My writing pet peeves: “As previously mentioned…”

If you’re like me, there are probably things you notice in writing that set your teeth on edge. Today, I’m going to vent a little bit about “as previously mentioned”.

“As previously mentioned” is an example of “metadiscourse” – writing that’s about the writing. We use metadiscourse to help readers find their way through what we’ve written – “signposting” is a less formal term. I’m actually a big fan of metadiscourse, because when used well it helps writing be crystal-clear. If you’ve ever written something like “There are three hypothesis to account for this observation. First… Second… Third…”, then you’ve used metadiscourse to help readers keep their place in your argument. This simple example has lots of company: consider “we believe…”, “surprisingly…”, “on the other hand…”, “in summary”, and many more. It’s unlikely that anyone ever writes a scientific paper without using some metadiscourse, and if they did, I’d surely recommend that they put some in.

But I hate “as previously mentioned”. In my books*, “as previously mentioned” is used in three different ways, and each of them indicates a problem with writing.

First,** it’s used as padding – in situations where the reader doesn’t actually need a pointer to a previous mention. This often happens when something has been “previously” mentioned just a sentence or two ago. Padding phrases can actually play a useful function in spoken language, where they give the speaker time to organize thoughts for the next phrase and the listener time to decode the last one. But in writing, where there’s no set pace of delivery to the reader, we don’t need padding. At least, not in the finished product. If in producing a first draft, a writer finds it helpful to record stream-of-consciousness thinking as a way of not losing momentum, that’s perfectly fine. But at the first revision, wield the scalpel.

Second, “as previously mentioned” is used to camouflage a problem with paragraph structure. Here, it often begins a paragraph, and refers to material mentioned in the previous one. This often happens because a writer thought a paragraph was getting pretty long, and simply inserted a paragraph break without engineering a change in topic.  Well-constructed paragraphs each treat their own topic. They can certainly build on ideas developed earlier in the text; indeed, they usually have to. But they don’t simply continue discussion of a topic from the last paragraph.

Third, “as previously mentioned” is used to “fix” a problem with organization. If the idea that was previously mentioned is fairly distant in the text from the phrase reminding you of it, then what’s happening is an attempt to connect two pieces of writing that probably ought to be connected more clearly and simply by being placed together! I’d be willing to bet that when someone uses the phrase, they’re even – perhaps subconsciously – realizing this, but rather than doing the hard work of reorganizing, they reach for the “as previously mentioned” bandaid. It’s not a very effective bandaid. Without the kind of clear organization and structure that would make “as previously mentioned” unnecessary, and without any specific pointer as to where “previously” is, the phrase is just an admission that the reader may have to re-read everything that’s gone before. They’re been asked to go on a frustrating hunt for a connection that was really the writer’s job to furnish.

Does “as previously mentioned” ever serve a useful purpose? I guess I’d hate to rule it out, but I’m skeptical.  Is “as previously mentioned” a writing sin that rises to the despicable level of “utilize”?  No (and really, not much does). But it’s a sin that’s relatively easy to stop committing. Shall we?

© Stephen Heard  October 19, 2021

Image: Pet Peeves For Sale © Zara Gonzaelz Hoang via flickr.com CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


*^In the metaphorical sense of the expression. Not in my actual (two) books.

**^Ooh, look, that’s metadiscourse! Which makes this footnote metametadiscourse. And now you’re lucky I don’t know how to footnote a footnote in HTML, or you’d have the dubious pleasure of discovering the word meta

6 thoughts on “My writing pet peeves: “As previously mentioned…”

  1. Meira Ben-Gad

    I find “as previously mentioned” (or more often its alternatives, e.g. “as mentioned above” or “as discussed in the introduction to this paper”) useful in one circumstance: when a piece of information needs to be mentioned briefly in the introduction, and then properly introduced and discussed in full in the appropriate section of the paper. It always sounds funny to me to bring up something that’s already been mentioned without some sort of meta-discursive nod. But when space is at a premium, these sorts of things are the first to go.

    Liked by 2 people

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      1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

        I think I disagree, Greg. What would be wrong with “From Equation (1)”, which would give the reader a specific pointer rather than ask them to re-read everything up to that point to find the thing referred to? Of course, you might retort “but a reader will remember it was in/near Eqn 1” – but if that’s true, you don’t need the reference at all.

        Thinking along another dimension, if we keep the vaguer reference – I’d lean to “As we have seen” rather than “As stated above”. The former centres the reader, while the latter centres the writer.

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        1. crowther

          I agree that mentioning equation (1) by number would have been better than omitting it, and that “as we have seen” is better than “as stated above.” But I’d argue that even though I didn’t land on the absolute best-possible version, this writing is not guilty of any of the first/second/third sins you listed above. Instead, it’s doing what Meira mentioned above.

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  2. Luke Hollomon

    Reassessment of structure when editing a first draft is a problem I often have and certainly need to fix. Using “as previously mentioned” (and similar phrasing) as a signpost for where I should restructure could be quite useful to guide me through edits. Thanks!

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