In some cases, similar words are interchangeable under certain circumstances but they still have very subtle differences; therefore,attention must be paid to the rest of the details in the sentence in order to find the most appropriate word to use.
Consider this set of words: study, investigate, research, examine, discuss
This set of words is commonly used in academic writing; however,NNSE often use unsuitable words for the context and this bothers native speakers and journal reviewers and can result in an unfavorable review of the paper. Let’s now explore these words and the subtle differences. Fill in the following table with either ‘Strong’, ‘Weak’, or just leave blank depending on the connotation you feel the word gives.
Compare your answers to the table below:
How well were you able to identify the subtle connotations of each of the words in the table? Either way, using the understanding of the connotations, attempt the exercises below.
Choose the most suitable word for each gap and fill in the gaps. Following are explanations from a NSE
1. This ________ was conducted on a large market sample and the data collected was analyzed using a combination of analytical methods to explore the possible causes of this clinical behavior.
2. In the following section we will ________ the implications of the behaviors as demonstrated by the results.
3. Whilst this ________ offers a discussion based purely on the evaluation of some existing data, it still allows us to better understand the cause of the problem.
4. An expert team has been formed to ________ the murder scene and to find answers.
5. The final recommendation has beenmade based on close ________ on all available investment options
Answers by a NSE:
1.The best answer is C, research.
This research was conducted on a large market sample and the data collected was analyzed using a combination of analytical methods to explore the possible causes of this clinical behavior.
The reason ‘research’ suits best is because from the sentence, we know a formal process was followed and a high level of exploration was done. The word ‘research’ emphasizes these aspects.
Just for argument’s sake, what about if we chose ‘study’ as the word. That is:
This study was conducted on a large market sample and the data collected was analyzed using a combination of analytical methods to explore the possible causes of this clinical behavior.
The grammar is correct and the flow is native English. There are no problems there. From the table you can see the strong connotation of‘study’ is a gain in knowledge. If later on in the paper, many useful results are presented, then perhaps ‘study’ is a suitable choice. However, the sentence does detail the research method and the exploration aspects, so ‘research’ still seems like the better choice.
2.The best answer is D, discuss.
In the following section we will discuss the implications of the behaviors as demonstrated by the results.
Because the sentence reads “implications of…” we know there is a gain in knowledge. Therefore the better choices are limited to ‘study’, ‘examine’ or ‘discuss’. ‘Study’ and ‘examine’ have the weak connotation of a formal process, but implications are not part of a formal process (deductions or conclusions might be by contrast), so that removes those choices as suitable, leaving ‘discuss’ as the best choice.
3.The best choice is D, study.
Whilst this study offers a discussion based purely on the evaluation of some existing data, it still allows us to better understand the cause of the problem.
The emphasis of this sentence is “better understand” and so we choose a word with the ‘gain knowledge’ connotation: ‘study’, ‘examine’ or ‘discuss’. Both ‘examine’ and ‘discuss’ have a strong connotation of exploring inward, however this sentence reads ‘some existing data’ which is quite soft and doesn’t require emphasis. Therefore, ‘study’ remains as the best choice.Aside, ‘investigation’ is not suitable because there is no particular problem being solved.
4.The best choice is A, investigate.
5.An expert team has been formed to investigate the murder scene and to find answers.
This is an easy one! A murder is all about solving a problem, and only ‘investigate’ has the connotation of solving a problem. When your friend is murdered, do you want the police to discuss or perform a study? Seriously however, evidence is examined, ideas are discussed but the murder is investigated.
6.The best choice is B, examination.
The final recommendation has been made based on close examination of all available investment options.
“Final recommendation” has a strong feeling of gaining knowledge. Next, we know the exploration is inward, because the options are already present. Also, if you are investing money, you would hope a formal process was used, not just a discussion. This leaves ‘examination’ as the best choice.
Another approach: the field of study
It can be tricky to choose the most suitable words from this set because according to grammar and dictionaries the definitions are so similar. Another way to help you choose the most suitable word from this set is to consider the field or topic in question. ‘Research’ is the preferred word for outward exploration as opposed to ‘investigate’ or ‘discuss’, which is used more commonly for inward exploration. ‘Investigate’ is mostly intended to solve a problem, whereas ‘study’ has the purpose of gaining knowledge but not necessary solving an issue. Consider the different subject topics and fields listed below and think about which of the words is more suitable.
The set of words in the above exercise often appear in the opening sentence of a paper, making it critical to choose the most suitable word as it will shape the reader’s first impressions. For instance, if the sentence reads “this examination was conducted on a large market sample…”, it would appear to be unsuitable because ‘examination’ does not connote a formal or outward exploration. For a NSE, reading that sentence would sound alarms. To the reader, the wrong choice would cast doubt in their minds and make them wonder if the author genuinely understands the topic. This misconception might immediately make the reader disengage and even shift the focus of the reading to identifying the flaws and weaknesses. What’s more, a journal editor would be far less likely to accept a paper for peer review with poor word choices in the opening sentences.