27 Jan Academic writing part 4 – Grammar and style
Grammar and punctuation are the rules for writing and incorrect use can distort the message of the text causing the meaning to be lost or confused.
Here are some advises to help you while writing:
- Use standard English.
- Use vocabulary accurately. (There is a difference between rule and law, or weather and climate.)
- Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.
- Be as precise as possible when dealing with facts or ﬁgures. (If it is necessary to estimate numbers use approximately rather than about.)
- Avoid absolute statements, and adverbs that show your personal attitude towards the topic discussed.
- Avoid the use of qualifiers such as very, too, so, and quite.
- Do not contract verb forms. (don’t, can’t. Use the full form: Do not, cannot.)
- Although academic writing sometimes prefers the passive voice; this voice should be used carefully and should not be over-used.
- When listing, avoid using “etc” or “and so on”. Additionally, insert “and/or” before the last item.
- Use synonyms instead of repeating a word to provide variety, which makes the text more interesting.
- Short sentences are easy to understand but overusing them might be confusing, whereas long sentences help the meaning but might distract the reader. Effective writing normally uses a mixture of long and short sentences.
There are no rules for academic style that apply to all situations. The following is a list of basic guidelines that should help you develop a style:
- Place yourself in the background: Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the purpose of the writing, rather than to the mood of the author.
- Write in a way that comes naturally: Write using words and phrases that come easily to you, but never assume that your product is without flaw. Keep in mind, the use of language begins with imitation. Never imitate consciously, but do not worry about being an imitator.
- Work from a suitable design: Before beginning to write, define the design you are going to use. This does not mean that you must sit with a blueprint in front of you worrying only about checking steps. The design should be a solid land helping you to start
- Revise and rewrite: Revising is an important part of writing. Only few writers can produce what they aimed on their first try. Most often you will discover that there are various flaws in your paper, flaws you should address to refine your work. You also may discover spelling mistakes, or vague sentences you must consider correcting. Remember, it is no sign of failure that your manuscript ends up in need of major changes. This is a common occurrence in all writing, and this happens to the best writers.
- Do not overwrite: Rich, decorated expressions are hard to comprehend. It is always a good idea to delete the excess while you are revising.
- Do not overstate.
- Do not explain too much.
- Avoid fancy words and difficult vocabulary
- Be clear: Clarity is not the prize in writing, nor is it always the principal mark of a good style. When you become hopelessly stuck in a sentence, it is best to start fresh; do not try to fight your way through. Usually what is wrong is that the construction has become too involved at some point; the sentence needs to be broken apart and replaced by two or more shorter sentences.
- Do not inject opinion: Unless there is a good reason for its being there, the chances are it may not be relevant to the discussion.
- Do not take shortcuts at the cost of clarity: Do not use initials for the names of organizations or movements unless you are certain the initials will be readily understood. Write things out when first mentioned then you are good to use only the initials.
- Prefer the standard to the offbeat: Young writers will be drawn toward eccentricities in language, but it is not the best way to go. Always stick to the known and familiar.
Objectivity and personalizing:
Being objective means that you are more concerned about facts and results, rather than giving your own judgments, and not influenced by personal feelings or biases. Being objective also makes your work more professional. In research papers, readers are generally more interested in the objective facts such as your experiments, your scientific work, and the conclusions these have lead to.
- Be explicit in expressing your findings.
- Avoid intensifiers which can tend to exaggerate your writing (for example: awfully, very, really.)
- Consider using the passive voice in your writing. In academic writing, researchers do not want to focus on who is doing an action, but on the action itself, and its consequences. The passive tense is useful here because it gives the writer the ability to highlight the most important aspects within sentences by putting them at the beginning. When you find it necessary to mention the subject behind the action you should use the active voice (for example when talking about which group should show which symptom, or which patient took which medicine). As mentioned earlier do not over use either tense.
In academic writing ideas are expressed with medium certainty. Academic writers don’t use very strong or forward language nor too weak one. All statements are debatable. Therefore academics generally do not claim that their ideas are absolutely true.
Here’s a table showing the right expressions in every level of certainty:
|Low certainty||Medium certainty
(preferred in academic writing)
Adapted from Halliday & Matthiessen (148, 615-623)
It is also known that academic writers show their knowledge and express ideas primarily through declarative sentences that express a statement. A declarative sentence is written in the present tense and tells the reader what is going on in a direct way. (Some examples: Research on cancer suggests that the findings will increase treatment options, Malaria causes fever.)
Terminology and problems:
Academic essays are expected to be clear and straightforward, so writers need to think carefully about the choice of words, making sure that words are valid, and the writing is concise.
- Use formal vocabulary: Certain words which are used widely in everyday talks might not be appropriate to use in academic essays. Writers avoid this by choosing strong and specific verbs over phrasal verbs (verb + preposition). Like using “several” instead of “a couple of”, or “concluded, noted” instead of “said”, or “assembled” instead of “put together”.
- Use appropriate transitions: Transitions are an important tool in the development process, by helping to create a sense of coherence, and to ensure the reader understands the writer’s text the way he had intended. (For example use “on the contrary” when presenting an opposite proclamation, otherwise you can use also, “on the other hand”)
- Avoid redundancy: Conciseness is also a mark of good academic writing. Writers try to use only as many words as necessary to present their ideas. Do not add words just to lengthen your essay or create fancy expressions. Always ask yourself whether what you have written is essential to the meaning.
- Beware of commonly misused words. (Like the using of “lesser” since less is a comparative form on its own, also the difference between “Affect” and “Effect”)
Written language is grammatically more complex than spoken language, as it is shorter and have longer, more complex words and phrases. Written texts are lexically dense compared to spoken language, if we define lexical density as the number of content words. This difference can be attributed to grammar, not to vocabulary. Some examples include adding affixes to form new words is common in academic writing (Like rebuild, antidote, discontinue, co-founder), and using more nouns that verbs (Like writing: “This information enables the formulation of the finding”).
- Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.
Content created by Haya Mohammad Kheir, MD
Content reviewed by Mariana Haydar, MD