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Academic writing

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

Grammar is the system we use for organising language so that it is deliberately meaningful. It is not a set of absolute rules, but rather a kind of code that we all agree to as English language speakers, so that we can communicate ideas to each other. In informal writing, like texting or instant messaging, grammatical errors are usually overlooked. In creative writing and colloquial speech, the system can be tweaked for effect; if you are studying any form of creative writing as a primary text, you will get used to analysing the kinds of effect that are caused in this way. 

However, in other situations, where it's necessary to convey ideas accurately and clearly, writing grammatically is important. In academic writing, where you are expected to demonstrate your understanding of very complex ideas, it is absolutely essential.

This page does not aim to be a comprehensive guide to English grammar. Rather it focuses on some of the common problems students have in using grammar in their academic writing. If you want a more extensive guide, or if English is not your first language, there are links at the left to comprehensive websites, including some with interactive exercises. If you are a University of Reading student and English is not your first language, the Academic English Programme (AEP) provides training courses in academic writing skills, speaking skills, and pronunciation practice.

Thinking about words

Words are the basic units of the grammatical system. Words belong to various word classes, with each class doing a different job in constructing the meaning of a sentence. There are seven major word classes: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions.

When to capitalise a noun

Nouns are commonly thought of as 'naming words': cup, John, sky, summer, truth.

Common nouns are used to identify instances of a class of things - for instance, cups:

- a cup is more useful if it has a handle
- the cups were on the second shelf 
- cups can be a welcome present in a new home

Proper nouns are the names which particular individuals, things, or places claim as their own. They are distinguished from common nouns by being capitalised - for instance:

The World Cup is probably the most sought-after trophy in international football 

A common error is the capitalisation of common nouns. Before you capitalise a noun, ask yourself:

  • does this name identify a specific person or thing? [proper noun, needs capitalising] e.g. ancient Greece
  • or does it identify something which is an instance of a group of things? [common noun, no capitals] e.g. the ancient world

Ambiguous pronouns

Pronouns are words which stand in for nouns in a sentence. They are used to refer to something quickly, to give variety and avoid repetition. For example, in the previous sentence I could have used the noun "pronouns" again, but that would have been rather boring for the reader, so I used "they" instead.

A common error is to make the meaning of your writing unclear by using ambiguous pronouns: that is, where the noun that they replace is not obvious. For example, read the following sentences:

"The stated purpose of this process was to capture the image without disturbing the subject. It was not very clear, so it was not obvious whether it had been achieved."

What do the first, second and third instances of "it" refer to? The purpose? The process? The image? Something else not mentioned in the first sentence? A better sentence would have been:

"The stated purpose of this process was to capture the image without disturbing the subject. As the image was not very clear, it was not obvious whether the purpose had been achieved."

When you read through your work, make sure that there is no doubt about the things that pronouns refer to.

Verbs - using the passive voice

Verbs are words that describe actions: argue, raining, throws. Verbs are arguably the most important class of words as far as sentence construction goes - if there is no verb, it is not a sentence. (See below for more on sentences.)

The most common concern students express with using verbs in academic writing is when to use the passive voice. The difference between the active and passive voice is that with the active voice a subject performs an action; with the passive voice a subject has an action done to it. This problem most commonly occurs when describing a set of actions undertaken (for instance, for a report on research). So:

  • "I sorted the samples according to size"            = active (sorting is an action done by a person)
  • "The samples were sorted according to size"  = passive (sorting is a process done to the samples)

Traditionally academic writing uses the passive voice, because it seems to make actions more objective by taking the variable of the human subject out of the sentence. More recently though it has been recognised that taking the human being out of the sentence doesn't actually take them out of the actions! Some disciplines do now welcome the use of the active voice in academic writing: for instance, as a recognition that you cannot separate the reader from the text. If you are not sure what your department prefers, use the passive voice.

The exception to this is if you are asked to produce a piece of reflective writing - perhaps evaluating your experiences while conducting a project or at a work placement. In this case your active experience is the point of the piece.

Imprecise and subjective descriptions - adjectives and adverbs

Adjectives and adverbs modify nouns and verbs by adding to their description, for example:

  • "The emperor ruled" - this doesn't give us much information.
  • "The emperor ruled wisely" - this makes the statement more interesting.
  • "The infant emperor ruled wisely" - this makes it very interesting indeed!

A common problem with adjectives and adverbs in academic writing is the use of imprecise and subjective description. Your descriptions should be as accurate as possible, especially when you are reporting research. So avoid expressions like:

  • "the resulting liquid was a beautiful blue" - better to say something like "dark" or "light" or "intense" blue
  • "the wind was extremely strong" - better to state the exact wind speed

It is also a good idea to avoid superlatives - these are adjectives and adverbs that describe extreme cases like greatest, longest, best, worst. Unless you are describing something you have observed, this type of description might be difficult to prove.

Building your vocabulary

There are many ways to increase the store of words you have to call on when you are writing academically. The easiest way is simply to pay attention to what is around you - the everyday things that we passively soak up without thinking. As well as the academic reading you will be asked to do, and the kinds of leisure reading you might be familiar with (like novels, comics and poetry), these might include:

  • speech - conversations, television and radio news, lectures, TV programmes and films, song lyrics
  • writing - signs, forms, newspapers and magazines, websites, inscriptions, advertisements

When you notice a new word that you would like to use, write it in a notebook, along with its context if possible (the sentence, phrase or situation in which you found it). Use a dictionary to discover its meaning, then place it in a sentence to make sure you understand it.

Collecting new words and using them to play with language can be fascinating. For instance, you could: 

  • try to work out the exact words to describe to a friend in another continent the colour of the sky outside your window right now - even if it's the middle of the night
  • make a list of your ten favourite words of less than four letters - or more than twelve.
  • look up words in a dictionary to discover their etymology - where they derive from. After a while you will become used to identifying common prefixes and suffixes (the parts of words at their beginnings and endings), and will be able to use them to help you work out what a new word means.  

Thinking about sentences

A simple way of describing a sentence is to say that it is "a complete thought expressed in words" (Peck & Coyle, 2005, 40). More formally, a sentence must include a verb, or it is just a phrase. So:

  • Mary paints the chair blue       - is a sentence, because it includes a verb
  • Mary's blue chair                      - does not include a verb, so it is a phrase

The sentence above is a simple sentence with just one main clause. In academic writing, you will need to write more complex sentences which use main and dependent clauses and phrases. The good news is that, although it sounds daunting, this is probably what you are used to doing everyday! You just need to be aware of the possible problems that can arise in academic writing.

Writing complete sentences

There are two particular problems to watch out for with sentences. The first is to make sure the sentence is a genuine sentence - that it includes a verb, and that it is not simply a dependent clause. Take this sentence, for example:

The document, which had been restored by the conservator, was put on display.

This includes a main clause: "The document was put on display." This includes a verb, and doesn't depend for its meaning on any other clauses or phrases.

It also includes a dependent clause: "which had been restored by the conservator". This includes a verb, but cannot stand as a sentence in its own right because it depends on something in the main clause for its meaning ("the document"). You could make two sentences by putting the subject back into the dependent clause, so you would have:

The document was put on display. It had been restored by the conservator.

However, this would result in a string of simple sentences which do not feel very academic in their purpose. Academic writing is about joining up your ideas and showing how they relate to each other, rather than just describing things.

Sentence fragments

Another problem which can often occur when you’re editing your work is a ‘sentence fragment.’ This is when main and dependent clauses are in separate sentences without editing the dependent clause to make it into a full sentence. For example:

The document was on display. Which had been restored by the conservator.

A good way to spot sentence fragments is to read your work aloud when proof-reading, paying careful attention to punctuation.

Keep your clauses separate

The second thing to watch out for is that your clauses are carefully organised so that the reader can understand all the separate ideas and how they relate to each other. This means using punctuation carefully to separate clauses, and making sure they come in the right order in the sentence. For instance:

The methodology used in this experiment differs from that of the previous experiment which was different again from that used by Smith and Brown as a result of the materials which were available which were unlike those in the first experiment. 

This is difficult to make sense of. Using punctuation to separate the clauses makes it easier:

The methodology used in this experiment differs from that of the previous experiment (which was different again from that used by Smith and Brown), as a result of the materials which were available; these were unlike those in the first experiment. 

Reading your sentences aloud is a good way to check whether they are easy to understand. It can also show you if they're too long - if you're gasping for breath, you may need some more punctuation, or to break the sentence into two shorter ones.

Make sure your tenses and plurals all agree

One final common problem with sentences often occurs when you are composing your writing at the computer, because it is so easy to cut and paste and move sections around. What often happens is that tenses and plurals then don't 'agree' with each other. Always read your work carefully before submitting it, preferably aloud - you are less likely to miss words, or assume it says what you want it to say.

Writing in paragraphs

Paragraphs act as signposts in your writing, telling whoever reads your work where your ideas are going, and when you are moving on to a different point. Since paragraphs are used to explain your argument in stages, it is important that you only express one idea or set of ideas in each paragraph. If you try to say too much, your reader will be confused and your argument will be clouded.

How do I structure a paragraph?

A paragraph should contain:

  1. Lead sentence – this tells the reader what the paragraph is going to be about.
  2. Middle section – here sentences expand on the ideas in the lead sentence. This section may add to the initial idea in any of the following ways: it can refine the idea mentioned, it can give examples that back up the idea, it may present dates, data or statistics, interpret theories or it could examine the opposing idea. [N.B. This list is not exhaustive – just remember that this section is where you need to support, in some detail, the idea in the lead sentence.]
  3. Concluding sentence - sums up the main part of the argument in that paragraph. Having written this, you should feel that everything to do with this part of the argument has been concluded, and there should be correlation between the idea in the first line and the summing up in the last sentence.

An example of a structured paragraph:

[The lead sentence=] The University of Reading is an increasingly popular choice for applicants.[The middle section=] Reading receives well over 20,000 applicants each year from all over the world. Our degrees have currency in blue chip, research and educational arenas. 94.5 per cent of new graduates find employment or enter higher study within six months of graduating (CAS, 2006). Recent market research (Broad, 2006) indicates how highly University of Reading degrees are rated by a range of employers. [The concluding sentence=] Overall Reading students are highly successful in obtaining graduate jobs

How long should a paragraph be?

A paragraph should be at least three sentences long; any shorter than this and you need to question the decision to start a new paragraph. On the other hand, if your paragraph is longer than half a page, check to make sure that you are only dealing with one idea in that paragraph. You may be able to split in into two smaller units.

Using software to check your grammar

The grammar checker in Microsoft Word can be a useful tool to help you improve your grammar. Make sure it's switched on by going to Tools>Options>then clicking on the Spelling and Grammar tab. Make sure Check Grammar with Spelling is ticked. When you check spelling, errors in grammar will now also appear, marked with a green underline. To see why something has been marked, right-click on the line, then click on Grammar>Explain. In addition to any suggested changes, a box will appear that explains why the selection was made.

A few words of warning - never just accept all proposed changes in spelling or grammar made by an electronic spell or grammar checker - they can radically change the meaning of your writing! Always check each one separately. Also be cautious about online grammar checkers. They are often set up to 'harvest' assignments to sell to other students!