Academic Style

A pen writing in ink on paper

Adopting an academic style


It is important when you write your assignments at Queen Mary that your writing can be, according to Clanchy and Ballard (1992), cited in Jordan (1997, p.244): ‘objective‘ not ‘subjective‘, ‘intellectual‘ not ‘emotional‘, ‘serious‘ not ‘conversational‘, ‘impersonal‘ not ‘personal‘, and ‘formal‘ rather than ‘colloquial‘.

One way you can convey your objectivity to your reader, when writing in an academic context, is by being tentative or ‘confidently uncertain‘ (Skelton 1988). This is partly to establish the difference between facts and claims in your writing, but also to reduce the likelihood of opposition to your claims. Also, because academic writing is primarily concerned with ideas and the relationships between them, rather than with people and their actions, academic texts often favour nouns and noun phrases, rather than verbs and verb phrases. However, the focus of this learning object is on how the vocabulary and grammatical choices you make affect the register (the degree of formality) of your finished product.


  • To gain a greater awareness of the formality that is appropriate to academic writing
  • To assist you in choosing formal vocabulary, so as to adopt an academic style
  • To introduce the Academic Word List and its educational purpose
  • To assist you in selecting alternatives to the overuse of personal pronouns

Activity 1: Choosing formal vocabulary

In general, words that have a Latin or French etymological origin are considered more formal in English than those which have Anglo-Saxon roots. A good dictionary will often tell you the etymological roots of a word (those for native speakers of English) or tell you if a word is ‘formal’, ‘informal’, or ‘colloquial’ (dictionaries for non-native speakers of English). If you are not a native speaker, but your first language is derived from Latin (such as French, Italian or Spanish) then many of the English words that are preferred in an academic context share similar origins and will probably seem familiar to you. If your first language is very different from English (such as Chinese, Arabic or Japanese) then you will not have this advantage. However, the more formal vocabulary is often longer; that is, it has more syllables, and is less frequently heard in every day conversation. This exercise is designed to help you identify these more formal words and thereby help you in adopting a more formal register when composing your essays.

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In the following exercises, choose the lists which words are formal, or neutral, in register and are therefore appropriate to use in an academic essay.

Exercise 1: Put a tick in the box if the word is considered formal in English.

Exercise 2: Put a tick in the box if the word is considered formal and suitably academic.

Exercise 3: Put a tick next to the following sentences which are formal and therefore suitable for inclusion in an academic essay. Use the ‘cross’ column, if the sentence is too informal to be appropriate.

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If you would like further practice matching some informal words to their more formal equivalents, you can follow this link Formal-Informal Matching

Activity 2: The Academic Word List

Until recently, those working with students keen to improve their academic vocabulary were obliged to follow their instinct as to which words were ‘academic’ and which were not. However, in the year 2000, Dr. Averil Coxhead at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand used computer corpora for the first time to scientifically establish the highest frequency vocabulary used in an academic context. Through analysis of 3,500,000 words of text, from a variety of different disciplines and utilising a number of different genres, the Academic Word List was created. It excludes the 2000 highest frequency words used in English and technical words specific to the disciplines, but it nonetheless represents an invaluable resource for all those wishing to expand their academic vocabulary, especially those students for whom English is an additional language. The list comprises 570 word families and is organised into ten sublists with the words in Sublist 1 being the most frequent, Sublist 2 the next most frequent and so on.

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The following exercised use words from the Academic Word List. In this exercise you should put a cross in the box if the word is misspelt.

Exercise 1: Put a tick in the box if the spelling of the word is wrong.

Exercise 2: Put a tick in the box, if the spelling of the word is wrong.

If you would like to do further exercises based on the Academic Word List, follow this link AWL Matching Exercises and Crossword

Activity 3: Use of the personal pronoun ‘I’

Traditionally the use of the personal pronoun ‘I’ to express your opinion has been discouraged in academic writing. This is especially the case in certain disciplines, for example in the sciences, where objectivity is viewed as especially important. However, in certain other disciplines, for example in business or gender studies, sometimes the writer is expected to draw on personal experience to inform their viewpoint. In such circumstances, then the use of ‘I’ may be deemed appropriate. Also, the genre that the student is asked to adopt will be influential. A reflective journal for example, in which the lecturer will be looking for evidence of personal growth and development, might allow for a great deal of self-mention. A report, on the other hand, might be a discourse within which expression of personal opinion may well be discouraged. Moreover, individual lecturer preference undoubtedly plays a decisive role and it is advisable to check with the person whose responsibility it is to assess your assignment as to their feelings on this matter. However, despite these considerations, it is a good idea to be equipped with alternatives to using the first person pronoun to express your feelings and adopt a position on the materials you have selected to support your argument. The following alternatives are presented with this aim in mind.

If you do not mention yourself in your essay, it is usually assumed that the opinion expressed is your own. Therefore, it is often possible simply to omit the ‘I’ without any loss of clarity. Compare:

“In my dissertation I have outlined…” with, “This dissertation has outlined…”
“As I mentioned above…” with, “As mentioned above…”
“I believe the environment may also be suitable…” with, “The environment may also be suitable…”

Another alternative is to use the passive voice, so there is no agent mentioned. Compare:

“I decided to conduct the experiment…” with, “It was decided that the experiment should be conducted…”
“I designed the software program…” with, “The software program was designed…”
“I therefore argue that…” with, “It can be argued that…”

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Read through the following paragraph that overuses the personal pronoun ‘I’.

In this assignment, I will present the point of view that expenditure on education in recent years has been insufficient in the area of new technologies. I will argue that the lack of investment is primarily a governmental failure and, as far as I am concerned, this will impact negatively on computer literacy. So, in my conclusion, I will propose alternative funding policies that I hope you will consider more forward looking.

Now rewrite the paragraph, avoiding self-mention and avoiding the second person pronoun ‘you’ to refer to the reader.

Would you like to review the main points?

© William Tweddle, Queen Mary, University of London, 2010, photo used under the terms of an attributive CC license: courtesy of JKim1