Language for Academic Writing

 Formal Vocabulary

Conventions for formal versus informal vocabulary depend on the field you are writing within. The following words are often regarded as casual or subjective in tone and therefore are not usually found in academic writing.

Informal                        Formal

you                                 one, a person, a student, an indivdual
really                              very
a bit                                quite, somewhat, rather
don't, aren't, can't          do not, are not, cannot (in other words, do not use contracted forms)
big                                  large, major, substantial, important
to get                              to obtain, to achieve, to acquire
maybe                            possibly, perhaps
like                                 such as
things                             aspects, factors, matters, components
good and bad sides       positive and negative aspects, advantages and disadvantages
a lot                                a great deal, many, a substantial number, considerably
happenings                    events
nowadays                       currently, today, at present
one time                         once, on one occasion
many-sided                    diverse, multifaceted, varied
scary                              frightening
not much                        little
not many                        few
not any                           no

not anymore                   no longer


 It's vs. Its

It's = It is (It's a difficult exam) Its = possessive 'it' (Its questions are difficult)


 Affect vs. Effect

Affect is usually a verb. Effect is usually a noun.

This policy will affect everyone.
This policy will have an effect on everyone.

This policy will have positive effects.



 So vs. Such

So comes before an adjective on its own, with no noun.

He is so amusing.

Such comes before an adjective followed immediately by a noun.

He is such an amusing person.



A Few vs. Few

A few has a positive meaning, similar to several.

We were happy to see a few students at the meeting

Few has a negative meaning, similar to not many.

Sadly, there were few students at the meeting



Research is an uncountable noun, so it cannot be pluralized as researches. Instead, use the word studies.

Dr Brown carried out important research.

Dr Brown carried out a number of important studies.



Avoid direct questions

Familiarize yourself instead with indirect questions

How could students afford tuition fees?
> It is unclear how students could afford tuition fees.
> We need to ask how students could afford tuition fees.
> It is debatable whether students could afford tuition fees.




Commas signal pauses in the text as though it were being read aloud.

More specifically:

a) Separate non-defining relative clauses with commas

The customers, who had been queuing for over an hour, were very impatient.

Here, the relative clause is 'non-defining' because it gives extra information that is not essential in understanding what is meant by "the customers". Without the clause, the sentence would still make sense. The clause is therefore separated by commas.

b) Separate introductory words or phrases with commas

However, the system also has many advantages.

After finishing the thesis, it was easier to find a job.

c) Do not use a comma before that.

It was clear that the customers were becoming impatient.

The computer that I was working at would not connect to the printer.

That is only used with defining relative clauses.

d) Use a comma before a conjunction (and, but, yet, or, nor, so) if it is followed by an independent phrase (i.e. a phrase that would make sense as its own sentence). Otherwise, do not use a comma.

Credit cards can be wonderful for emergencies, but they can be dangerous for impulse buyers.

Credit cards can be wonderful for emergencies and travelling.



 Which vs. That

In American English, that is only used with defining relative clauses, whereas which is only used with non-defining relative clauses.

The movie that I wanted to see is no longer showing.

'The Artist', which won the Oscar for best picture, is showing at the moment.

In British English, that is also only used with defining relative clauses, but which can be used with both defining and non-defining relative clauses. So:
The movie which I wanted to see is no longer playing.

'The Artist', which won the Oscar for best picture, is playing at the moment.

The difference is that in British English, which has a more formal tone than that.




Make sure that each time you mention a singular subject, that same subject remains singular throughout a sentence.

E.g. If a student is unhappy with the grade, they can resit the exam.

> If a student is unhappy with the grade, he or she can resit the exam.

Note: Repeating he or she throughout a text (i.e. more than once in a paragraph) will become awkward. A better solution is to simply pluralize the subject to begin with (if students are unhappy with their grades, they can...)

Similarly, if you mention a plural subject, that subject should remain plural.

E.g. The participants in my study all answered that he or she uses English at work daily.
> The participants in my study all answered that they use English at work daily.



Reported Speech and Tenses

Reporting someone's speech in your writing - for example in referring to someone's research or referring to interview data - can be tricky in regards to tenses. Let's say that you have conducted an interview on a group of peoples' use of English. Which of the following two sentences is correct?

Anne explained that she uses English daily. OR

Anne explained that she used English daily.

The answer is that it depends on whether the verb 'to use' is referring to a continuous, general behaviour or to behaviour during a specific, temporary time period. So, if you asked Anne about how often she uses English in general, the first sentence would be correct. On the other hand, if you asked her about how often she used English during high school, the second would be correct.

Note, however, that the first sentence could only apply if you have good reason to expect that the behaviour is still true, i.e. the interviews were conducted recently. If the interviews were conducted 10 years ago, it would not make sense to use present tense.