5 Mastering the use of academic language

The first step to effective academic writing is to understand why you are using academic language. Academic language is a tool to help your reader understand your ideas, believe they are credible, and easily share them with others.  This is true whether you are writing your first undergraduate term paper, master’s thesis, doctoral dissertation, or manuscript for journal publication.  This chapter is dedicated to helping you better understand the purpose of academic writing, and how you can use it to improve the quality of work.  The result will be a better grade, passing score on thesis defense, or acceptance of a paper to a journal.   Important to note is that solid academic alone will not be sufficient in achieving these ends.  However, poor use of academic language will prevent you from doing so.


Helping your Reader Understand your Ideas

Academic language emerged from scientific language. As science developed and the methodical exploration of the world expanded beyond the work of a handful, opportunities for confusion proliferated. How could an individual studying insects in Europe, for instance, determine if their observations concerned the same insect that was being studied by an individual in North America? The two scientists might be writing in different languages, using local names for the insects being observed, and analyzing the insects using different categories or frameworks for observing the insects’ various parts, systems, and environments. A common language was needed to facilitate the exchange of ideas and knowledge. What developed was a vocabulary of precision. A six-legged, pebble-sized creature was no longer an iridescent object of fascination, but Popillia japonica. Popillia japonica is a name built on standard conventions that allow it to communicate information about the creature’s source of energy, body structure and composition, mobility, method of reproduction, means of interacting with the physical world, and more. Popillia japonica may be confusing and meaningless to people who do not study insects, but to those who do, using the name is a signal that you are an insider who is credible, is immediately clarifying, and makes it easier for others to talk about and build on your work.


Establishing your Credibility

A primary goal of academic writing is to establish your credibility. It is important to remember that you are not inherently credible. Your reader does not care what you think, and to the contrary, has been trained as an academic to be skeptical of any assertion that you make. Like a complex equation whose output is incorrect if even one of its variables is erroneous, your academic writing will likely be considered “not credible” and ignored if you use the wrong arguments or words.


The Right Arguments

Point of View and Source of Authority. The language you use is a reliable clue to the types of arguments you are employing. Academic writing is always written in third-person because you – the author, need to position yourself as an objective reporter and observer. If you find yourself writing (or thinking) with the word “I,” you have slipped into a subjective account of your work. Consider the difference between how a typical undergraduate students might write about Elton Mayo, and how the same idea might be expressed in professional academic writing.


An undergraduate might write:

“I think something else that Elton Mayo noticed was that people don’t just care about money. People also want to belong to a group, and sometimes that feels even more important than money.”



An academic writer might write:

“A second conclusion that Mayo readily reported in his research was that financial incentives were subordinate to the worker’s desire to belong to the informal organization.”



In the first example, the writer has positioned themselves as the source of authority. Everything that comes after “I think” will be interpreted as the author’s personal opinion. The reader’s opinion may be different, and if it is they may dismiss what the author is trying to say. In the second example, Mayo’s work is positioned as the source of authority. The use of academic writing has moved the argument beyond the realm of personal opinions. The reader may personally believe that money is the only thing that motivates people, but they cannot argue about what Mayo did or did not write.


In a similar way, an undergraduate might write:

“Elton Mayo seems to think that people don’t just care about money, but that isn’t what I’ve observed! I’ve been a manager at Starbucks for two years, and I can say for sure that none of my employees care about anything more than their paycheck.”




An academic writer might write:


“While Elton Mayo argues that financial incentives are subordinate to a worker’s desire to belong to an informal organization, Herzberg offers a different perspective. For Herzberg, a sense of belonging is central to an employee’s level of engagement and satisfaction, but appropriate financial incentives are prerequisite to the impact of these feelings.”


Anyone can argue with your personal perspective or the validity of your experience. Academic writers solve this problem by using the writing and research of others to focus their audience on what previous research has established, and what it means.


Including Your Perspective. Research old and new should be the foundation of argument in academic writing, but there is still room for original thought. The key here is that your original thoughts should not serve as the justification for any argument that you make – they may be the conclusion. The basic format of an academic paper is a helpful guide to how your thought process should work:


Basic structure of an academic paper

  1. Introduction and literature review: Is the question you are exploring relevant and why is it relevant? What have others already learned about it, and where is there room for you to add something helpful?
  2. Methods: What established research tools did you use to explore the question?
  3. Results: What did you find?
  4. Discussion: What do your results mean? What should be studied next?


In sections one through four, the author’s unique thinking is on display in through the questions that are asked, how previous research is organized and interpreted, and in how research methods are selected and designed. The author is functioning in these sections as a confident but impersonal guide, helping the reader recognize a desirable destination and a trustworthy path to get there. Commentary and editorializing are saved for section four. The discussion section is the one place where it is appropriate for you to include your own perspective. Even here however, the opinions you offer should be grounded in what has been established and observed. You may speculate about what the results of the research mean, but this speculation must be rooted in the research – personal anecdotes, feelings and biases remain out of bounds and counterproductive.


The Right Words


Precision. In addition to the type of arguments you choose, the words you use (or do not use) will impact your credibility. Your word choices should be guided by your goals: help your reader understand your ideas, believe they are credible, and easily share them with others. As discussed above, the very nature of academic writing is built on the idea of precision. Popillia japonica is not just a name, but a name that tells the reader exactly which creature is being discussed and the basic biological characteristics of the species. Each field has its own lexicon of precision, and wielding it well enhances the clarity and credibility of your writing.

Precision goes beyond the vocabulary of your field. It is also a matter of choosing words that eliminate or reduce opportunity for confusion. Words related to time are easy places to confuse your reader. For example, an undergraduate might write:


“Around 100 years ago, Elton Mayo conducted the Hawthorne studies.”



“100 years ago” gives a sense of precision, but this precision is contextual; 100 years ago from when? Is it 100 years before the present, the time at which the reader is reading? Or is it 100 years prior to when the author was writing? If that is the intended meaning, was it 100 years prior to the initial draft, or 100 years prior to when the paper was published? Should the reader assume that “around” implies within a year or two of 100 years ago, or closer to a decade? All of these questions can be avoided by simply using the precise year when the studies took place.


Vague language sneaks into writing in other ways too. Adverbs indicating degree or frequency, and adjectives asserting a superlative signal a sentence that may require more precision. For example, an undergraduate might write:

“Most people of my generation think the best jobs are those that offers a good work life balance.”


The sentence is vague in multiple ways. “Most” could mean many things, “my generation” is meaningless without context, and “best” and “a good work life balance” are subjective phrases that need to be explained.   Who is “most people?”   Your mom, that girl behind the counter you like, your dog, world renowned scholars?

Instead, an academic writer might write instead:

“In a 2022 survey by the Pew Research Center, 80% of Generation Z respondents indicated that a job offering flexible work hours would be more attractive to them than a job offering above average pay.”


This sentence defines who is being discussed, and specifies how many of them share a clearly explained attribute. It is also not asking the reader to accept the statement on the author’s authority, but points to research that establishes a valid basis for the claim.

Conciseness. Academic writing should be concise. It is not focused on reaching a word limit, but on communicating a worthwhile idea. Consider the examples below. A student writing a 10-page term paper about the significance of the Hawthorne Studies might write:


“An Australian by birth, Elton Mayo was eager to immigrate to the United States and investigate the country’s booming industrial culture. He famously applied his highly analytical mind and unconventional academic background to better understand problems in cultivating positive labor force morale. Although he could not have known the future impact of his work at the time, his Hawthorne studies revealed central aspects of workplace psychology that continue to influence managers in all industries today. Among other things, Mayo discovered that workers – regardless of their particular job – responded in predictable ways to changes in their work environment. These changes were not necessarily what managers would have initially expected. Significantly, employee response to process and environment modifications implemented by management depended on whether or not they had been consulted by their superiors in advance of whatever change might take place. Mayo’s key insight was to observe this phenomenon: if management wants to motivate employees to be more productive, it is vitally important to create opportunities for dialogue between managers and employees about the nature of the work to be done, and the opportunities that may exist to improve it.”



An academic writer referring to Elton Mayo’s work might write:

“Elton Mayo’s Hawthorne Studies demonstrated that employee participation in decision making resulted in better productivity than short-term incentives alone.”



The writer in the first example is focused on word count. Their writing includes various biographical, speculative, and redundant statements that are superfluous to understanding the significance of the Hawthorne Studies. Entire sentences (i.e., “These changes were not necessarily what managers would have initially expected “) contribute nothing to the reader’s understanding of the concept. The academic writer in the second example is focused on the salient idea, and they have communicated it clearly in about one tenth of the space the first writer used.

Longer papers are not proof of better ideas. Unnecessary words and phrases distract your reader from what is most important. They can also open the door to criticism that undermines your credibility. A sentence claiming that Elton Mayo “famously applied his highly analytical mind and unconventional academic background to better understand problems in cultivating positive labor force morale” may seem like an innocuous yet intelligent statement, but readers could disagree that Mayo’s background was unconventional, or wonder how the writer knows that Mayo had a “highly analytical mind.” Doubts like these – which may not even be directly related to the core of your paper’s argument, risk distracting from and discrediting whatever may follow. In academic writing, less is more.

Similarly, if one word can convey the same meaning as five words, one word is the better choice. If a widely known word can convey the same meaning as an obscure word, the common word is the better choice. The exception would be if the obscure word is part of vocabulary of your discipline. In that case, the “insider” word Is what should be used.

Sophistication.  The English language contains more words than most other languages in the world.  The BBC estimates that there are 171,000 words in use, while another 47,000 are obsolete (think Chaucer, Beowolf, and Bill Shakespeare).  Writing well means commanding not just the day-to-day words, but a wider scope of more academic quality lexicon.  English is the language of science, medicine, business, and air traffic control around the world, as well as prominent academic journals in most fields.  Many educated individuals from other parts of the world learn English as a second language at a conversational level because of this usefulness.  However, academic writers must master the language at a more sophisticated level.   Doing so requires a more complex use of phrasing and wider scope of vocabulary.   Relevant here is the origin of this sophistication – French!

Many of the “sophisticated” synonyms for common English words comes from French.  For example, instead of “improve”, academic write might say “ameliorate.”   The French word for improve is, yes, “améliorer.”   Other phrases are taken directly from French and used in academic writing without translation such as fait accompli (a task already done), espirit de corps (organizational culture), raison d’etre (reason for existence).   The French language began a heavy influence on English when the Norman’s conquested England in 1066.  French became the language of elites in the English courts, government, and social elites for 200 years.  French nobility sat on the English crown during this time until the French lost Normandy in 1204.   Thereafter, English became the language of choice, but French already left an indelible influence on the use of English.  The French linguist Henriette Walter estimates that more than two-thirds of the English language can trace their origins to French, despite English’s roots as a Germanic language.  Other cultures have used French as a marker of sophistication.  If you read a Dostoevsky novel, you would see the Russian aristocracy speaking French.  French was the language of international politics in Europe in the 19th century, and Russian nobles needed a language the non-elites wouldn’t understand.  Following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918, French became all but dead in Russian society.  Even today, French represents sophistication – think perfume ads, supermodels, fashion, and wine.   French remains as the backbone of modern academic English vernacular and serves as the basis for sophistication.   As an academic writer (student or scholar) you should learn to embrace this level of sophistication and integrate a wider vocabulary in your writing.   In the practical guidance section of this book, we provide examples of words you can replace in search of this sophistication.


The Right Frame

What to Build On. A challenge with any academic paper is where to begin. The relevant literature will be vast. Your first goal should be to identify work that is seminal. Seminal work is widely cited within your field, and is often used as frame or point of comparison to describe new research. As you read the literature of your discipline you will also begin to recognize enduring themes and current trending topics. Seminal work, enduring themes, and trending topics are all useful frames that you should seek to employ strategically. Building on and incorporating these things, even if your research topic is arcane, will make your work easier for others to find, easier for them to appreciate, and easier for them to connect to their own research and writing.

Worth a Thousand Words. Figures and conceptual frameworks can also make your ideas easier to share. From Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to Porters Five Forces, communicating an idea with a combination of simple illustrations and sparse text is a hallmark of influential and enduring academic writing. Before you begin to write, carefully consider how you might employ a visual explanation as an anchor for your writing. If you do this well, you will have made great progress toward helping your reader understand your ideas, believe they are credible, and easily share them with others.


The Right Project

In spite of academic writing’s imperatives to be precise, concise, and impersonal, good academic writing will also feel human. This cannot be achieved by merely following the highest standards for research and writing, or even developing a deep knowledge of your field’s literature and practice. The ineffable quality of “humanness” happens when a writer is genuinely interested in their work. Put plainly, their passion shows and becomes contagious. In an ocean of academic writing, humanness matters (this is not to say that an academic’s passion for their project is a replacement for superior work – it is a necessary complement). It is difficult to persuade someone to care about a topic if we don’t care about it ourselves.

Choosing a project that you sincerely care about impacts how your work will be received, but even more important, will shape the direction of your career. Your research and writing typically builds on itself, with one project opening up the door to another. Academia is full of pressure to simply produce publications. It can be tempting, especially early in your career, to chase any project that could lead to publication. Pursuing a limited number of such opportunities may be prudent, but beware; how you spend your time is how you define your career (and your life!). Do not thoughtlessly set yourself down a path that will be personally unfulfilling.


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