The resources in this section are meant primarily for English students, but anyone interested in essay writing can benefit from them.

Our goal is to provide an in-depth reading of a literary text. To make things easy, we’ve picked a fairly short and accessible poem–William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” As we analyze the text, we’ll explain the basics of literary interpretation and build up to a sample research essay.




Having done a close reading of our sample text, Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” as well as looked at the poem’s historical background, we are now in a position to sample some specific perspectives on the poem.

Each theoretical approach allows us to see features of the poem that we might not have noticed otherwise.

Our first interpretive lens, and the one we’ll focus on in this lesson, looks at the poem in relation to aesthetics, the study of beauty.

The Sublime

(Image by Flickr user Vanveen, with permission)

One of the greatest thrills is to experience the sublime. The sublime is a moment of complete awe. It sends shivers down your spine. It transports you to a different level and provides a kind of emotional high.

Many people live for these moments. When you climb a mountain and reach the summit, the feeling of conquering the landscape and testing your own limits can be wonderful. Add to that a spectacular view and perhaps some fear of falling down a steep precipice, and the experience can be riveting.

Other sublime moments might include being at a massive concert and being swept away by the music; gazing at the stars and feeling awed by the size of the universe; understanding the intricate complexity of a single molecule; performing an amazing jump on your snow board; or watching an epic scene from The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.

The Romantic poets were particularly keen on experiencing the sublime–and on having you experience it with them. Although the concept was first explored in a treatise by the first century writer Longinus, it received increased attention in the 18th century. Here are the authors and titles of the principal texts on the sublime:

  • Longinus, On the Sublime (1st century AD)
  • Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757)
  • Immanuel Kant, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (1764)

You can already tell from the titles that Burke and Kant made a distinction between the beautiful and the sublime. A bunch of flowers might be beautiful, but it wouldn’t leave you awestruck or spellbound. It was Edmund Burke who suggested that what makes the sublime different is an element of terror. Here is his famous definition of the sublime:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. (36)

If you want an example of what Burke is describing, just go stand at the edge of a cliff. There’s a part of us that finds enjoyment in putting ourselves in danger.

For Burke, then, the sublime is associated with fear, with mystery and darkness, with the terror that comes from the contemplation of the vast and infinite. For Burke, the most sublime being is God, though not the divine being contemplated by the rational mind, but more the poetic and enigmatic figure one encounters in the Old Testament book of Job.


Before we look at how Wordsworth makes the daffodils seem sublime in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” we need to know one more critical term: bathos. In the world of entertainment, bathos is the opposite of the sublime: it describes an anti-climax.

For hardcore Star Wars fans bathos would be whenever Jar Jar Binks appears on screen.

For many students of literature, a good example would be the fight of the angels in Book 6 of Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. Things become slightly ludicrous when the fallen angels invent cannons. They chain together the cannon balls and fire them at the good angels. Milton points out that if the angels had not been wearing armor, they might have dodged easily. In fact, the cannon balls could have gone right through them, no harm done. But because of their armor many of the good angels get knocked over. The whole scene is rather comical, and some critics have even argued that the entire battle is underwhelming, for the outcome is never in doubt. At the end Christ routs the bad angels without really having to try.

One of the problems is how we might determine when something is either sublime or a moment of bathos. We notice this problem in Longinus’ treatise On the Sublime. Longinus argues that some things may seem impressive, but are actually hollow and false. Think of a brass band playing a marching tune in the streets. Longinus called that kind of noisy display bombast. But who is to decide when something is sublime? There is certainly something subjective about aesthetics, and Immanuel Kant even went so far as to suggest that men are more attuned to the sublime than women (women are apparently more interested in the beautiful).

Wordsworth’s View

In 1811-12, Wordsworth himself wrote an unpublished essay on the sublime. Matthew Brennan points out that Wordsworth splits the sublime into a negative and a positive type. Only the negative version of the sublime depends on terror (à la Burke) and both types create a powerful sense of unity and transcendence (142).

Wordsworth was thus clearly interested in describing and creating a sublime experience, and yet it is still surprising that in “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” he would describe the daffodils as not just beautiful, but also as sublime. It is the second stanza (added in the 1815 version) that does most to create this effect. By comparing the daffodils to twinkling stars, Wordsworth widens the scope and makes the scene seem epic. The daffodils seem innumerable as they “stretched in never-ending line” (9), out of sight. The inability of the mind to fully comprehend and contain the scene causes a sense of wonder. Even a “single glance” reveals “ten thousand” (11) daffodils! As Edmund Burke pointed out, the sublime is usually related to the contemplation of the grandeur of the universe.

Wordsworth’s lofty diction also adds to the sublime. By using personification, Wordsworth transforms the daffodils into his living and breathing companions, dancing and fluttering with happiness. As a number of critics have pointed out, by using the word “host” he even implies a comparison to God’s angels, who are traditionally called the “heavenly host.”

In the third stanza, Wordsworth also introduces an element of competition, a frequent attribute of the sublime. The daffodils strive with the waves of the lake for the title of being the most happy: “The waves beside them danced; but they / Out-did the sparkling waves in glee.”

The last stanza suggests that not only is nature sublime, but so are the workings of the human mind. Geoffrey Hartman has pointed out that in Wordsworth’s poetry “[a] new attitude toward consciousness—a radical consciousness of consciousness—is brought to light: Wordsworth is truly a subjective thinker” (8). The way in which the “inner eye” (our imagination) allows us to revisit the past is in itself sublime.


So does the poem reach the lofty heights of the sublime or is it rather an example of bathos?

Wordsworth’s friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge found the poem somewhat disappointing. He thought that the daffodils might be considered beautiful, but not sublime. He calls Wordsworth’s efforts a kind of “mental bombast” (136). In other words, Wordsworth’s intellectual effort and elevated diction do not match the subject matter.

According to Coleridge, the truly sublime “joy of retrospection” (136) is not the memory of a few daffodils but “the images and virtuous actions of a whole well-spent life” (136). Virtuous action is more sublime than a few flowers.

In defense of Wordsworth, however, we can say that it is not simply the flowers themselves that are sublime. We are also awed by the our human capacity for imagination. This is not just a poem about nature; it is also a poem about the mind. The poem makes us realize the wondrous nature of a mind attuned to beauty and feeling.

Works Cited

  • Brennan, Matthew C. “Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.'” Explicator, vol. 57, no. 3, 1999, 140-43.
  • Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of the Sublime and the Beautiful.  On taste : On the sublime and beautiful, Reflections on the French Revolution, A letter to a Noble Lord. 1757. Ed. Charles W. Eliot, Harvard Classics, vol. 24, Collier, 1909.
  • Hartman, Geoffrey H. The Unremarkable Wordsworth. Minneapolis, U of Minnesota P, 1987.


Marxist Theory


You don’t have to be a Marxist to do a Marxist analysis of literature.

In literary theory, a Marxist interpretation reads the text as an expression of contemporary class struggle. Literature is not simply a matter of personal expression or taste. It somehow relates to the social and political conditions of the time.

How it relates is of course up for debate. Is the text a mirror of social values? Is it a form of propaganda for the ruling classes? Can literature challenge social norms? These are the questions that preoccupy Marxist literary critics.

In what follows we’ll first sketch out some broad principles of Marxist analysis before turning to one possible reading of Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”


Many of the grand theories developed in the second half of the nineteenth century are deterministic in nature. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution suggests that much of our behaviour is determined by our genes. Sigmund Freud argued that our lives are affected by our unconscious, and that our psychological and sexual wishes and desires are much affected by the formative influences of our childhood. Similarly, Karl Marx theorized that human beings are the product of their social and economic environment.

Marx called the economic conditions of life the base or infrastructure. The base includes everything from technology and raw materials to the social organization of the workplace.

This economic base has a powerful effect on the superstructure, Marx’s term for society, culture, and the world of ideas.

Marx sometimes referred to the superstructure as consciousness, the way we think and look at reality. Marx famously said, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” Our ability to think for ourselves is limited: our ideas are shaped by the material conditions of life.

Literature, for Marx, belongs to the superstructure (along with law, theology, politics, etc.). The challenge, then, is to see how it is influenced by the economic base.

Marx himself often treated literature as simple propaganda for the ruling classes. There is some truth to this. For instance, in a Feudal society, people loved chivalric romances, stories about knights who fight for honour and win their lady’s love. In today’s capitalistic society, many people enjoy watching James Bond movies, which celebrate the glamorous lifestyle of the modern gentleman, the lady’s man who dresses in expensive clothes and drives fast cars. In these cultural fantasies it is the aristocrat who comes to our rescue and saves us from imaginary villains that seek to destroy the status quo.

Yet many later Marxists were unhappy with Marx’s somewhat naive characterization of literature as propaganda. For instance, the Italian communist Antonio Gramsci used the concept of hegemony to describe the way in which ideology (a system of beliefs) is not simply oppressive and coercive, but also involves an element of consent. There has to be some reason for me to go see a James Bond movie even when the lifestyle depicted might be unattainable.

More recently, the cultural critic Raymond Williams suggested in Marxism and Literature (1977) that every historical time period has competing hegemonies. The dominant hegemony promotes the interests of the ruling classes, the residual hegemony defends the culture and belief system of the previous era, and the emergent hegemony shares revolutionary ideas that may later become the dominant hegemony.

Literature thus reveals to us the spirit of the times, the issues that mattered to people. Literature (and entertainment) is about much more than enjoyment or escapism: it is a manifestation of class struggle.

Wordsworth’s Wealth

Marxist theory may seem far removed from Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Yet some surprising connections are still possible.

In fact, one recent Marxist reading of the poem is found in David Simpson’s book Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern: The Poetics of Modernity.

As Simpson points out, Wordsworth does place a value on the daffodils. Wordsworth writes, “I gazed–and gazed–but little thought / What wealth the show to me had brought” (17-18). As Simpson notes, the daffodils “provide a wealth that is metaphysical and not material” (169).

Yet why use the word “wealth,” and what is its significance? From a Marxist perspective, the poem can be considered both a criticism of materialistic attitudes and a reflection of the language of commodification.

On the one hand, Wordsworth turns to nature to escape from the world of capitalism and commerce. The daffodils are “golden” (4), and that is the only currency that brings him true “wealth” (18). Wordsworth leaves behind human society, and finds his true self in solitude and in the company of the flowers. From this angle, the poem can easily seem escapist and reactionary. Indeed, Marxist critics such as Terry Eagleton have read the entire Romantic movement as causing a radical split between the private, subjective world of literature, and the public world of politics. Literature increasingly becomes a private matter.

Yet this move away from society ironically produces the very individualism that underpins capitalism. There is a kind of selfishness in the way Wordsworth uses the landscape for his own imaginative reverie. Simpson also reminds us that the word daffodil is but a different name for narcissus, a flower named after the mythological Narcissus, the young man who fell in love with himself.

In addition, the adoration of the flowers is rather similar to what Marx called the fetishism of commodities (Simpson 172). When we treat traded goods as having an intrinsic value, we are guilty of fetishism. We do this all the time. We endow commodities with personalities and act as if our lives are incomplete without them. We have to have the latest gadget or toy, even though the value of these things is artificial and is driven by a kind superstitious faith in the idea that prices are natural. In the same way, Wordsworth personifies the daffodils as animate, living beings, and he ties his own happiness to theirs. Like a commodity, the scene is best enjoyed in secret, in some private or internal space (the mind, the home).

The economic language of the poem makes the poet a wealthy man. Yet the poet is also the banker who pays himself with the riches of nature. As Simpson observes, in this system “a high rate of interest is assured and no one else can drive down prices because they cannot get into the market” (173).

Wordsworth’s poem thus tries to escape the effects of capitalism, but cannot avoid its logic and language.


You might be a bit skeptical after reading this Marxist interpretation. Are we not making too much of a few words in the poem? This is a valid objection, and a thorough Marxist analysis would have to provide further proof from the rest of Wordsworth’s poetry. Nevertheless, even if we don’t accept the entire Marxist interpretation provided above, at least we can see what is possible. A good Marxist reading draws our attention to details in the poem that we might have glossed over otherwise.

Works Cited

  • Simpson, David. Wordsworth, Commodification and Social Concern: The Poetics of Modernity. Cambridge UP, 2009.
  • Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford UP, 1977.




In previous lessons we have looked at Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” through various critical lenses. We have discussed the poem’s aesthetics, as well as its historical and social background. There are many other theoretical approaches we might take, but we will sample just one more: Ecocriticism.

With each new theory we change our angle on the poem slightly. You might compare literary criticism to artists sketching a live model. Each artist has a different perspective, and each one sees something different. Together, however, they can see the whole picture.


(Image by Flickr user Vanveen, with permission)

If you found Marxist criticism challenging, you’ll likely find Ecocriticism much easier. Ecocriticism first became a major theoretical movement in the 1990s. It seeks to relate literature to the natural environment, with the hope that we can take action against climate change and the destruction of natural habitats. Ecocriticism thus has a strong ethical aspect, as the reading of literature should ideally inspire political activism and real change. Conversely, practical action must be driven and directed by sound ecological theory, and here too the study of literature can help.

Ecocritics believe that we also have to investigate the concept of nature itself. Societies frequently view their own hierarchies and codes of conduct as natural, rather than as artificial and man-made. Literary texts can help us realize how human beings use nature for their own ends.

At the same time, literary texts also teach us to appreciate nature fully. They describe the beauty of our environment, and they give us the desire to immerse ourselves in the natural world.

Wordsworth’s Nature

A great example of an ecocritical reading of Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is Scott Hess’s article “John Clare, William Wordsworth, and the (Un)Framing of Nature.”

Hess argues that Wordsworth treats the daffodils like a photo on a postcard. Wordsworth doesn’t involve himself in nature. Instead, he looks at nature from afar (like a cloud), and leaves as soon as he has had his fill. In other words, Wordsworth acts like the tourist who comes by once and snaps a quick picture before moving on. In the end, Wordsworth seems more concerned about his own feelings than about nature:

The narrator composes the landscape into aesthetic form from a single point, located outside that landscape, exactly in the manner of a picturesque viewer, and in the process constructs a purely visual and seemingly disembodied subjectivity. Even as he claims to connect to nature, he views that nature through a kind of invisible frame and turns it into a resource for the construction of his own seemingly autonomous self. (Hess 33)

Just like some early readers complained that Wordsworth seemed a bit egotistic in his desire to experience the sublime, so Hess finds Wordsworth guilty of using nature to construct his own identity.

Hess concludes that by framing the scene as a moment of nature at its best–beautiful, restorative, sublime–Wordsworth is being too selective in his representation of the environment. In fact, Hess compares Wordsworth’s attitude to the way Americans treasure their National Parks as perfect and pristine natural places, while caring less about the degradation of nature everywhere else (40).

Yet is this fair to Wordsworth? Should he have mentioned that he saw some garbage on the side of the road, or that he was planning to spend a Saturday planting an urban garden?

With any theoretical approach there is always the danger that we misrepresent the text in order to further our own agenda. In this case it might be pointed out that Wordsworth is at pains to describe the communion he has with nature. He is not simply a solitary observer, watching from a distance. The personification of the flowers suggests a kind of kinship between people and nature. As Ralph Pite points out, “In Wordsworth’s work, ‘the natural world’ is always social, both in itself and in its relation to man. Consequently, nature does not offer an escape from other people so much as express an alternative mode of relating to them” (181).

From this perspective, Wordsworth sees nature as a teacher, a friend, and a mirror of what it means to be human–and yet he also respects nature’s independence, the distance and difference between humans and their environment (193).


It is not easy to tell which view is correct. Is Wordsworth selfish or not? Even if we can’t offer a definitive answer, the ecocritical perspectives sampled here demonstrate that Wordsworth’s poem is more relevant than ever.

Works Cited

  • Hess, Scott. “John Clare, William Wordsworth, and the (Un)Framing of Nature.” John Clare Society Journal, vol. 27, 2008, pp. 27-44.
  • Pite, Ralph. “Wordsworth and the Natural World.” The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth. Ed. Stephen Gill, Cambridge UP, 2003, pp. 180-195.


Final Essay


This lesson shows how to take some of what we’ve learned about our sample text (William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”) and turn it into an essay.

The essay provided here is the kind of research essay you might be expected to write in your first or second year of university. A senior paper may be more detailed and complex.

Please do not plagiarize this essay (your instructor can google too!), and note that although we have used MLA formatting, the spacing of paragraphs and Works Cited entries looks a little bit different online.

Sample Essay

John Smith
Professor Conrad van Dyk
English 111
May 27, 2017

“A Certain Colouring of Imagination”: Wordsworth’s Sublime Daffodils

William Wordsworth’s poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is often described as a good example of the short Romantic lyric, despite the fact that its first readers were divided about the poem’s merit. Many of Wordsworth’s contemporaries found daffodils too trivial a subject for Wordsworth’s imaginative description (Butler 53). Wordsworth’s friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge even complained about Wordsworth’s “mental bombast” (II, 136), although he did add that only a genius could provide such a lofty treatment of an unworthy subject. While we might wish to defend Wordsworth based on our personal taste, the poem actually provides its own best defense. Not only are the flowers sublime, but so are the human faculties with which we process their beauty. According to Wordsworth, the passionate observer sees with the imagination and feels from the heart.

The poem’s publication history reveals that Wordsworth increasingly strove to express a sublime feeling. The first version, published in 1807, described the beauty of the daffodils, as well as the poet’s resultant happiness. However, in 1815, Wordsworth added the second stanza, in which the speaker compares the daffodils to the stars in the Milky Way:

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay. (7-10)

These lines are more epic in scope, and relate the daffodils to the vastness of the universe. They make us think about the concept of infinity (“never-ending”), and turn the landscape into something that is too vast for the human mind to comprehend.

In adding the second stanza, Wordsworth did something controversial: he turned the beautiful into the sublime. Starting with Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), eighteenth-century treatises on aesthetics distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime. Burke, for instance, argued that beautiful objects provide pleasure, but that the sublime was caused by a feeling of terror:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible [i.e., terrifying], or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure. (36)

For Burke, then, the sublime creates a sense of awe and terror. It is associated with darkness and mystery. It should certainly not be evoked by daffodils.

We can understand, then, why many of Wordsworth’s contemporaries were confused. Wordsworth’s extensive use of personification—the daffodils are a “crowd” (3) or “company” (16), they have “heads” (12), they dance—all of this turns the daffodils into thousands of animate beings. Wordsworth’s use of the word “host” (4) further reminds of the angelic host, and perhaps also of the Catholic rite of communion (Joplin 69). In addition, the third stanza introduces an element of competition (a common feature of epic texts), as the daffodils and the waves strive for the crown of happiness. All of this leads to a moment of sublime ekstasis (literally a standing outside of oneself), as Wordsworth joins the “jocund company” (16) and shares in their “glee” (14). He is left in a trance (“I gazed—and gazed”; 17), and only later regains enough self-consciousness to realize how sublime the experience truly was.

Given that daffodils are usually seen as beautiful, and not sublime, Wordsworth risked creating a sense of bathos. In fact, it might be argued that Wordsworth is not even true to his own theory of literature. In the preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth had insisted that the poet has a responsibility to describe nature truthfully: “The principal object then which I proposed to myself in these Poems was to make the incidents of common life interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement” (244-45; emphasis added). Could Wordsworth be considered guilty of ostentation? His elevated diction includes three different words for happy (gay, jocund, glee), and some of his similes and metaphors may seem hyperbolic. It is perhaps no wonder that Coleridge complained about Wordsworth’s “mental bombast.”

Yet Wordsworth’s understanding of nature also encompasses the human imagination. In the 1802 version of the preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth added that although his language was meant to seem realistic, he did add “a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way” (245). In other words, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” is truthful in the way it describes the emotional, imaginative response to nature. For a passionate observer, daffodils can indeed be sublime.

The poem itself draws our attention to the role of the imagination, the “inner eye” (21) upon which the memory of the daffodils “flash” (21). It is the meditative mind, open to the influence of nature, that is most receptive to the influence of nature. In turn, an active imagination affects the heart, the seat of the emotions: “And then my heart with pleasure fills, / And dances with the daffodils” (23-24). When the heart and the imagination work together, even daffodils can be sublime.

By drawing our attention to the importance of the imagination, the poem defends itself against all criticism. Those who find the poem trivial simply lack a strong imagination. Indeed, in the end it is not simply the daffodils that are sublime: it is the way the human mind can transform a picturesque scene into something so captivating that it leaves us spellbound centuries later. As the poet Andrew Motion has recently pointed out, by focusing on the workings of memory and imagination, the poem makes us think about how we ourselves remember the poem: “In the same way, we recall the intensity and lift of the poem as we close the page and begin returning to it in our mind’s eye. This, more than anything, helps to explain its extraordinary currency: it offers a form of sharing, as well as a report on experience. It invites us in, while giving out” (“Host”). While early critics accused Wordsworth of creating an egotistic sublime, of indulging in imaginative flights of fancy, we can now recognize that Wordsworth taught us that nature is more than what we see. The observer adds something to the scene. The observer adds language, and language is itself sublime.

Works Cited

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of the Sublime and the Beautiful. On Taste : On the sublime and beautiful, Reflections on the French Revolution, A letter to a Noble Lord. 1757. Ed. Charles W. Eliot, Harvard Classics, vol. 24, Collier, 1909.

Butler, James A. “Poetry 1798-1807: Lyrical Ballads and Poems, in Two Volumes.” The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth. Ed. Stephen Gill, Cambridge UP, 2003, pp. 38-54.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and OpinionsThe Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, vol. 2, Princeton UP, 1983.

Joplin, David. “Wordsworth’s ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.’” Explicator vol. 56, no. 2, 1998, pp. 67-70.

Motion, Andrew. “The Host with the Most.” The Guardian, 6 Mar. 2004,

Wordsworth, William. “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” Poetry Foundation,

William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads. Ed. R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones, 2nd ed., Routledge, 1991.


Our sample essay borrows mostly from the pages on aesthetics and historical background. If you read through the other pages you will find many other essay topics.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this series of articles on analyzing English literature!

BONUS: Ten Ways To Annoy Your English Prof


As an English prof, I have marked thousands of essays. Here are ten words or phrases that students tend to misuse.


Even academics abuse this one. You can simply say “use” and be done with it.


Ditto for this one. Most of the time “social” will do the trick.


This one occurs frequently in thesis statements. Saying that something is “interesting” often implies that you haven’t made up an actual argument, but are hoping that your attitude to the subject matter counts for something. It doesn’t.


This is not even a word, but a surprising number of students seem to feel that “exaggerate” doesn’t quite do the job. We need something stronger, which is rather ironic given the circumstances.


You wouldn’t believe how often students write that the characters in a book are interesting because they are relatable. As long as we can spot that fictional people are in some sense human, our work is done. (Unless of course the characters are overexaggerated).


Some people like to go trainspotting; others go hunting for themes. These days anything in a text is a theme. Look, I’ve found a theme: it’s man vs. nature, or friendship, or love! There’s no need to make an argument about the theme. Spotting it is enough.


Some students are eager to show that they’ve actually read the book. That’s why they provide constant references to the reading process (“in my reading,” “to the reader,” “for the audience”). Don’t worry, if you’re writing about the text, we will assume that you have done some reading, even if it’s only SparkNotes.


If you think you’ve really made your point, you add the word “essentially” for emphasis. Hamlet is essentially suicidal. Oscar Wilde is essentially gay. Plato’s shadows are essentially unreal.


As soon as I see the phrase “the dictionary definition,” I know I’m about to read a definition of a perfectly ordinary word. This invariably happens in the first sentence of the essay.

In conclusion

If you place this at the start of your last paragraph you’re not doing anyone a service. We can see that this is your last paragraph—there is no need to point out the obvious.

Bonus word: capture.

Some people seem to think that “captivate” and “captive” mean the same thing. By this logic even the best book will put you in chains, forced to read a story that you literally can’t put down.

Dishonorable mentions

It’s hard to stop, so here are some (dis)honorable mentions:


off of


In conclusion, that is essentially my list of ten interesting words that you should not utilize without thinking about whether they will capture the reader. So next time you analyze some themes, make sure you pick words from the dictionary (unlike overexaggerated) that are relatable and of societal use.