I think many here have had the experience of seeing a paper that uses grammar dramatically different than its student author has shown in the past, and naturally questioning the authorship follows. But what about when the student uses a single word or short phrase that is out of character? Is that sufficient to justify doubting the authorship? Is it appropriate to suspect plagiarism based on correct usage of a single word by a student who never (in your direct experience) used this word/phrase before? Should we make allowances for age (do older people know more words?) or native language (does this improve or diminish vocabulary?) in deciding the likelihood of the word being a red flag for (mis)appropriated work?

The above question is inspired by the incident described in this blog post by an undergraduate student at Suffolk University. In this blog post the student describes an incident where a professor negatively challenged her vocabulary skills and proceeded to publicly humiliated her in front of her classmates:

This morning, my professor handed me back a paper (a literature review) in front of my entire class and exclaimed “this is not your language.” On the top of the page they wrote in blue ink: “Please go back and indicate where you cut and paste.” The period was included. They assumed that the work I turned in was not my own. My professor did not ask me if it was my language, instead they immediately blamed me in front of peers. On the second page the professor circled the word “hence” and wrote in between the typed lines “This is not your word.” The word “not” was underlined. Twice. My professor assumed someone like me would never use language like that.

Ordinarily some might assume this is just the griping of an unhappy undergrad, but the article starts with the student describing her bona fides which are rather impressive (URL link added by me):

As a McNair Fellow and student scholar, I’ve presented at national conferences in San Francisco, San Diego, and Miami. I have crafted a critical reflection piece that was published in a peer-reviewed journal managed by the Pell Institute for the Study of Higher Education and Council for Opportunity in Education. I have consistently juggled at least two jobs and maintained the status of a full-time student and Dean’s list recipient since my first year at Suffolk University. I have used this past summer to supervise a teen girls empower program and craft a thirty page intensive research project funded by the federal government. As a first generation college student, first generation U.S. citizen, and aspiring professor I have confronted a number of obstacles in order to earn every accomplishment and award I have accumulated. In the face of struggle, I have persevered and continuously produced content that is of high caliber.

Let me be clear that in my asking this Question and others providing an Answer it is important for everyone here to do two things:

  1. Ignore the shameful behavior of the instructor, and
  2. Ignore the student's opinion about her instructor's bias.

I am not saying that these two issues are unimportant, they definitely are, but neither of these issues is the focus of this question. The key question I want to ask is expressed in the title: "What to do when you think a student is incapable of using certain vocabulary?" I use this blog post as an example of the situation that may arise and need to be dealt with.

If I see such a one-word red flag should I speak with the author and express my concern that it makes the work suspect? If so then how do I balance that against the fact that (a) it is a given that students doing academic research are exposed to academic language and are likely to acquire some of this vocabulary by sheer osmosis, and (b) isn't there a danger of discouraging students from expanding their vocabulary if use of new words creates negative reactions?

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    If you want readers to ignore the highly emotional case of the "shameful" instructor, then the best thing would be to not include it in the question in the first place. Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 15:11
  • 1
    @DanielR.Collins Actually this is not too bad, for context. Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 16:37
  • @DanielR.Collins - because the whole blog article was linked to (i.e. appropriately sourced) and includes several references to the instructor's attempt to shame the student in front of her other classmates I could not "not include it" unless I wanted to plagiarize the story and leave parts out.
    – O.M.Y.
    Commented Oct 29, 2016 at 19:40

6 Answers 6


Thesauri are a thing. The internet is a thing. As such, everyone is capable of using all vocabulary and dialects at all times. They're also capable of changing their minds about how they express themselves at any moment. One could write a serious mathematics paper entirely in Middle English (modulo terminology a bit, which will be hard to adapt, unless the mathematics is historically appropriate to the time) if they were so inclined.

If the words are used correctly in the student's work, then in the absence of actually substantive evidence of plagiarism or academic dishonesty, then there's nothing to do. At best you can comment on whether the choice of phrasing is suitable for the topic or not, and if it helps or hinders the clarity of the exposition. That Middle English math paper is fairly unsuitable and inappropriate, and almost certainly unspeakably unclear, unless, say, the assignment was specifically concerned with writing in Middle English (in which case maybe the math is the inappropriate and unclear thing).

Furthermore, academic writing is often a dialect of its own. In mathematics we often say things like "We will show..." even in single author papers, because that's the history and convention. It is entirely reasonable that efforts at serious academic writing will not sound like natural conversation, and that anyone familiar with how a person sounds in only one of those will be surprised by how they sound in the other.


It's okay for a single word—or even phrase or two— to set off red flags for plagiarism. But a red flag isn't a guarantee of guilt. I'd treat those words like anything else suspect: Google around and see if I can find what they may have grabbed it from. If I come up with nothing, I let it go. It could be they plagiarized, it could be my mind paying tricks on me, or it could be I just wrongly set low expectations for a student (depending on what triggered the mental flag).

If the word isn't appropriate to the paper (due to register or style), then I mark it for that, and suggest a replacement. If they tried to get out of their comfort zone and used a word incorrectly, then same thing, I mark them for that (rather than accuse) and supply what seems like the word they probably needed.

If they come into my office I'll give them a more detailed explanation.


Two words: viva & proof.

It is ok for a word seemingly out of character to trigger an investigation. This is, however, far from a proof, for which you need much stronger evidence. Get evidence, then accuse, not the other way round.

One way of checking up on the originality claim is to talk or viva the student in question.

Langugage is a tricky thing, and sometimes people get enamoured in words which may be ordinarily out of their league.

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    I don't think talking is really going to work. I know the vocabulary I use in reading & writing is many times larger than what I'd use in conversation, and I doubt that I'm unique in this.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 18:09
  • @jamesqf The talking is about understanding whether the candidate understands. Words in writing have to be so much more precise than in speech because paper cannot answer back for clarification if it fails to convey its message. Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 19:39
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    It's not just precision, it's pronunciation. I know the meaning of words like - oh, ' bremsstrahlung' or 'terpsichorean' - and could use them in writing for years, maybe decades, before I first heard them spoken and realized that my idea of the pronunciation (or possibly the speaker's :-)) was way off.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 20:02
  • I am not sure how your statement about pronunciation contradicts what I am saying? People may use different words in speech or they may use the same as they do in writing - this does not mean that they pronounce them correctly. In short, I do not really understand the second comment of yours, if you would mind to clarify? Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 1:37
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    @jamesqf I hear what you are saying but I think Cpt Emacs point of doing a verbal exam is not to test the vocabulary of the student but rather the comprehension of the material by the student. If the verbal responses are different than the written that is not a problem. But if the responses show a total lack of understanding by the student then the writing becomes suspect. Additionally, I would actually be very concerned if the student was able to recite sections of their paper word-for-word as that would suggest they were learning-by-rote without grasping the true meaning.
    – O.M.Y.
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 14:50

Anyone can "pick up" a single word or short phrase anywhere at any time. That could include even a grade schooler (I've seen a fourth grader use the word "gerund" because a high schooler taught it to him).

I wouldn't attach much significance to one or two isolated incidences of this. It might become an issue if it becomes a "pattern." Even then, you can't be sure that this student didn't suddenly befriend someone who "spruced up" his vocabulary.

For a charge of "plagiarism," you need more than just suspicion; you need "proof beyond a reasonable doubt."


If the entire paper was out of the student's league, you may have a reason to doubt authorship. A single word or phrase might simply be an imitation of the style found in papers serving as references.

I would not doubt too much. In cases where more doubts are appropriate, you can tell the student to make a short oral presentation of the excellent paper so that the classmates benefit from it as well. (Do the same with excellent papers where you don't have doubts.) I the student can't express his own ideas properly, you have a more tangible reason to doubt.


This is more of a comment than an answer, but I don't have enough reputation on this stackexchange to comment.

I feel it's important to point out a few simple facts that are sometimes lost on people.

  1. Most academics come from middle class or above backgrounds. They are typically not first generation students. They are also very likely to be white. These kinds of backgrounds will naturally affect how they tend to perceive and judge writing and speech of people from different backgrounds.

(I'm sure there is a sex/gender component to this but I don't think I'm qualified to comment)

  1. Students who don't fit the mold of (1) are usually aware of it, and especially a successful student will try to 'correct' their style of speech when writing. That can become hyper-correction.

I actively try to write in a much more formal way than I speak, which is closer to lower class than to higher class style. I can't claim to Know exactly what happened and why it happened to this Suffolk student, but I can empathize with her story.

I think the oral presentation idea expressed by user7019377 is good, as is the "google around" idea of guifa.

  • Joe: While you feel you only added a comment, the concept of hyper-correction of language is a valid viewpoint that needs to be included in the thinking of how to deal with this kind of situation. As a freshman in college I remember thinking how much I needed to "up my game" when it came to writing style and I think that is a very common thought process.
    – O.M.Y.
    Commented Oct 30, 2016 at 16:07

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