Words That Should Be Avoided in Grant Proposals: Part 2

One of the most commonly used words in grant proposals is the verb “(to) understand.” Applicants frequently plan grant proposals that have been designed to “understand” something. Thus, it is common to read, “The objective of this proposal is to understand the underlying reasons for…”

Alternatively, some applicants feel it is important to be more conservative. Under such circumstances, they might write something like, “The objective of this proposal is to better understand the underlying reasons for…” While these are certainly laudable goals and meritorious of an applicant’s promise, their achievement in reality should prompt serious questions among reviewers and even the applicants themselves.

In point of fact, understanding is a goal which is rarely, if ever, fully achieved in practice. In fact, the acquisition of what might be called “full understanding” can only be approached asymptotically.

The extent to which the promise of an applicant to “better understand” or “increase understanding” is meaningful would depend rather critically upon exactly where one is in the understanding versus knowledge relationship, and this is likely not to be accurately known either by the applicant, by the reviewers, or by the funding agency.

An additional problem that becomes apparent is that to “understand” or “better understand” has a relatively qualitative and indeterminate endpoint. In contrast, every applicant should have an objective where the endpoint can be precisely delineated.

As a consequence, applicants should think seriously before presenting arguments for the need to “understand” or for proposing deliverables in which a “better understanding” would be anticipated. There is, in fact, alternative terminology to “understanding” that would be equally acceptable, for example “define the mechanism,” “elucidate the primary contributing factors,” “explicate the most likely external factors.” In this way, it will be possible to avoid the “nebulous trap” that is usually impossible to escape with the promise of “understanding.”

Excerpted from Grant Writers’ Seminars & Workshops (GWSW) Blog.

To view specific examples of tips and strategies from various versions of the GWSW The Grant Application Writer’s Workbook, visit the Workbooks page and click the link for the specific workbook of interest to you.