It’s a word “thing”

Our students love certain words because they are familiar to them.   However, when working within the register of academic English, they begin learning that some of these words are less appropriate because they are too informal or vague.

Words like good, bad, nice, stuff, and thing often pop up in students’ paragraphs and essays.   Part of this happens because students are unaware of the expectation that they be specific in academic English. It may also be the result of a limited vocabulary.

Bringing students’ attention to these less-than-useful words is the first step.   A useful moniker is “RIP words,” or words we should let rest-in-peace and replace with more academic words and phrases.   Giving them a label helps students notice them and, hopefully, find ways to avoid them.

After introducing the concept of RIP words, instructors can have students revise sentences with the words, preferably one at a time.   It’s easiest and perhaps best to pick up sentences the students have written themselves so they can learn the most appropriate strategies to fix them.

Below is an example activity that tackles one of the most frequent RIP words—thing. Before students complete the activity, it helps to provide a mini-lesson on strategies they can use to reword a sentence with the word thing. Suggestions may include the following:

  • Substitute a more specific word for thing
  • Replace thing with a noun clause
  • Revise the sentence by cutting thing, rearranging, or starting over.

Once the strategies are understood, perhaps by giving some example sentences on the board, students can then move on to the activity:

Directions: Look at the students’ sentences below. Replace the word “thing(s)” using one of the three strategies discussed in class. Do not change the idea of the sentences.

  1. As an adult, we need to find a career, but sometimes it is hard to find things we’re good at.
  1. Some people like to work but the only thing is their coworkers are not nice.
  1. In conclusion, many people quit their jobs to find other things better in their life.
  1. Happy people are the most productive and healthy because they enjoy the things that they do.
  1. Many things make people quit their jobs.
  1. To keep a job, you have to be responsible, productive, and a good coworker; it is hard to achieve those things.

In these examples, item #1 may change to a noun clause—“…it is hard to find what we’re good at”—or revised wording—“…it is hard to discover our true talents.”   “Thing” in item #2 could be replaced with a single word, such as “problem” or “issue.”

Once students begin to feel confident using the strategies, they can go on a thing hunt, reviewing their own papers (or a peer’s) for the word and suggesting possible replacements or rewordings.   Often they are quite surprised by how often they use the words, which is a step in the right direction.

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