Improving your academic writing style doesn’t always mean learning increasingly-lofty vocabulary. You can also improve your syntax using words you already know. This post will show you how, with lots of examples you can adapt in your own writing.
Many of you will already know that linguistic signposting helps our readers follow our line of argument. For example, words like additionally and finally indicate what kind of idea is coming next. Therefore, adverbs like these are considered part of academic lexis. However, if you reread this paragraph, you’ll notice that overusing them or using them in the same structure many times makes for stilted, repetitive writing! Let’s see how you can improve this and ‘level up’ your style…
Level 1: Signposting 101
In all the examples in this post, we’ll be using conjunctive adverbs, i.e. adverbs which connect two ideas across two separate sentences. The following are commonly-used examples:
cause/effect: therefore, thus
expected/correlating ideas: indeed, accordingly
contrasting/surprising ideas: however, nonetheless
additional ideas: additionally, furthermore, also
exemplification: for example, for instance
sequencing: then, initially, finally
Chances are, you’re using these already. You know to use an appropriate conjunctive adverb at the start of your sentence, and – importantly – separate it from the main clause with a comma, e.g.
Social isolation is a common problem amongst international students. Therefore, schools should encourage home and international students to socialise outside of class.
This type of structure works with any of the adverbs from the list above, plus many others. Do remember, though, that starting a sentence with also and then is relatively informal.
Easy, right? In that case, you’re ready for level 2…
Level 2: The simple switch
To vary your style, try placing the conjunctive adverb between the main subject and its verb. Remember, academic writing often uses complex nouns, so your noun may in fact be a whole phrase. In this case, just place the adverb before the verb, like this:
Cycle lanes are generally recognised as cost- and time-efficient. The majority of government funding, however, tends to be awarded to high-profile train and road development.
Notice that in a structure with a modal verb (can, could, will etc.), the adverb is generally placed between the modal and main verb:
Cycle lanes can, however, transport more people per hour than car or even bus lanes.
The more complex aspect of this formation is the use of commas. We may need to isolate the adverbs with commas on either side, but not always. Here are some examples:
No comma necessary
Socialising with native speakers may be a daunting prospect. Students may initially feel nervous, but most find the experience rewarding in the end.
Similar adverbs: indeed, accordingly, also, initially, finally, nevertheless, thus
If you have a long sentence which already has commas in other places, adding more commas around the adverb can interrupt the ‘flow’ of your writing. Compare the following:
Some students, therefore, prefer to attend events organised specifically for international students.
Some students therefore prefer to attend events organised specifically for international students.
The meaning in both cases is essentially the same, and the writer’s decision is a stylistic choice.
Similar adverbs: furthermore
Needs a comma
Some students, for instance/for example, prefer to go to events organised specifically for international students.
Such experiences, however, are some of the most rewarding and memorable parts of a year spent abroad.
So far, so good. Now we’re ready for…
Level 3: Passives and more
The examples below use to be as their main verb. In these cases, the adverb splits be from the adjective or past participle that follows. Let’s see some examples:
The waiting list for visas can be up to two months. Delays are also likely in the period leading up to national holidays.
This is a highly useful structure in academic writing, as it means we can use adverbs with the passive voice, e.g.
Applicants are therefore advised to apply early and make travel arrangements after their visa has been processed.
Applicants are nonetheless encouraged to apply, as the government is keen to increase revenue from tourism over the next five years.
The comma rule is similar to that in level 3: the adverbials for instance/example and however still need comma, but the others generally don’t.
Use of this structure will add elevated, formal style to your writing. Once you’ve built some confidence with this, you’re ready for the final step!
Level 4: Perfecting perfect tenses
Perfect tenses are those which use to have as an auxiliary verb, plus a past participle, e.g.
Some studies have suggested that trauma can be inherited.
In these cases, the adverb comes between have and the past participle, e.g.
Some studies have indeed suggested that trauma can be inherited.
Once again, the comma rules are the same as in level three, i.e. adverbs don’t need commas around them, apart from for instance/example and however:
Some studies have, for instance, suggested that trauma can be inherited.
There you have it: increasingly complex language for you to apply in your work. If you’d like to try these for yourself, I’d love to read your examples in the comments below. Happy writing!