Cautious in tone

Successful academic writing requires a cautious tone, and avoids extreme, absolute or definite English.

Use a cautious or tentative tone when describing or reporting the strength of a claim or interpretation. Try to avoid making statements that sound definite or fixed and final, extreme, absolute or are overgeneralizations. This practice is in keeping with the empirical traditions of adopting a questioning attitude and a balanced and neutral approach.

An academically cautious tone describes degrees of certainty, likelihood or possibility.

For further assistance, advice or tutoring/coaching in these skills contact Dr Bill Wrigley.

Avoid using the words must, should, ought, or have to.

Use might, may, could or can


✖  The fine weather must have been the reason for the large crowd.

✓  The fine weather was likely to have been the reason for the large crowd.

✖  More  research of this issue should be undertaken.

✓  More  research of this issue could be undertaken.

 Avoid using always or every.

Use often, very frequently, many or most


✖  These variables always respond in this way.

✓  These variables often respond in this way.

 Avoid using definitely, undoubtedly, obviously, or absolutely.

Use likely, probably, seems to, appears to, or tends to


✖  This is definitely not the case for everyone.

✓  This does not appear to be the case for most people.

Convey levels of strength

 A common convention in academic writing for conveying levels of strength or frequency of an occurrence is to refer to the degree of certainty, likelihood or possibility of an occurrence:

Degree of certainty or likelihood

  1. It is certain that….,
  2. It is almost certain that…,
  3. It is highly likely that…
  4. It is likely that…,
  5. It is possible that….

Degree of possibility

  1. There is a definite possibility that…,
  2. There is a strong possibility that…,
  3. There is a good possibility that…,
  4. There is some possibility that…

Degree of frequency

  1. Few believe that…
  2. Some believe that…
  3. Many believe that…
  4. Most believe that…
List of cautious English

Table 1. List of definite and final words and their corresponding cautious language equivalents.

Definite, Final
(avoid using)
Cautious, Tentative
 must might, may, could, can, advisable
 should could, advisable
 have to could, likely
 always very frequently, mostly, many
 every many, most, much
 definitely likely, appears to
 undoubtedly probably, likely
 obviously seems to, appears to, tends to
 absolutely probably, likely
 Of course… (delete)
 Everybody knows that…. It is widely known / understood  that…
List of cautious verbs, adverbs, nouns and phrases

Table 2. Common verbs, adverbs, nouns and phrases used to convey a cautious tone.

VerbsAdverbsNounsCommon Phrases
may, might, could, wouldperhapsThe probability of this occurrence is unlikelyIt seems / appears that…
suggestpossible, possiblyIt would appear that….
probable, probablypossibilityIt might be suggested that ….
seems to, appears to,
tends to indicatelikely, unlikelyprobability
definitelylikelihoodIt may be possible to obtain…
points toassumption
tends to be/indicatesconceivablyIt could be the case that...
It could be said that…
The evidence suggests …

seeminglyIt is generally considered that…
It is likely...
occasionally, rarely
infrequentlyIn some/many/most cases…

sometimesSome believe that…
frequentlyTo the extent that…
mostly, mainly, largelyWith the exception of….
usuallyIt is relatively uncommon that…
The procedure is perhaps central to …