Decoding Your Instructor's Comments

Here is a short list of words (and their common abbreviations) that many instructors use when they respond to their students' writing. Sometimes these words seem confusing to students, so we've translated them and offered some tips for revising.

1. Vague (abstract, unclear)

If a sentence or passage is vague, it often contains abstract rather than concrete nouns. Here are some other causes of vagueness:

  • a pronoun doesn't have a clear noun to which it refers
  • you've written "this" to refer to an idea from a previous sentence, but it's not clear what idea you mean
  • you've put so many clauses between the subject and verb that the sentence is hard to follow.

If you find that your writing is vague or unclear

  • make sure that each time you use a pronoun, you can point to the noun that it replaces
  • always place a noun after "this"
  • make sure that your verb follows your subject, without any clauses in between.

2. Awkward (awk.)

Because of sentence structure or word choice, the meaning of a passage is hard to follow.

If you find that your writing is awkward

  • make sure that your verb follows your subject, without any clauses in between
  • include transitional words to help your reader follow your logic
  • use direct, concrete words rather than high-flown language; your instructor cares about your ideas, not about your ability to use a thesaurus
  • use active rather than passive construction
  • if appropriate, make your subject a concrete noun
  • use vivid, active verbs rather than forms of "to be."

3. Diction (wrong word, ww)

Instructors use this term to mean that your word choice is not appropriate or does not make sense in the sentence. Such problems result when you don't really understand the material you're writing about or when you stretch for words with which you're not familiar. A good first step is to look up the word in a dictionary. If you find that diction is a problem, read your own paper aloud to yourself. Often, reading aloud helps you to hear problems that you don't see when you read it silently. If problems persist, ask a friend to read the paper, looking especially for words that don't seem to express the meaning you're after. Writing Center tutors can help as objective readers.

4. Syntax (syn)

This comment refers to sentence structure. If your syntax - the way you order words, phrases, or clauses - gets in the way of meaning, your reader will notice the problem. To revise, see suggestions for awkwardness.

5. Wordy

It's good discipline to edit out unnecessary words in your writing. You don't want to bury your ideas in words that don’t contribute to meaning. To avoid wordiness

  • use concrete nouns and vivid verbs
  • avoid empty words, such as "aspect," "case," "factor," "field," "kind," "situation," "thing," "type"
  • substitute single words for wordy phrases (e.g., use "because," not "due to the fact that")
  • cut out unnecessary repetition (e.g., "return again," cooperate together")
  • avoid beginning too many sentences with "there is" or "it is " (or "there are," "there were," etc.)
  • combine sentences to avoid repeating words.

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