed. The former should be used consistently, but a certain degree of variety in the latter makes the paper easier and less tedious to read. Moreover, to the extent (which varies) that one is at liberty to choose one's own terms, there is an art to choosing terms that -- used consistently -- contribute to the paper's readability. Jan 12 at 19:45
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    @Louic I don't see any evidence OP isn't a native speaker? Jan 13 at 15:17
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At least in math and STEM fields, it would seem difficult to avoid repetition of keywords without damaging the meaning!

In a STEM context, especially mathematics, I'd strongly recommend just saying, literally, what you assert. Don't try to be "cute" or any other rhetorical device (unless you're a bit more senior, and know your audience, and know what you're doing).

c. 1978, I asked Serge Lang about what seemed to me a very repetitive use of "thus" and "then" in others' and my own mathematical writing. It was a minor revelation to me when he told me to worry about bigger things, and not to avoid that. :)

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    and not to avoid that. :) -- The story sounds better ending with "and then said thus one need not avoid that. :)". Jan 12 at 14:14
  • @DaveLRenfro But... but... "then" and "thus" and "that" all sound so similar :(
    – MaxD
    Jan 12 at 16:36
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    The advantage of clear writing far outweighs the disadvantage of repeated words.
    – GEdgar
    Jan 12 at 17:07
  • @MaxD Then use a different word. Swap “thus” for “hence”, and “then” for either “therefore” or “so that” (depending on the intended meaning) – but don't try to alternate.
    – wizzwizz4
    Jan 12 at 18:37
  • @DaveLRenfro: Thus saith Serge Lang then.
    – user21820
    Jan 13 at 15:12
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To echo, but also to supplement what others have said: clarity comes first; but for me producing nice-to-read prose is also an important criterion. If you do it right, then these two demands will go hand in hand; but if they don't, then clarity and precision should not be compromised on.

And yeah, writing well is very hard!

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If you are referring to the same thing(s), use the same term.

This isn't creative fiction writing, or dramatic historical writing. Your readers want to understand quickly, clearly, and unambiguously.

You can help by ensuring they don't have to stop, backtrack to figure stuff out.

If you called them a sample, then every time you refer to the same thing/s or people, call them a sample again. If you called some set of people a group, use the term "group" every time you discuss something similar, such as that or a parallel group. If you refer to a study in a paper in 2018, then use the word study for an equivalent study in a paper in 1993. And so on.

(At most, check if you can condense a bit. If its obvious what you mean, can you use "that/it/those condition(s)", instead of "the above/the same condition", for example?)

You get points for clarity, unambiguity and ease of fast reading. You get points docked for making readers have to work out if the "group" of people in section 2 is the same as the "set", "study population", or "target cohort" of people in section 3.

Similarly, you get points docked if you use the word condition in section 4 para 3, but a different synonym for the same kinda thing in section 4 para 4.

Using that term 14 times means you saved your reader 13 occasions of having to check what it meant and learn a new group, subset, criteria or whatever, to understand your work.

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If you have a tendency to use a certain word or phrase very frequently, you can come across as a more eloquent writer or speaker, and your writing can flow better, if you actively try to limit your use of that word or term.

But this applies to English/language in general and I wouldn't worry about this when writing a research paper any more than I usually do (but I'm usually semi-formal and fairly pedantic about my use of language). The goal of a research paper is to clearly convey the methods, data and results of some research. Eloquence and well-flowing text is easier and more pleasant to read, which is helpful, but this is secondary to clarity (it doesn't help to have a paper with text that's easy to read, but where the actual research isn't understood or it's misunderstood).

Using synonyms is one way to avoid the overuse of certain words, but, like others have mentioned, you can't necessarily do this in a technical research paper. It can cause confusion to use different terms for the same thing and often it would be more clear to just stick to the same word. If you were replacing e.g. "likely" with "probably", that's much less likely to cause an issue, given that different instances of those words are typically not so closely linked (although they do mean slightly different things).

Rephrasing is another way to avoid word overuse. You could possibly avoid reusing a word by combining sentences. Although long sentences tend to be more confusing, so try not to overdo it.

Using pronouns like "it", "this", "them", etc. is also a common technique to avoid word reuse. Although this may also lead to more confusing sentences, as it's not always clear which noun a pronoun is referring to, so approach with caution.

As an example, this would sound very unnatural (not only due to the repetition of "equation"):

The equation is based Newton's laws. The equation was determined in consultation with leading experts. But no-one fully understands why the equation works.

It can be rephrased to something like the below, which sounds much better.

The equation is based Newton's laws and was determined in consultation with leading experts. But no-one fully understands why it works.

But you'll need to figure out how to do this (if it's even possible or a good idea) largely on a case-by-case basis.

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    Given the unavoidable presence of statistics and probability in almost all of experimental science, I'd avoid using the word "probably" without reason. I also would be very wary of pronouns. It might be obvious to you what a pronoun is referring to. But it's not going to be obvious to the reader. Having to determine which word in the previous sentence is referred to by "it" or "this" or "that" in the current sentence is just one extra layer of obfuscation.
    – Stef
    Jan 12 at 15:36
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    @Stef Banning pronouns is a ridiculous idea. "Probably" is a common and useful word, and can easily be used without readers getting confused about whether it refers to a probability.
    – toby544
    Jan 12 at 19:04
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    @toby544 There is nothing ridiculous about using explicit words. That doesn't mean banning pronouns. Just be wary, and don't be afraid of repetitions. In case of doubt, always prefer an explicit word.
    – Stef
    Jan 13 at 0:26
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I second the recommendation to minimize the search for synonyms. Azor Ahai -him- explains the reason very well.

My first bit of advice would be to go back and look at papers you thought were especially clear, and see what they did. Of course you can't copy their wording, but you can learn from how they phrased things. This is a big part of becoming a better writer.

My second thought is that, if you are using the same word 14 times in one paragraph, then it may be organized poorly. If the groups are in the hot condition and the cold condition, then maybe you are ping-ponging back and forth between talking about those two conditions more than you need to. Perhaps you can list some properties of one condition, and then the other.

Clarity, however, is the rule. Ideally, reorganizing the paragraph will actually make it clearer. Sometimes trying to rephrase things to satisfy some arbitrary-seeming constraint will lead you to come up with wordings you otherwise would have missed. But if you are losing clarity, go back to what you had before.

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I do worry about that indeed, but it depends on the part of the paper these repetitions are encountered in.

In Materials and methods, the language would be very dry and precise, and sentences terse. Does one need to worry about having 20 instances of "bolt" on a single page of a furniture assembly instruction? I believe not.

In the more free-form parts, however, you might want to avoid these repetitions. Again, this does not have to do with substituting technical terms, rather rephrasing the whole thing if it does not sound fluent or eloquent enough.

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Don't use synonyms to avoid repetition. It may create an impression that two different words refer to two different things. This might be confusing, especially for the readers who don't know the language very well.

Synonyms often have only similar meaning, not exactly the same. Searching for synonyms can help to find a word to describes something the most precisely. But if you exchange synonyms at random, you disregard part of the meaning and add noise to your message.

As Mark suggested, excessive repetition may signalize there is some other area where you can improve your writing.

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