University assignments can take several forms, such as an essay, a report, a project portfolio, a case study or a dissertation. It is vital that in these assignments you need to write in an academic style. What does this mean?
- Being objective
- Appropriate use of tense
- Use of appropriate vocabulary
- Transforming non-academic to academic language
Academic style involves the use of precise and objective language to express ideas. It must be grammatically correct, and is more formal than the style used in novels, newspapers, etc. This should mean that the language is clear and simple. Above all, academic style is objective, using language techniques that generally maintain an impersonal tone and a vocabulary that is more succinct, rather than involving personal, colloquial, or idiomatic expressions.
When writing academically, it is important that your personal involvement with your topic does not overshadow the importance of what you are commenting on or reporting. The main way of demonstrating this lack of bias is by using impersonal language. This means:
- Avoiding personal pronouns - try not to use the following words: I/me/one you (singular and plural) we/us.
- Using the passive rather than active voice - try to write about the action and not about the actor (the person who performed the action)
One way in which you can maintain objectivity by writing impersonally is to change the verb in the sentence to a noun and then reframe the sentence in a less personal way, e.g.:
- We applied pressure to the wound to stem bleeding (verb in bold).
- The application of pressure stemmed bleeding (noun in bold).
The past tense is used in academic writing to describe or comment on things that have already happened. However, there are times when the present tense is appropriate, e.g. when you describe your results from your experiments or findings. A material and methods section, on the other hand, will always be in the past tense, because it describes what you did.
The following examples illustrate two ways of writing a paragraph using different tenses:
- Napoleon orders his troops to advance on Moscow. The severe winter closes in on them and they come back a ragbag of an army. (Present tense in bold.)
- Napoleon ordered his troops to advance on Moscow. The severe winter closed in on them and they came back a ragbag of an army. (Simple past tense in bold.)
While the first of these examples might work with the soundtrack of a documentary on Napoleon's Russian campaign, it is too colloquial for academic written formats.
Passive and active voice
This is best explained from examples:
- Pressure was applied to the wound to stem bleeding (passive).
- We applied pressure to the wound to stem bleeding (active).
Some would argue that the second example is clearer, but their opponents would counter-argue that the use of 'we' takes attention away from the action.
Thinking about the style of your writing should be a feature of any review you make of drafts of your written work. The common errors of language use to avoid in your writing are:
- poor grammar
- imprecise, woolly wording
- use of personal pronouns
- colloquial language, such as idiom, slang and cliché
- absolute terms, when inappropriate
- value judgements
- and easily rectified mistakes, such as spelling and punctuation errors
Example of converting a piece of 'non-academic' writing into academic style.
Note that the conversion results in a slightly longer piece of text . This emphasises the point that while you should aim for concise writing, precise wording may be more important.
Original text (non-academic style)
In this country, we have changed the law so that the King or Queen is less powerful since the Great War. But he or she can still advise, encourage or warn the Prime Minister if they want.
'Corrected' text (academic style)
In the United Kingdom, legislation has been a factor in the decline of the role of the monarchy in the period since the Great War. Nevertheless, the monarchy has survived and, thus, the monarch continues to exercise the right to advise, encourage and warn the Prime Minister.
Collioquialisms' and idiomatic language
should not be used in academic writing. This example shows how colloquial language involving cliché and idiom has been misused:
Not to beat about the bush, increasing income tax did the Chancellor no good at the end of the day and he was ditched at the next Cabinet reshuffle.
Increasing income tax did not help the Chancellor and he was replaced at the next Cabinet reshuffle.
The most commonly quoted split infinitive comes from the TV series Star Trek where Captain James T. Kirk states that the aim of the Star Ship Enterprise is 'to boldly go where
no man has gone before'. This means that an adverb (boldly) has split the infinitive (to go). It should read as 'to go boldly'. Many traditionalists consider that the split infinitive is poor English, although modern usage increasingly ignores the rule. Nevertheless, it is probably better to avoid the split infinitive in academic writing, which tends to be particularly traditional.
These are defined as statements in which the author or speaker is imposing their views or values on to the reader. For example, a writer who states that 'Louis XIV was a rabid (rabiat, fanatisch) nationalist' without giving supporting evidence for this statement is not making an objective comment in a professional manner. Rewording this statement to: 'Louis XIV was regarded as a rabid nationalist. This is evident in the nature of his foreign policy where he ..' offers the reader some evidence that explains the claim.
In spoken English, shortened forms such as, don't, can't, isn't, it's, I'd and we'll are used all the time. However, in academic written English, they should not be used. Texting contractions are also inappropriate.
Avoid personal pronouns.
Experiment with other language structures so that you avoid the personal pronouns, I/me/one, you and we/us, and their possessive forms, my, your and our.