Don’t Use These Phrases in your AP English Essay (or any essay, for that matter)


Whether you’re taking AP Language or AP Literature, you should avoid these phrases. In fact, you should avoid them in any essay or written piece you ever write.

Every English teacher, while grading, will come across cookie-cuttered writing that makes them think “yup, here’s another student who writes without thinking.”

I’m talking about broad, catch-all phrases like “positive” or “negative,” or passive voice phrases like “this can be seen.”

I’m not sure where these phrases came from or why they’re still in circulation, but they’re out there, and they don’t seem to be going anywhere. And this is kind of sad to say, but by simply avoiding them, you can make yourself look further along in your education than your peers.

Who should we blame for the rampant use of these phrases? Students? Teachers? School systems? A society which encourages thoughtless language? It’s hard to say, and it’s not the focus of this article.

If you want to stand out from the crowd or if you need to impress a grader (such as an AP English Language grader) with writing that goes beyond a high school-level, you’ll want to avoid the phrases below.

“This can be seen”

This is one of the most common examples of passive voice, which is basically when someone describes an action, but doesn’t attribute an actor to the action. It’s like when the military says “the target was neutralized,” which is a trick they use to sound less violent with the public. Students, I like to think, are not as sinister or bureaucratic as the military, so typically they’ll use these kind of phrases when they’re not conscious of what they’re doing – like if they’re stuck in a passive voice habit.

Don’t write like this:

“There are many coming-of-age moments in To Kill a Mockingbird. This can be seen when Scout…..

Instead, write like this:

“There are many coming-of-age moments in To Kill a Mockingbird. Examples include the scene where Scout…..”

“This is shown”

Another passive voice phrase – I see students use this when they’re trying to get into their analysis.

Don’t write like this:

To Kill a Mockingbird contains symbols that illustrate the origins of racial prejudice in America. This is shown when Scout encounters…”

Instead, write like this:

To Kill a Mockingbird contains symbols that illustrate the origins of racial prejudice in America. Lee uses one such symbol when Scout encounters…”

You can see in the corrected example above, I’ve used “Lee,” the author’s name, which means I’ve attributed an actor to an action. My example could be even more rudimentary – instead of “this is shown…” you could say “Lee shows us this…” – it’s not the best correction but at least it gets you away from passive voice.

Keep in mind there are protocols to follow when introducing authors in your writing (in this case I’ve cut straight to the author’s last name, which means I’ve introduced the author’s full name and credentials earlier in the written piece). I’ll have an article on these protocols later.

“Positive” and “negative”

Even adults often write with these phrases, so don’t beat yourself up too much if you do too. But still – don’t describe things by calling them positive or negative. These are sweeping phrases which are so broad in meaning that your essay will lose the chance to be unique, and it’s all because your descriptive phrases are too generic and…. don’t really describe. What’s worse is that since the phrases are so broad and multi-meaninged, your reader might come up with their own meaning, separate from your intended meaning, and you can’t blame them – you didn’t describe it in enough detail for them!

Don’t write like this:

“Atticus offers Scout an opportunity to think like an adult when …… This positive experience allows Scout to …..”

“The long stretches of time away from Dill leads to negative effects on Scout.”

Instead, write like this:

“Atticus offers Scout an opportunity to think like an adult when …… This experience, which eventually allows her to be wiser than her peers, allows Scout to …..”

“The long stretches of time away from Dill causes Scout to feel lonely and attention-hungry.


This phrase is not so bad on it’s own – the issue is it’s become a cliché (and like positive and negative, it’s used by adults too). When a grader sees the same phrase in use by all writers, over and over again, those writers are going to lose individuality and uniqueness (in the eyes of the grader). Is the grader going to be overtly thinking this, dehumanizing innocent students trying to do good in school? I doubt it – it’s not like the grader is a monster. These things happen at the unconscious level. So become unique, and get noticed.

Don’t write like this:

“Scout’s mindset gets in the way when she argues with Jem.”

“In her argument with Jem, Scout has a rebellious mindset.”

Instead, write like this:

“Scout’s rebellious nature comes out when she questions her brother’s ‘maddening superiority’ (150).”

As with all things psychological and mind-related, you don’t want to merely describe the thought or feeling. It’ll make your writing dry and overly technical. Instead, aim to showcase the thought or feeling in action. If the “mindset” you’re getting at is aggression, just use the word aggression, and then show an example of the aggression coming out in behaviour. That’s all it takes – you do that and you’re good.

“In line #”/ ”on page #”

This is a huge amateur mistake. Never do this! Your goal in writing is to help your reader visualize an idea or an argument or a feeling – to use words to help them see a scene. If this is the goal, then why are you throwing arbitrary line and page numbers in your prose? Save these for your in-text citations – otherwise you risk not getting taken seriously by your grader.

Don’t write like this:

In line 56 of Act I, scene 1, Hamlet utters his famous words, ‘To be, or not to be?’”

In Chapter 3, Scout gets in a fight with Walter Cunningham.”

“Scout’s commitment to non-violence, which is mentioned on page 89, …”

Instead, write like this:

“Hamlet’s famous words, “To be, or not to be,” (3.1.56) are iconic because….”

“Scout’s fight with Walter Cunningham demonstrates …. (include page # here)

“Scout’s commitment to non-violence, which she describes as a ‘policy of cowardice,’ (89)…”

“Used,” as in “the rhetorical device used above”

This is another passive voice sin you’ll want to avoid. I see it when students are in analysis mode, and they’ve described how an author is using a rhetorical device, and they’re trying to reference it again. Like the other examples, it shows hesitation, reluctance, lack of awareness – all undesirable traits when you’re trying to impress someone, including a grader.

Don’t write like this:

 “The rhetorical device used above suggests ….”

Instead, write like this:

Lee’s symbolism in this passage suggests…”

You’ll notice also, if we consider the objective we have as writers (which is to use words to help the reader visualize something), then we can also view the word “above” as an arbitrary phrase about the position of text on your literal paper or digital document – and if this is the kind of thing you’re trying to get your reader to visualize, you’re going to put them to sleep!


Here’s one of those phrases that is purely functional in writing – and to a fault. This one can be particularly frustrating for graders because the whole point of analysis in an essay is to describe the nature of the relationship between things. So if all you say is “this thing relates to this other thing,” it means you’re not describing the relationship, which goes against the whole purpose of an essay. And, like I said, it’ll frustrate the grader. And you don’t want a frustrated grader grading your essay.

Don’t write like this:

“Scout’s inability to sympathize with Walter Cunningham’s table manners relates to the theme of childhood innocence in To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Instead, write like this:

“Scout’s inability to sympathize with Walter Cunningham’s table manners presents us with one possible argument about the theme of childhood innocence in To Kill a Mockingbird: that yes, we should look to children to scrutinize our society’s morals, but we need to guide their thinking too (the way Calpurnia does) in order to get the most from their insights.”

You’ll notice the corrected example above is significantly longer, and that’s the way it should be in this case. It’s the nature of the relationship that you want to dig into. This is the thing that’s supposed to make your essay interesting, so describe it.

And a quick side note: you’ll notice I mentioned a thing Calpurnia does in the corrected example – I’ve written it based on the premise that I’ve described the thing she’s done (which is scolding Scout) in the essay already. So keep that in mind too. Make sure the reader understands every little thing you’re referencing.

There are more bad phrases out there

These are not the only examples of words to avoid – there are many more out there, and you don’t need to memorize them all (memorizing things to avoid would probably be a little strange, anyways).

Think instead of your key takeaways:

  • Avoid phrases that give you passive voice.
  • Avoid phrases that make you look like a robot rather than a unique individual.
  • Avoid phrases that disengage the reader from the scene or idea you’re building.

Alright fine, those are still things to avoid, and I’m telling you to memorize them… don’t worry, I’ll come up with a more POSITIVE conclusion for my next article.



2 responses to “Don’t Use These Phrases in your AP English Essay (or any essay, for that matter)”

  1. Maybelle Avatar

    Thanks for this! I like how specific your points were, and how you explained the rationale behind them! Great advice for academic writing overall.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *