This page serves as an overview of the features of academic language and the corresponding language skills that are required to understand and use academic language. These guidelines are intended to help you have a clearer understanding of the demands of academic writing and develop skills to improve your academic writing in English.
For a quick introduction to academic writing, watch this 3 minute video from Lund University:
Formal writing requires considerable effort to construct meaningful sentences, paragraphs, and arguments that make the text easy to comprehend. In general this means that conversational English should be avoided and facts and figures should be presented in a clear manner. Academic texts should be factual, concise and accurate. Choose words precisely and carefully so that the reader can accurately understand the concepts within the text.
It is important to remember that academic texts are written with an academic audience in mind and your writing style needs to conform to the conventions of the field you are studying.
More on formal language
In order to achieve the appropriate level of formality, you should read literature within your field. This will also help you learn and use subject-specific terms. Correct use of terminology and language facilitates your communication and heightens the credibility of your work.
The Academic Phrasebank from the University of Manchester is a rich resource of phrases that can be used in academic writing.
In English, contractions are used in informal settings and are therefore not appropriate for academic texts. Instead of using a contraction you should write out the words in their entirety. Here are a few examples:
Don’t – do not
Wasn’t – was not
Can’t – cannot (Observe that it is written in one word)
It’s – it is (Observe the difference between “it’s” (contraction of “it is”) and the possessive “its” (as in “The dog wagged its tail”)
Acronyms and Abbreviations:
It is important to use acronyms and abbreviations properly in academic writing so that your text is as clear as possible for the reader. You should only use abbreviations when it makes the reading of your text easier. Another rule of thumb is that the abbreviated term should appear at least three times in the paper. If you use a term more rarely it might be better to spell it out. Words that are commonly abbreviated such as “professor” (prof.) and “department” (dept.) should be spelled out in academic texts. Note however that some abbreviations may be used in citations and reference lists.
An acronym is a type of abbreviation that is formed by the first letter of each word in a phrase or organization. UN and WHO are two examples of well-known acronyms. When you introduce the acronym, you should always write out the whole name or phrase followed by the acronym in parentheses. Once you have introduced it, you may use the acronym in the rest of your text. For example:
The World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed concern over the spread of the virus. The WHO has therefore….
Latin abbreviations should not be used in the text itself but may be used in parentheses or in notes and illustrations.
In academic writing, the complexity of the subject matter is acknowledged through critical analysis. This can be done through asking questions and examining and evaluating evidence. Through critical analysis we are able to add a new perspective to a subject instead of just rewriting what has already been written.
Treating your topic and your material in an analytical manner should seep through in your language. Part of being analytical in your writing is to compare and contrast, evaluate and consider both sides of an issue. It also means that you explain, give reasons, draw conclusions, make suggestions and recommendations and support this with evidence.
Academic writing is based on research and not on the writer’s own opinion about a given topic. When you write objectively you are concerned about facts and not influenced by personal feelings or biases. When presenting an argument to the reader, try to show both sides if you can and avoid making value judgments.
At the same time you will probably have to do an analysis or a discussion and in that manner express an attitude. In order to convey attitude without using for example “I think”, you may use words such as apparently, arguably, ideally, strangely and unexpectedly. Note that the attitude you are expressing should not be based on personal preferences but rather on the evidence that you are presenting.
For further information and examples of subjective and objective language, see this handout from the University of Adelaide.
More on objective language
In general, academic texts are impersonal in nature. This means that the main emphasis should be on evidence and arguments and not based on personal opinion and feelings. The use of personal pronouns such as “I”, “we” and “you” should be avoided as much as possible.
Some types of academic writing encourage the use of personal pronouns. For example, in reflective writing the use of the personal pronoun is accepted.
You should be aware that the use of personal pronouns may be different between academic fields and that some disciplines do not accept it at all. Make sure to check what is recommended, either by asking your instructor or by reading other academic texts within your subject.
Active and passive voice
One way of avoiding the use of personal pronouns is to use the passive voice.
I used a variety of techniques to analyze my material. (Here the “I” is the subject performing the action).
A variety of techniques were used to analyze the material. (This sentence is impersonal and the action is performed upon the subject, “A variety of techniques”, by an unnamed agent. The choice of “the” instead of “my” also serves to make the sentence more objective).
Use of the passive voice can be somewhat heavy and sometimes imprecise. Nowadays, many writers avoid an excessive use of the passive voice. A way of writing objectively and still use the active voice is to use your material, your text or your research as the active agent.
As this this thesis will show….
The research reveals that….
Take a look at this short video for more information about personal pronouns and active and passive voice.
Academic writing is explicit in several ways. First and foremost, it means that there is a clear presentation of ideas in the paper. The text should have a well-organized structure and be easy for the reader to follow. One way to accomplish clarity and structure in your text is through the use of signposts. Signposts are words and phrases that you can use in your text in order to guide the reader along. Signposting can be divided into two different categories: major signposting and linking words and phrases.
More on explicit language
Major signposting is used to signal key aspects of the work, such as the purpose of an academic paper and its structure. Some examples of major signposting:
The aim of this study is to …
This chapter reviews/deals with …
In conclusion …
Linking words and phrases create coherence and give the reader directions by marking transitions between sentences and paragraphs. Some examples of linking words and phrases:
Firstly, ... . Secondly, ...
For example …
… because …
Being explicit in your writing also means that you are not vague but rather very specific in the presentation of ideas, numbers and years. Being specific helps add precision to your writing.
Common pitfalls for non-native writers – and how to avoid them
If English is not your first language you may encounter certain difficulties when writing academically. This section deals with some of the most common pitfalls. If you learn what your problems are it becomes easier to avoid them and thereby become a better writer.
Words that are easily confused
Some words may look very similar but have very different meanings. For example you might write “manger” instead of “manager”. Note that this kind of mistake is not discovered by the spellchecking function of your word processor. In order to avoid these types of mistakes it is recommended that you consult a dictionary.
It is important to be aware that writing correct English is not just about using the right words but also includes sentence structure and punctuation. The use of punctuation differs between languages; an example is the upside-down question mark at the beginning of interrogative sentences in Spanish. But there are also smaller differences such as the use of commas and the way quotation marks look.
Take a look at this short video for further information about punctuation:
You may use punctuation and with that, sentence length, to create variation in your writing. If all your sentences are very short or very long the reading becomes somewhat tedious.
The research has led to many results. One result is described here.
These two short sentences could be combined into:
The research has led to many results, one of which is described here.
However, be careful so that you do not create run-on sentences. These occur when two independent clauses are joined without proper punctuation or connecting word.
The research has led to many results one result is described here.
A sentence fragment is an incomplete sentence and therefore it cannot stand on its own. A complete sentence has a subject and a verb and consists of one thought.
These are examples of sentence fragments:
So he went to see the doctor. (Why did he go to see the doctor?)
Such as fruit and vegetables. (What are fruit and vegetables examples of?)
In 1918. (What happened in 1918?)
Shattered glass all over the floor. (This is a fragment because there is no main verb)
Sentence fragments may be fixed by incorporating them into the sentence that holds the main clause, changing the punctuation or by extending the fragment into a full sentence.
Peter had a sore throat so he went to see the doctor.
Children should eat healthy food, such as fruit and vegetables.
World War I ended in 1918.
Glass was shattered all over the floor.
A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that does not connect properly to the main sentence.
Having finished the experiments, the results were analyzed.
In this sentence, it is unclear what the modifier “having finished the experiments” describes. Who has finished the experiments? The way the sentence is constructed, the modifier connects to “the results”, but clearly “the results” have not finished the experiments. This sentence needs to be rephrased. One way of doing this is to clearly state who conducted the experiments and analyzed the results:
Having finished the experiments, we analyzed the results.
Or, if you do not want to include the personal pronoun “we”:
When the experiments were finished, the results were analyzed.