Essay Essentials: Part 3

Language and Academic Style

This is our last post in a series of the essentials of essay writing and here we focus on language and academic style.  If you're new to producing academic essays in English, then it's a very good idea to ask your Department to let you read some former students' essays, and, of course, you'll want to read journal articles as well so that you can get a good feel for the structure and the language used.  We've dealt with the structure and academic conventions (like citing, paraphrasing and referencing) in our last posts, but now we'd like to turn our attention to the language used.  It's likely that you've noticed that the language used in academic writing is very different from the language you see and hear around you every day.  That's because the academic essay is characterised by a number of stylistic and linguistic features that set it apart as a specific genre.  It's safe to say that academic writing should:

 

1. Be formal

This means that, generally speaking, you should: avoid contracted forms (e.g. instead of can't use cannot; instead of don't use do not); avoid slang and colloquialisms (e.g. instead of kids use children; instead of lots use a lot or many); avoid abbreviations (e.g. instead of e.g. use for example); write in complete sentences (e.g. bullet points and note form are not normally used and neither is anything else that gives the impression of an incomplete thought, e.g  putting etc at the end of your sentence.); write full forms the first time followed by acronym in brackets and then acronym alone thereafter (e.g. the United Nations (UN) and then the UN throughout thereafter); and avoid overusing the pronoun 'I' (make sure to ask your Department about using the first person in your academic essays; they may have strong views one way or the other). 

 

2. Be tentative rather than dogmatic

Tentative statements are ones that show your reader you know nothing is 100% certain. Knowledge is fluid and contestable and your statements should reflect this.  So, instead of writing something like 'all international students have difficulty paraphrasing', you might write 'depending on the linguistic and educational backgrounds of international students, some may experience difficulty with paraphrasing.' Other useful phrases are: It would seem that.../It may/could be that.../perhaps/possibly .../One possibility might be.../The evidence suggests that ... 

 

3. Be evidence-based

Academic writing draws on and evaluates other sources of information and evidence.  You'll know this if you've seen the long list of references at the end of an essay or journal article.  Most writers read widely and use their reading to support the ideas they want to develop in their writing.  If you make a claim, you'll need to justify it (say why you believe this to be the case) and then provide the evidence to convince your writer of the validity of your claim.  Overly personal and/or emotive accounts are not normally valued in academic writing. 

 

4. Be explicit

In English, the onus is on the writer to give reasons and/or explanations and/or examples for ideas presented and to show clearly, through the language used, how ideas relate and connect to each other. The reader should never have to read between the lines or infer your meaning.  You can use language like: One/Another reason for this is.../As a result/thus/therefore ... /In other words .../In addition/Moreover .../ For example...

 

5. Be sufficiently (not overly!) complex in terms of argument and language

Academic writing is characterised by a degree of complexity, both in terms of the arguments presented and the language used.  With regard to arguments, generally speaking you'll need to show your reader that you've considered the other side (the counter-argument) and convince your reader why your argument is just as good or better. With regard to language, you'll need to vary your sentence structure (use simple, compound and complex sentences), use a wide range of vocabulary and probably use more noun forms than verb forms (e.g. The major effects of the globalisation of the economy are ...).

 

6. Be accurate

Accuracy is important not just in terms of the language you use, but also in terms of representing and reporting other people's ideas/work.  First, with regard to language, it's important to edit and proofread your work.  If you are aware of the types of mistakes you make in writing, read your work specifically for these mistakes and ask a friend to do the same.  One useful technique for proofreading (so that content doesn't interfere) is to start at the end of your essay and read back to the beginning sentence by sentence.  Reading your essay aloud can also alert you to mistakes you didn't pick up when reading silently.  Second, with regard to reporting other's ideas/work, you need to make sure you not only do this accurately (e.g. correct citations and references and accurate representations of others' ideas), but also faithfully (e.g. always acknowledge where your information/ideas come from). 

 

7. Be gender neutral

All sexist language, stereotypes and cliches should be avoided.  Referring specifically to authors is done via surnames only and referring to 3rd person should be via she/he or he/she or s/he or they.  

 

It's a good idea to check your own work against the list above.  If you have any questions or concerns or would like us to look at your work, then do please get in touch.  Our next post brings together all our Essay Essentials advice in a comprehensive editing checklist, so make sure to look out for this useful tool.