Academic style

Formal, objective and cautious language are features common to almost all academic writing. Below are some tips on these three aspects of academic style to get you started.

All university students are expected to research and draw on appropriate sources, effectively integrate the sources into their own writing, and correctly reference those sources. Three more features common to almost all academic writing are the use of language that is formal, objective and cautious.

To gain a more accurate understanding of the language required in your assignments, it is a good idea to analyse your course readings to learn how specific language is used in your discipline. Also, remember to consult your unit site for any specific requirements regarding language or style.

Note that in some written assignments you may be asked to write in a more subjective style, for example, you may be asked to write a social media post or a personal reflection. Be aware that even with these types of assignments, you will still be expected to draw on supporting evidence, use language that is somewhat formal, somewhat objective (that is, without emotional bias) and somewhat cautious.

Formal

Avoid vague, general and conversational language.

Academic writing uses formal language, which means avoiding the use of slang and colloquial language associated more commonly with speech, text chat, as well as publications such as newspapers, magazines and online media. It is very rare that you will see informal language used in academic publications, unless it is in a direct quotation.

Here are a few tips for writing in a more formal style in your assignments:

1. Be specific

When making statements in your writing, specific details and examples should be given. What?, Who?, Why?, Where? and When? are all good questions to ask yourself as you research and write, but also consider the next level of detail in your questioning. For example: In what way is it important?, Who do they represent?, Exactly how much?, To what extent? and What are the specific factors involved?

Avoid vague and general phrases Be more formal and more specific

Food prices have gone up a lot lately.

Food prices have increased significantly over the past two years.

Chemical cycling is pretty important in an ecosystem.

Chemical cycling plays a key role in the success of an ecosystem. For example, …

There are many things that make this happen …

There are several factors that contribute to …   Firstly, …

2. Spell out contractions

Avoid contractions  Spell out in full
don’t do not
isn’t is not
mustn’t must not
they’re they are
won’t will not

3. Use formal verb forms

Avoid ‘verb + preposition’ forms Use a more formal verb form
go up increase
come back return
find out discover
get across communicate
put off postpone
set up organise
mixed up confused

4. Avoid informal shortened forms

Avoid shortened forms used in text and chat Use a more formal alternative
pros and cons advantages and disadvantages
B4 before
FWIW    
(for what it’s worth)
Whether this is considered of value is another question …
ASAP as soon as possible

Note: There are shortened forms that are appropriate to use in academic writing. In general, most shortened forms (TAFE, ASIC, ASIO, ACT, UNSW) should be spelt out in full in the first instance in your assignment, followed by the shortened form in brackets. For example, Australian Capital Territory (ACT). It is sometimes acceptable to not spell out commonly known shortened forms in full (DVD, PIN, CIA).

Further reading:

Objective

Even from first year, your role should be one of an objective critic.

1. Draw on logic and evidence, rather than emotion and uninformed opinion

Objective writing involves making evaluations based on evidence, as well as existing points of view that are supported by evidence. And it is not only research essays and reports – even personal reflective writing is often somewhat objective to the extent that it draws on theory and is limited to reflecting on your professional learning experience (rather than your personal life).

It is important to understand that, even from first year, your role is one of an objective critic. Language that is judgemental and based on uninformed opinion, rather than fact, has no place in good academic writing.

Pronouns such as our and we should be avoided, as they imply a gross generalisation and are often used by writers for manipulative emotive effect.

Evaluate how you describe things in your own writing. Words such as terrible, outrageous, awful, glorious, wonderful and shocking imply personal judgement, which should be avoided in academic writing.

Avoid emotive / judgemental phrases

Direct the reader to specific examples and evidence

Our national values are … In the survey, respondents identified their adherence to ‘national values’
in the following ways …
shocking statistics The statistical increase was
significant, for example …
elegant writing

Goran’s work exemplifies the writing style of a number of nineteenth-century classics, namely …

This was a sad moment in history. According to several historians (Hobbes 2012; Melville 2006; Smith 2009), contemporary commentators reported the event as ‘catastrophic’.

2. Avoid stereotypes 

Uninformed assumptions and generalisations are not acceptable in academic writing.

In your writing at university you will need to express your opinion, or point of view, fairly and without bias. This means not making careless assumptions or generalisations about groups of people. You will need to ensure that you think carefully about any statements you make about people based on their gender, sexuality, ability, ethnicity, age or belief.

You are expected to critically analyse evidence, hypotheses and opinion. The language of stereotypes – uninformed assumptions and generalisations – is never acceptable in academic writing.

Also, keep in mind that a person’s gender, ethnicity, or other attributes, need only be included where it is relevant to the topic. For example, is the fact that the person you are describing is Aboriginal or a woman or a Muslim relevant to your topic? If not, consider removing these descriptors.

Here are some examples of gender-neutral language that can be used:

Avoid language that is unnecessarily gendered

Use language that is gender neutral
police man police officer
business man business person
male nurse nurse
female doctor doctor

3. Objective vs. subjective language

In most assessments, you will be expected to use objective language. This means avoiding the use of personal pronouns, such as I and my. However, there are always exceptions, so discuss this with your lecturer or check your unit guide to determine exactly what is expected for each assessment. In reflective writing assignments and tasks, for example, you may be expected to use these personal pronouns when drawing on your personal experience of the course.

Subjective form Objective form
In this essay, I will discuss … This essay discusses …
This shows us that … This shows that …
My approach to this was to … One method considered was …
In my research I found that … The research showed that…

Further reading:

Cautious

Using cautious language actually strengthens your argument.

You may notice from your unit readings that it is quite rare that writers will claim to be 100% certain of their findings, recommendations or opinions, even when supported by solid evidence. Why is this? In order to strengthen their argument, academic writers often use cautious language such as may indicate, suggests that, probably. By using cautious language, the writer accepts that there is almost always room for doubt and further questioning. This is an accepted academic writing technique that you can use in your assignments.

In much academic writing, the following  absolutist phrases are usually avoided: always, forever, all, absolutely, never, none.

Across a range of disciplines, phrases are used to show some caution (sometimes called tentative phrases). These phrases can be used to avoid unreasonable certainty in your own statements and opinions, and you can also use these phrases when interpreting and analysing your readings.

Some of these tentative phrases include: indicate, appear, perhaps, suggest, probably, could, would, might, may, possibly, probably, conceivably, arguably, usually, more likely, less likely, and potentially.

Avoid unreasonable certainty Use cautious language
This research proves that ... This research suggests that ...
There is obviously a link between ... Research indicates that there is a link between ...
It is absolutely the case that ... It is probable that ...
All researchers conclude ... Several researchers concluded …
In this case, clearly they have no contract of sale.

From the facts, it appears most likely that they have no contract of sale.

Conrad states that it is the white settlers who are the true savages.

Conrad implies that it is the white settlers who are the true savages.

Further reading:

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