I’ve spent a lot of time reading student proposals, all of which include some kind of engagement with the existing academic literature. When describing what has been said, students frequently fall back on “the author stated” or “authors opined“. Stated and opined are about the least helpful words in a literature review because they say nothing about the extent to which the author’s claims have been established to be “true” or even reasonable.

Using the word proved is a much stronger statement, although there are few fields in which one really can prove anything, so instead authors often argue or demonstrate or illustrate their claims.

So I have started my own collection of words to use when reviewing literature. I have arranged these below in the descending order of “strength”; that is the ones at the top of the list can be used when the author has a strong claim and the ones at the bottom of the list are appropriate for weaker claims. In arguing a point in the literature review you want to use stronger claims, to strengthen your own arguement, and avoid the weaker claims.

  • proved, established
  • demonstrated, illustrated, showed
  • argued, explained, discussed, researched
  • claimed, declared, stated, said
  • noted, highlighted, mentioned, alluded to (used for peripheral points)
  • opined (it’s just an opinion!)

Which word you use has to depend on the strength of the claim in the paper you are reading. If the author makes a claim and does not support it with appropriate evidence (which may be a citation or empirical data), then you can’t say in your review that this claim has been established. If you tell me that an author stated something you are not informing me whether the author did any research to support that statement or not.

The wonderful range of words in the English language allows for subtlety. You can use different words in your literature review to show which claims are stronger and which are weaker, and so which parts of the literature are worth responding to and which are not.You can critique a paper by saying that the authors claim that … but fail to provide a sound arguement for their claim.

And don’t be shy of plain words, like said. Language doesn’t have to sound pompous to get your point across. Simplicity aids clarity.

What words do you use? Which words have I left out? I’d love to hear.