Although the language in an academic text may vary greatly, it still follows a few general guidelines – some of which are presented here, together with a few illuminating examples.
A certain genre awareness is important to all writing. Different texts are intended for different purposes and therefore use different language. A distinctive trait of academic texts is that they are written as non-fiction, aimed at informing about the state of affairs, presenting known facts and, in particular in this context, new knowledge developed in accordance with the requirements of scientific texts, in terms of both form and expression.
Academic non-fiction can be described as impersonal, which is not to say that all academic texts should be dry and bureaucratic. Impersonal language, similar to formal language, means that, as the author, you are to be as inconspicuous as possible. This does not mean avoiding words like ‘I’ at all costs, but that the text is to sound as independent from the author as possible. The most common way to avoid becoming too I-centric is to use passive constructions.
I chose to conduct my study at a secondary school. I contacted one of the teachers at the school via email, who allowed me to conduct my observations there. I observed the class for 60 minutes.
Comments: In the example above, the use of I and me could be problematic, as they refer to the author’s choice of method, but may be perceived as far too I-centric. A better alternative is to rephrase the text using passive constructions:
The study was conducted at a secondary school. One of the teachers was contacted via email and the observation was subsequently conducted in their class. The observation lasted for 60 minutes.
Academic non-fiction is usually also described as formal – a language style encompassing both the use of impersonal language (see above) and avoiding language that is too colloquial or informal. But what is colloquial language, really?
Colloquial variants and spelling
Certain words have variants which may be perceived as colloquial. For instance, preferably write conduct rather than do, boy rather than guy and observe rather than look (at). You should also avoid contractions, such as they’re (they are), can’t (cannot), etc.
Intensifiers and values
One step in making a text formal, objective and impersonal is to avoid unnecessary intensifiers. It is usually sufficient to write that something is important or common, rather than very important or very common. Furthermore, personal values do not belong in an academic text, unless explicitly requested, and if they are included, they must be justified on the basis of previous research. Note the difference between the following formulations:
Author X finds that…, which I think is correct.
Author X argues that…, which is a reasonable position to take, since…
In the first example, I state that I agree with X, but without providing any support for this claim. In the second example, I show that I agree with a little more caution, and I explain why.
Academic texts are not exactly characterised as brief. However, texts that are written in non-fiction form are to be as short and concise as possible, i.e. they are to be straightforward and not use more words than necessary to convey essential information. This forces you to focus on your aim and to constantly question the relevance of what you are writing. It does not matter how interesting you think it is; if it does not relate to your aim, it should not be included in the text.
Writing with precision is equally important – and often leads to a more focused language. Precision in academic texts involves several different things, such as avoiding vague and indeterminate expressions, or using concise words. See brief example below:
If we look at the way of working in the classroom, we see a change over time. Nowadays, it is very common for one to work independently and write reports, while, as the teacher, one walks around the room and provides help.
Comments: This brief text begins with a vague and unclear formulation (If we look at…). This type of indirect writing should be avoided, as it does not add anything to the text. Furthermore, replacing the way of working with the more concise working method would also make the text more focused. The next sentence contains an unnecessary intensifier (very common) as well as an excessive use of the pronoun one. After revising the text, it might look something like this:
The working method in the classroom has changed over time. Nowadays, students usually work independently and write reports while the teacher walks around the room and helps the students.
Many students find it difficult to know what tense to use when writing an academic text. Should the entire text be written in simple present? In the past tense? Or should you sometimes use the present and sometimes the past tense? How do you know if you have done the right thing?
Unfortunately there is no simple answer to which tense to use in each individual case, since the answer varies between subject areas as well as between individual teachers. Rules may also differ slightly in British and American English.
You will need to vary the tenses between different parts of the essay. In your introduction, you may look back at some historical trend, and then put it in relation to current trends. In the analysis and discussion, you will probably use the present tense, but you may need to highlight things that happened in the past. Sometimes you will even need to use different tenses in one and the same sentence.
The Writing Centre at the George Mason University in the United States have created some good examples that will help you choose the right tenses.