Master academic language

What is academic language?

Academic language is more formal than everyday language, and its major purposes are to explain and analyse knowledge from theories and/or research findings and to persuade readers that your analysis about the theoretical knowledge and/or the research findings is reasonable or justifiable. In other words, academic language is normally analytical and it draws on evidence to reach conclusions. As a student you will find that you will often need to analyse what scholars have said about a particular topic, then create an argument about that topic, and present it using academic language.

Three key features of academic language

Academic language used at university has various features which distinguish it from the language styles used in other contexts. In particular, academic language is usually:

  1. formal
  2. objective
  3. impersonal.

These features ensure that ideas and arguments are communicated in a clear, concise, focused, convincing and professional manner.

Note that writing conventions vary even within faculties, so it is best to ask your lecturer or tutor for the specific expectations of individual units.

The tone of academic language is usually formal, meaning that it should not sound conversational or casual. You should particularly avoid using colloquialisms, idioms, slang, phrasal verbs or journalistic expressions because they are often imprecise, leading to misinterpretation. Also, they can be inaccessible to non-native English speakers. Instead, you should use formal language. For example, ‘international business heavyweights’ is too informal. Better wording would be ‘leading international businesses’ if referring to corporations, or ‘international business leaders’ if referring to individuals.

Academic language also requires you to use full forms rather than short forms or contractions. For example, you need to write “for example” instead of “e.g”; ‘do not’ instead of ‘don't’, ‘it is’ instead of ‘it's’, ‘they have’ instead of ‘they've’ and ‘we will’ instead of ‘we'll’.

Another feature of academic language is objectivity. This means it is unbiased, based on facts and evidence and is not influenced by personal feelings. Objectivity enables you to sound more convincing or persuasive to academic audiences. When personal beliefs or emotions influence your writing it is subjective and thus less convincing.

Academic language is often impersonal. This means you do not have to refer to yourself as the performer of actions. This involves avoiding the personal pronouns ‘I’, you’ and ‘we’.

For example, instead of writing ‘I will show’, you might write ‘this report will show’.

The reason academic language is often impersonal is that it is a way of distancing yourself from the research and thereby makes it sound more objective.

But note that:

  • Writing conventions vary, even between units in the same faculty.
  • Some styles of assessment tasks, such as reflective writing, require the use of personal pronouns.

Therefore, it is always best to check the expectations of your specific lecturer or tutor.

Alternatives to personal pronouns

If you need to avoid using the first or second person in your writing, here are some ways of doing it:

Using passive voice:

‘We administered the questionnaire...’ (active voice)

‘The questionnaire was administered...’ (passive voice)

Using third person:

‘I discovered that…’ becomes ‘Research reveals that…

‘We can see that….’ becomes ‘It is evident that…’

Making things rather than people the subject of sentences:

‘I show...’ becomes ‘The report shows...’

‘I interpret the results as...’ becomes ‘The results indicate...’

Taking it further