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Academic English: Academic Voice and Language

Advice on grammar and punctuation, the type of language used in academic writing, and importance of finding your academic voice

Overview

This page illustrates some of the main characters of academic language, namely: 

  • Simplicity, conciseness and clarity
  • Formality
  • Accuracy and evidence
  • Logic

Within those categories there are some hard rules, but also also room for considerations of context and personal style. You may wish to further improve your skills by reading widely in your field to understand how others write on the subject, along with keeping a vocabulary list that you can add subject-specific words or useful academic phrases to.

Simplicity, Conciseness and Clarity

This may be surprising to you, as you probably have had to deal with more than one (arguably, unnecessarily) obscure academic paper, but virtually all literature on academic writing advocates for simplicity and clarity. 

  • Write short sentences. 
  • Be as clear as possible. 
  • Avoid repetitions. 
  • Help the reader to follow your points. 
  • Remove any clutter, so your good points will stand out. 

Example: 

"For the purpose of this survey, each and every individual (that is, all the 21 individuals who filled the survey, which is better than nothing although we asked many more at the cafeteria during lunch time in early January, but they did not wish to participate) was asked several questions, which they had to answer filling a questionnaire, for the purpose of identifying the views of students (the participants to the study) on circular economy" 

"To identify student views on the circular economy a survey was undertaken. The survey was administered to students attending the University cafeteria from 1pm to 2pm during week 13-17 January. Twenty-one students filled the survey, which was satisfactory." 

Formality

University level writing requires students to adopt a formal style within their assignments. This tone of communication differs greatly to forms of conversational language, which may include contractions, such as “it’s”, slang, colloquialisms and emotive forms of speech that may suggest biased opinions. Additionally, the academic voice often avoids the use of the first person, “I”, and instead adopts a more distant and unbiased style to suggest well-formulated debates and arguments that are based on supporting evidence, rather than personal opinions. 

Avoid contractions

I'm → I am 

It's → It is

Isn't → Is not

Let's → Let us

Avoid starting a sentence with a simple conjunction

But there are other reasons... → However, there are other reasons...

And it it has to be considered that... → Moreover, it has to be considered that..

Use formal expressions

A lot of / huge → Considerable

Nonsense → Implausible / Incorrect / Unreasonable

Use the third person or declarative statements 

The use of the third person and declarative statements contribute to the authoritativeness and objectivity of your piece. Remember that authoritative form is not sufficient. You need to work on the content too, presenting evidence and reasoning. 

Example of third person: 

I think that... → This essay argues that...

Example of declarative statement: 

In my opinion, sleep supports cognitive functions and is therefore an important factor of healthy living → Sleep supports cognitive functions and is therefore an important factor of healthy living.

Do not personalise

You need to sleep in order to remember better → Sleep is essential to help memory.

Non-Discriminatory Language

Our academic writing should strive to express equality and respect for all individuals. Subsequently, make sure that your writing is free of sexist language and free of bias based on such factors as race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, and disability.

Equally, use gender-neutral language:

Chairman → Chairperson

Executives and their wives → Executives and their spouses

Dear Gentlemen → To Whom It May Concern:

Each student must provide his own lab jacket →  Students must provide their own lab jackets. Or: Each student must provide his or her own

Accuracy and Evidence

Academic writing needs to be as accurate as possible and has to be based on evidence. It's an effortful endeavour, but it is rewarding, contributing to human knowledge. 

Examples:

"Cells must be incubated in a warm environment." → "Cells must be incubated at 37ºC."

"Sales have grown recently." → "Between January 2019 and January 2020 sales have grown by 7% (reference)".

Avoid sweeping generalisations

Example:

"Eating fat is bad for health". Are we sure? All types of fat? We should try to be more accurate, for example: "Regular consumption of saturated fats can increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases."

How to avoid sweeping generalisations:

  1. Get as much accurate evidence as possible.
  2. If there is still uncertainty, use cautious language (hedge), e.g. tends to… it seems… with the exception of… usually… it could be suggested…likely…suggests that…is evidence for… it is possible that… might... could

Match your words to the strength of evidence

Think of the following example. Which option should you choose to complete the sentence? 

"Saturated fats ___ cardiovascular diseases"

a) cause

b) contribute to

c) may contribute to

d) might be a factor of

The choice should be based on your research. You should present the evidence for the statement. 

Note: not all statements in your writing need a reference, but they all need to be supported by evidence. The evidence can be presented before of after the statement, depending on the function of the statement (introductory or conclusive) .

Logic

Much of the logic of your work is due to the overall structure of the text and logical sequence of the points presented, but signposting is also necessary, helping the reader following the train of your thoughts.

Remember: the reader should not have to use detective work to guess what you are trying to say and why. Don’t leave the links and explanations in your head - nobody can find them there so you won’t get any marks for them! Show clearly how the things you say link together to form and support an argument.

Major signposting

  • Statements of the aim, research question, outline of the text;
  • Topic sentences within paragraphs;
  • Sentences drawing conclusions. 

Minor signposting

Linking sentences 

Compare the following couples of sentences:

  1. The economy is showing signs of inflation. Unemployment is high. 
  2. The economy is showing signs of inflation. However, unemployment is high. 

As normally inflation is matched by lower unemployment, the second sentence seems to be advisable, indicating that the author picked the unusual situation, and should expand on it in the rest of the text.  

Introducing a source

Express your reasoning by indicating to the reader whether you agree or disagree with a source, or are simply stating the evidence. You can for example vary the conjunction (as; although; despite...), preposition (according to; in line with; counter to...), reporting verb (states; claims; maintains; suggests; proposes; discusses...).

Examples

Look at the examples below and consider the words used. As a reader, would you think the writer is agreeing, disagreeing or simply neutral and stating what Smith says?

According to Smith "..."

As Smith points out "..."

Smith suggests that "..."

Although Smith claims that "..."

Useful resources

Websites: 

The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tips and Tools, available at https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/ . This is a well-written and comprehensive guide covering inter alia the following academic language topics: Clichés, Conciseness, Editing and Proofreading, Gender-Inclusive Language, Latin Terms and Abbreviations, Modal Verbs, Passive Voice, Proofreading, Should I Use “I”?, Style, Transitions (ESL), Word Choice.

Morley, J., 2014, ´╗┐´╗┐Academic Phrasebank - A compendium of commonly used phrasal elements in academic English, available at http://www.phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk/using-cautious-language/

Books and articles: 

Greetham, B. (2018). How to write better essays, 4th ed. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

Swales, J.F. and Feak, C.B. (2004). Academic writing for graduate students: essential skills and tasks, 2nd ed. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press

Sword, H. (2012). Stylish academic writing. United States of America: Harvard University Press

Workshop Slides