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When you start studying for university, you often hear people talk about “academic” vocabulary. This is a very vague term and can be a worry.

What is this academic vocabulary? How can I learn it? Will I lose marks if my vocabulary isn’t academic enough?

The result can often be that students go to the Thesaurus and try to find academic synonyms for words that they already know. So instead of saying “get”, they say “obtain”. They no longer “buy” coffees – instead they “purchase” them. And forget about “say” – from now on, everything is “stated”, “observed” and “argued”.

For the most part, this isn’t a terrible approach. However, it can be a little bit problematic, especially as some people end up addicted to the thesaurus and find synonyms for everything! If someone becomes really addicted, then words like people become too simplistic – now it has to be individuals, citizens, humanoids. Friends did an episode once where Joey became addicted to the Thesaurus and people couldn’t understand him anymore (click here to watch).

A good example of  problems with the synonym approach is “DUE TO”.

In academic writing, a lot of people use “DUE TO” incorrectly. Here is an example:

“The environment is in danger due to many people do not recycle their waste.”

In this instance, I believe, the student has decided to use “DUE TO” because they believe it is a more academic version of “BECAUSE”. If you read the sentence with BECAUSE, the grammar works perfectly. The problem is that “DUE TO” has a similar meaning to “BECAUSE” but it is used differently. Really, to work as a synonym for “BECAUSE”, you would have to say “DUE TO THE FACT THAT”.

“The environment is in danger due to the fact that many people do not recycle their waste.”

Now, the sentence is fine.

If you want to use “DUE TO”, then you would use it when you use “BECAUSE OF”, as in this example:

“The plane was delayed because of bad weather.”

“The plane was delayed due to bad weather.”

So, going back to Academic vocabulary. What is it?

The point I am trying to make is that academic vocabulary is not simply swapping words you know for more fancy, smarter words. This can work sometimes, but other times it can create problems as different words can have the same meaning, but different grammar.

Really, academic vocabulary is just vocabulary. And all vocabulary really is about communicating ideas. If you have the idea that you are hungry, then you use the word hungry, and hopefully someone will give you some food. To use the word hungry correctly, you have to understand the idea of “being hungry”. The same is true for academic vocabulary. It is the language used in universities to communicate ideas.

So the best place to start is trying to understand the ideas – reading, going to lectures, discussing with classmates. I believe that is a better approach than finding a synonym for every new idea you come across.

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