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Faculty of Humanities Study Skills Website

Using English for Academic Purposes

A student at a computer

Components of an academic style

Effective academic writing depends on producing the most appropriate style for your purpose and audience. To communicate your ideas and information effectively, your academic writing must:

  • be consistent
  • have the right level of formality
  • express ideas precisely
  • be concise
  • be objective

The most important ways of producing these effects are through grammar and vocabulary, as well as the way you present the information.

1. Personal pronouns

It is better to avoid using first and second person pronouns (I, you and we), as your writing will sound too personal and informal, or conversational. Only use first and second person pronouns if you are expressing a clearly personal opinion or you are expected to engage in a direct relationship with your reader.

2. Contractions

Avoid contractions, as these are the style of spoken or informal English.

e.g. Question. Which sentence is more appropriate?

1. "In Hong Kong, tax on personal income is only 15% and there isn't any VAT."
2. "In Hong Kong, tax on personal income is only 15% and VAT is not levied."

Answer. The second sentence is more appropriate, because it avoids use of the contraction of 'is not' ('isn't').

3. Complex sentences

Complex sentences are common in academic writing.

e.g. This set of short sentences:

"Those working in unskilled jobs are less likely to use computers in the workplace. They also may not know someone who does. People living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods are least likely to have extended networks of users who can offer support and encouragement. The barriers thrown up by lack of material resources are reinforced for low-income households."

becomes a single, complex sentence:

"Because those working in unskilled jobs are less likely to use computers in the workplace or to know someone who does, and because disadvantaged neighbourhoods are least likely to have extended networks of users who can offer support and encouragement, the barriers thrown up by lack of material resources are reinforced for low-income households."

4. Precision

Avoid the use of vague vocabulary. It is very useful to be able to select a noun, for example, that precisely refers to your ideas. You should also avoid repetition.

5. Rhetorical questions

Avoid using rhetorical questions to introduce significant new ideas, e.g.

"Is the British tax system good or not?"

A more formal and dispassionate style would be,

"It is important to consider the effectiveness of the British tax system."

6. Common knowledge

Avoid making statements that assume the reader will take your word that something is true, e.g. not

"Everybody agrees that health care should be free."

but

"Surveys of public opinion indicate a strong belief that health care should be free."

7. Referencing

Appropriate academic writing should include references to the source of ideas or information, e.g. not

"Economists believe that major improvements to the UK tax system must come from more fundamental reforms."

but

"Kay (1980) believes that major improvements to the UK tax system must come from more fundamental reforms."

Adapted with permission from the author, Derek Davies, from material on the University of Manchester's Language Centre website.