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Precise Academic Wording

Ordinary writing is an informal writing style based on the more relaxed language of everyday communication. It’s probably the way you write emails and social media messages.

I use a colloquial writing style in this blog: I virtually write as I would speak to you. In contrast, academic writing style is formal and precise. Everyday communication is often not suitable for academic use: it lacks precision. When you talk or write to peer scholars, strive to communicate as precisely as possible. You want to make sure that your understanding of a concept is shared accurately. Trying to describe concepts advances knowledge. That’s why you should aim to:

  • be explicit
  • spell things out clearly
  • avoid vagueness
  • avoid ambiguity

Take the word ‘thing’ for example. A very useful word in everyday speech. But also as vague as it gets. Not surprisingly, it’s not acceptable to use this word in academic writing – even if its meaning can be guessed from the context (although it usually isn’t as guessable as you might think).

So: aim at using words with as precise and accurate a meaning as possible. This will sharpen your thought processes at the same time.

Have a look at the following sentence:

“Academic writing is something that is hard to learn.”

You should replace this with:

“Academic writing is a skill that is hard to learn.”

But not with the rather trying-too-hard-to-impress:

“Academic writing constitutes an expertise that is challenging to acquire.”

Thinking of words to replace ‘something’ is interesting. By committing yourself to using the word ‘skill’, you define a focus. You become more concrete. And you make it easier for the reader to grasp the meaning of the sentence.

Now have a look at this sentence:

“The striking thing about this research is that it highlights the necessity for follow-up studies using qualitative methods.”

Most of this sentence is written in an academic style, but the word ‘thing’ holds no meaning. It acts, instead, as a non-word, because it does not precisely state what the actual ‘thing’ is.  It might refer to ‘an aspect’ of the research or ‘the findings’ of the research.  The reader is left to fill in the blanks and to guess what was ‘striking’.

It is important not to use the pronoun ‘he‘ unless you are referring to a specific male.  Better practice is to use gender-neutral language like ‘the author’ or ‘the researcher’. You may also write the person’s name (if mentioned for the first time), followed by ‘the author’ (if mentioned a second time) and ‘s/he’ (if mentioned a third time), for example:

“Steven Pinker (2014) argues that most academic writing is below par. The author argues for making the art of writing into a pleasurable mastery. He furthermore explains that skillful writers need to be sensitive to how syntax can conjure tangled ideas into a string of words.”

And don’t forget to add your citation of Steven Pinker in your References.

In an academic manuscript, try using words that accurately capture what you mean. That way, you don’t make your writing sound misleading. Certainly don’t use vague words to obscure the fact that you are not fully informed on what you’re writing; your readers will see through it!

Slang, popular clichés or colloquialisms (e.g. a ‘write-up’ is a colloquial name for an experimental report) are not used in academic writing. It is hard, especially for fresh researchers, to work out which words and phrases might be considered too colloquial for academic writing. But the more you keep reading academic texts, the more your judgment will develop.

Here are the three overly colloquial terms that my students often use:

1. backed up:

“A study by Fishman and Sinclair (2010) backed up the theory.”

The colloquial phrase backed up should be replaced with supported.

“A study by Fishman and Sinclair (2010) supported the theory.”

Other phrases that are equally acceptable would be: offered support for, provided evidence for.

2. do an experiment:

It is overly colloquial to write of doing an experiment:

“Another experiment was done by Fishman and Sinclair (2010) that tested the native language loyalty of bilingual Hispanic speakers in California.”

“There have been many experiments done on the Hispanic’s community native language loyalty in California.”

These two sentences could be rephrased more formally as follows:

“In another experiment, carried out by Fishman and Sinclair (2010), native language loyalty of bilingual Hispanic speakers in California was tested.”

“Numerous experiments on the Hispanic’s community language loyalty have been performed in California.”

3. relates to:

“Dyslexia is sometimes said to be an attention problem. Bosse and Valdois’ (2011) work relates to this.”

The term as used above is too vague in academic writing. This author should be more specific. What exactly is the nature of the relationship between Bosse and Valdois’ work and the preceding sentence? The reader is left to guess, or to conclude that the student has no clear idea. Here is one possibility:

“Dyslexia is sometimes said to be an attention problem. Bosse and Valdois (2011) claimed to have found support for this point of view.”

Without going into too much detail, I will point out four additional areas where your writing style can be tightened up to make it more precise:

4. Vague Quantifiers

Vague quantifiers are terms indicating an imprecise amount of information, for example most researchersfew scholarsquite a lot of participants, very close, much too long, a bit unclear, some authors, good, bad, big, small, etc.

When making claims involving quantity:

  • be accurate
  • be as precise as possible
  • provide proof

For example, if you claim that most linguists hold a certain view, it undermines your claim if you cannot give at least two citations to support it. So do not use “a lot of respondents” when you can write “20 out of 25 respondents”.

It is also important not to make claims that are difficult to substantiate, such as “most research on language change in Mandarin has shown…”

If you use a general noun phrase, be as precise as possible:

  • all but two participants”,
  • “children under seven
  • “Canada’s elementary school teachers”
  • close to ninety percent of respondents”
5. Persuader Words

Avoid appealing to authority without providing citations:

  • scientists believe…”
  • most language experts now think…”.

If whatever you are describing is an acknowledged fact, just state it. If it is not, cite examples instead. At the very least: argue logically to underpin your arguments.

Phrases such as clearly and it is obvious that have no other function apart from attempting to persuade the reader not to examine your argument more deeply. Such phrases add nothing to the content. If the information is really obvious or clear, the reader will already have realized it. Your average reader is skeptical and cannot be convinced that easily.

6. This / These

It is a good idea to use the words this and these as little as possible in academic writing. They are often vague and it is hard work for the reader to discern what these words refer back to. But of course, it is sometimes hard to remove them entirely and if used sparingly, they do have a place even in academic writing, albeit a limited one. Still, you should consider using “the former” and “the latter” instead.

7. Expletives

Avoid starting your sentences with “There is”, “There are” or “It is”. These terms don’t add any real meaning.

There are many factors that contribute to the outcome of this experiment.”

Rephrase this sentence as follows:

“Many factors contributed to the outcome of this experiment.”

When you write, you have a purpose, a goal to accomplish. Good writing aims to achieve this goal. Perhaps you want inform the reader or help your professional cause. Regardless of your purpose, you will only achieve it by using precise words – the main reason academic writing exists.