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English for Academic and Professional Purposes

Handouts: Features of Academic Writing

1. Formality
Academic writing style is formal. This means that as a writer, you have to be conscious about what words and
expressions to use in your academic writing assignment. Even if you know what you want to say and have a definite
opinion about the topic, you will have to compose your text with an eye towards observing the formal conventions
of academic writing. That means not writing down the first thing comes to writing. That means not writing down
the first thing comes to mind. That means not taking on a conversational tone in your writing. To achieve formality
in academic writing, observe the following:

1.1 Use more formal words

Informal Formal
If users know how to use search engines they can An understanding of the fundamental operations of the
use them better. search engine will provide improved user interface.

 Informal text included words and expressions that are used in ordinary everyday conversation; in this
case, seems vague.
 It’s not clear what they and them refer to.
 The more formal equivalent avoided the same simple commonplace expressions typical of spoken
language; more complex words are used. Hence, the text sounds more formal.
 Instead of know, the formal equivalent is understanding.

1.2 Limit the use of two-word prepositional verbs (verb + preposition) that you commonly hear in spoken

a. The week long power outages used up/consumed the store’s entire stock of batteries
b. The candidate’s loyal supporters gathered around/assembled in the town plaza.
c. Smoking marijuana is said to help cancer patients put up with/tolerate the adverse effects of
d. The committee was formed to look into/investigate the reports of cheating.
e. The newly-installed system has enabled offices to throw away/discard outdated files.

In the given examples above, the italicized words are examples of two-word prepositional verbs. In
academic writing, they must be replaced with their one word verb equivalent.

The words in boldfaced are the equivalent terms of the two-word prepositional verbs. Using these
one word verbs make the sentences formal.

1.3 Avoiding abbreviations and contractions

a. You aren’t allowed to use your cellphone inside the theater while the performance is going on.
b. She had to go to work altho she wasn’t OK yet.
c. Students rely too much on google, yahoo, etc. in doing research.

 Contractions like aren’t can’t and won’t are commonly used in informal writing but are
discouraged in formal academic writing. Make sure to spell out the words in full.
 The same goes for abbreviations like altho, coz, and ASAP. These are not appropriate for academic
writing style.
 Another kind of abbreviation is the use of etc. Instead of using etc, you may use other variants like
and others, and so on, and and so forth.

The three examples can be written more appropriately as follows:

a. You are not allowed to use your cellphone inside the theater while the performance is going on.
b. She had to go to work although she was not well yet.
c. Students rely too much on google, yahoo, and other search engines in doing research.

2. Impersonality

A second feature of academic writing style is the use of impersonal language. This is done when you express a
personal opinion. You might wonder, “How can I give my personal opinion without being personal?” examine
the examples.
Personal Impersonal
If you don’t know how to navigate through an e- Navigating through e-commerce site can be time-
commerce site, you will waste a lot of time. consuming for those who may be unfamiliar with the
The marketplace is growing so fast, pretty soon, The rapid expansion of the marketplace is more than
you’d think the government would address the enough reason for the government to immediately
unresolved issues surrounding e-commerce now. address the unresolved issues surrounding e-

2.2 Determine a sense of distance from the reader.

Do you notice how both express the writer’s examples? How are the two different?
One of looking at the difference between the two is by determining the distance of the writer to the reader. The
distance referred to here is not the physical space or remoteness between writer and reader. Distance here refer
to the wording and expression that conveys a sense of on-familiarity and objectivity. By using abstract language,
you can communicate a sense of detachment; therefore, you come across to your reader as more distant.

2.3 Avoid the use of personal pronouns that directly refer to the reader.
 By not directly addressing your reader, you create an objective stance especially when you express a
personal opinion.

2.4. Avoid the use of emotive language.

 Emotional or emotive language can be controversial and highly charged. The use of words that have highly
negative or positive connotations can weaken your objective stance. When you present your opinion in a
non-emotive manner, you convey an air of authority as an academic writer.

Academic writing requires that the opinions you hold be presented in an objective tone. This enhances
your credibility as a writer. This is why it is best to avoid personal language because such language is subjective
and may diminish the strength of your argument.

3. Structure
3.1 Nominalization
There are certain structural elements that set academic writing apart from others. Study the examples below.

Further studies can be conducted to solve the technical Further studies can be conducted to find solutions
problems surrounding e-commerce to the technical problems surrounding the e-
The team can accomplish its goal through hard work. The accomplishment of goals can be done through
the hard work of the team.
The economy did not perform well. The performance of the economy was dismal.

Notice how the verbs in the examples on the left column were replaced in the right column with nouns. This is
called nominalization. Nominalization has an effect of making a sentence become less active because the action word
has been replaced by a noun. In the above examples, the action word solve has been nominalized into solution;
accomplish into accomplishment; and perform into performance. These words that end in –tion,-ment, and –ance are
some common examples of nominalization.

3.2 Use of passive construction

The use of passive voice in writing, the actor or the doer of the action is relegated to the background.

Active voice Passive voice

The decision of the major petroleum- producing countries to The sharp increase of the price of oil in the world
cut production caused the sharp increase of oil prices in the market was caused by the decision of the major
world market. petroleum- producing countries to cut production.
The company can use the cost savings to add value to their The cost savings can be used to add value to a
products. company’s products.

By making use of passive construction, the emphasis was shifted to the action-the increase in oil prices and cost

4. Specific
To get the interest of the readers, written communication must be specific, definite, and concrete. Specific
language as opposed to general language refers to the use of terms or concepts that are easier to identify and

”understand. For example, the term “move” is a general term. More specific terms for it are “walk”, “jump”, “run”,
“glide”, etc. Also, “mathematics” can further be specified as “statistics”, “algebra”, “trigonometry”, etc.

Being specific also means the use of concrete terms as opposed to abstract. Words which appeal to the senses of
the readers are better used to attract their attention and interest. For example, to say that “the girl is beautiful” can
be more concretely stated by specifying the features that make the girl beautiful like having “smooth skin”, “pointed
nose”, and “pearly teeth”.

In other word, being specific means giving details whenever possible and trying to avoid vague words that provide
no information. Note the difference between the two sentences.

Vague: I will submit my résumé at some future time.

Specific: I will submit my résumé tomorrow.

Vague: The car is not in good condition.

Specific: The car has no gasoline.

5. Hedging
The main purpose of academic writing is to convey information that comes as a result of research and
study. Although you may be quite certain about the accuracy of your data and soundness of your conclusions,
academic writing requires the use of cautious language or hedging.

You can demonstrate a certain degree of caution in your writing by being attentive to the language you
use. Language that uses hedging can temper the strength of the claim you make. There are some hedging devices
that are useful in achieving the degree of caution appropriate for academic writing. Certain qualifying words ad
expressions can help us realize their purpose.

In stating your opinion, you can be direct about it and write:

A repeat of terrorist attacks, as massive as 9/11 is just a matter of time.

Or you may hedge your language and indirectly state your opinion as:

It is possible that the threat of terrorism is more serious than ever before, and that a massive
attack like September 11, may be just a matter of time.


Terrorism experts suggest that global terrorism is still a serious threat, and that a massive attack
like September 11, may just be a matter of time.

There are two reasons that can motivate you to follow this convention. As an academic writer,
you are supposed to be objective and impersonal. However, if you state your opinion bluntly and directly,
you may come across as unbending and inflexible. In your role as an academic writer, you need to establish
that you are credible. Someone who comes across as unbending and inflexible does not leave much room
for contrary opinions.

A second reason for using language that is hedged has to do with your readers. If you hedge your
statements, you provide greater interaction with your readers. How so? By not telling them what you
want them to think, you allow your readers to consider your opinion and leave enough room for them to
decide whether they agree with you or not.

Making use of hedging devices like qualifying words and expressions helps enhance your
credibility as an academic writer.

The following are some hedging devices you can use.

Modal nouns The possibility of…

The probability of…
The certainty of …
The presumption of
The likelihood of…

Modal adjectives Possible…


Modal (auxiliary) verbs Will

Other verbs Appear


That clause + combination This indicates that…

These studies suggest that…
It seems that…
This would appear to be…
There might be a possibility…

Academic writing requires the use of formal construction, and impersonal and hedged language
as well as the adherence to format appropriate to the writing context. You can become a more effective
academic writer by integrating these features into your writing.


There are few reminders to help retain information regarding the appropriate academic style. A
helpful cue is the memory aid is F-I-S-H.

 Choose the more formal one-word verb over the two-word equivalent.
 Do not use abbreviated forms and contractions.
 Avoid idiomatic expressions and colloquial words.

 Do not stress readers directly by using “you”.
 Avoid asking rhetorical questions.

Structure and Specific

 Choose passive construction to focus on the action.
 Use noun forms instead of verbs.
 Use specific and concrete language.

 Use cautious language.


Plata, S.M., Genuino, C., Madrunio, M. R., Montenegro, M.C. B., & Calero, E.R. (2007). Keys to success in academic writing.
Manila: Trailblazer Publications.