Ken Paterson is a freelance ELT writer and consultant, and co-author of the Oxford Grammar for EAP. In this post he looks at the grammatical features that characterize academic writing.
At this year’s IATEFL conference in Liverpool, a Polish lecturer asked me how I would have responded to the question an MA TESOL student had recently put to her: what grammatical features were most characteristic of general academic writing? With a coffee in one hand and two minutes to get to the next talk, the best response I could come up with was the rather underhand counter question: is there really such a thing as ‘general academic writing’? On reflection, however, and after a trawl through a broad variety of text-types, I think there are a number of features that recur often enough to be ‘characteristic’. So, if she’s still listening, here – in no particular order – is an attempt at a list.
1. Complex noun phrases
e.g. … a task-driven approach to software design …
Where there is a need to convey information economically, nouns are often pre-modified by adverbs, adjectives and other nouns, and post-modified by phrases and clauses. Typical language includes
- compound adjectives such as small-scale or free-market, and adverb + adjective combinations like highly sensitive or rapidly growing
- noun pairs like government measures, market crash or health policy
- nouns + prepositional phrases such as research into social work practice or an analysis of the relevant data
2. Hedging devices
e.g. Internet Protocol Television is arguably the most interesting new media development.
Hedging devices reduce the strength of statements that, unless we are dealing with indisputable facts, are always open to doubt. Typical grammar includes the use of
- hedging verbs such as appear, seem, and tend, and adverbs like apparently, approximately and relatively
- the language of probability rather than certainty: may, might; be likely to; probably
- hedging expressions like The evidence suggests that …, as a rule; and to some extent
3. Depersonalizing structures
e.g. There needs to be a proper exploration of the causes of the riots.
Depersonalizing structures tend to reassure the reader that the views expressed are the result of analysis rather than prejudice. Typical structures include the use of
- the preparatory subject It … as in It may be preferable for the newspaper industry to regulate itself.
- There to suggest that something exists rather than claim it as a personal opinion: There seems to have been a disagreement over the exact date of the discovery.
- essay, report, evidence etc. as the subject of the sentence: This report focuses on …
e.g. Twelve new species of Peruvian insect were identified by Swiss naturalists in 2011.
With its desire to foreground events, results and processes rather than human agents, it’s not surprising that the passive is fairly common in academic writing. Typical grammar includes
- passive forms of the modal verbs can, could, must and should: Exporting to a new market could be described as one of the key challenges facing an expanding business.
- reporting verbs in the structures It + passive verb + that … e.g. It is estimated that …
- passive verbs + prepositions such as be associated with, be based on, be composed of etc.: From its discovery in 1930 until 2006, Pluto was classified as a planet.
5. Particular types of linking language
e.g. Swans, in contrast, appear to mate for life.
The requirement in academic expression for a logical flow means that certain linking devices are more common than in other styles of writing. Typical language for
- expressing results includes as a result, consequently, therefore, thus
- expressing contrast includes in contrast, however, on the contrary, on the other hand
- expressing additional information includes in addition, furthermore, similarly
- structuring a text includes firstly, subsequently, finally, in brief, in conclusion
6. The frequency of signalling language
e.g. Anders and Silver do not share the same views on the technical aspects of stem cell research. Armstrong (2012) explains why this disagreement matters …
The complexity of an academic text may mean that the reader needs more guidance than would be necessary in other types of prose. Typical language to refer backwards and forwards to specific parts of the text includes
- this, these, that and those on their own or with nouns that summarize a recent idea, e.g. this phenomenon, these objectives, that argument
- such, the same; one, both, some etc., e.g. if such a theory (i.e. the one recently mentioned) holds true, then …
- the former/latter; respectively; above/below etc., e.g. in the preceding section of this report, we attempted to show …
- modal will/shall to tell readers what they may expect to find further on in the text: In the second part of this report we will argue that new legislation is required to …
7. Particular uses of verb tenses/aspects
e.g. Both studies conclude that a sudden drop in temperature delays the bonding process.
Certain verb tenses/aspects carry specific meaning in academic English. The most typical are:
- present simple to report research results (as above) and the arguments of other academics (As Steele explains, …) and to summarize articles, chapters etc. (This report considers the effects of … )
- past simple to describe the procedure in particular experiments/studies as in Bernard (2007) interviewed 146 soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
- present perfect to summarize arguments made up to a particular point in a text: The first part of this report has outlined how one-way road systems can be beneficial … and to place emphasis on the strength of current arguments: Keirston (2010) has shown that the onset of Type 2 diabetes can be delayed by …
Other grammatical features such as the frequency of the relative pronoun ‘which’ and the use of the ‘it cleft’ could be mentioned but in the interests of drawing the line somewhere, I’m stopping at seven! As usual, your comments are welcome.
For more information on ‘hedging’ and its use in academic writing, join my webinar ‘Language for hedging in academic English’ on 15 October.
1 October 2013 at
Nice to see someone talking about EAP in plain English. Looking forward to the webinar!
2 October 2013 at
Please excuse my ignorance, but could you explain what an ‘it cleft’ is?
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5 October 2013 at
Thanks for your comment, Paula. A cleft sentence is where the writer (or speaker) re-organizes the words to place particular focus on one element (often for contrast). The structure in an ‘it cleft’ is:
it + be + focus element + a relative-like dependent clause
Instead of writing
‘You ultimately master a second language through constant practice rather than memorization.’
‘It is through constant practice rather than memorization that you ultimately master a second language.’
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24 October 2013 at
Thank you for sharing this concise, clear primer that can clarify the challenge for both English teachers and advanced English language learners.
25 October 2013 at
Thanks for your comment, Eric. I agree it can be a challenge – teaching and learning – but a rewarding one on a good day!
28 November 2013 at
I’ve found this a good start for delving into the world of Academic English. Thanks.
30 November 2013 at
Thanks for your feedback. I’m glad you found the post useful.