Level up your academic writing style using familiar words

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… Continue reading “Level up your academic writing style using familiar words”

Cause-and-effect relationships: It’s (not) complicated

Whatever your academic subject, you’ll invariably find yourself describing cause-and-effect relationships. Of course, in academic writing these relationships can be very complicated, but luckily the grammatical structures used to describe them often boil down to a simple formula.

When using verbs like lead to, cause, or generate, the structure is very straightforward:

noun (cause) + verb + noun (effect)

Even complex examples follow this simple pattern:

Others say globalization and lower levels of unionization may have led to a longer-term shift in the balance of power between workers and employers.1

Can you recognise the simple structure in this complex example? To explore in more depth, I’ve made a short video using lead to as an example.

Continue reading “Cause-and-effect relationships: It’s (not) complicated”

‘Nevertheless’, ‘nonetheless’, ‘despite’ and ‘in spite of’ – advanced conjunctive adverbs

In this blog post, you’ll learn how to use a range of conjunctive adverbs similar in meaning, but which have important grammatical differences. Conjunctive adverbs are essential in academic writing, and you should be able to use a range of them accurately.

Conjunctive adverbs are words like therefore and however which show the relationship between two ideas in two sentences. They are different from Continue reading “‘Nevertheless’, ‘nonetheless’, ‘despite’ and ‘in spite of’ – advanced conjunctive adverbs”

Welcome to Zealandia: academic hedging language in action

Pub quiz and trivia fans take note: we may soon have to add Zealandia to the list of known continents. A recent article published by the Geological Society of America argues in favour of categorising the pacific landmass below New Zealand as a new continent. Their paper is engaging even for a non-specialist, and it also provides an excellent demonstration of how hedging language is used as a matter of course in academic writing.

The Zealandia landmass

Hedging language is used to ‘soften’ any certainties we want to express in academic writing. Counterintuitive as it may seem, adding this language of uncertainty and doubt strengthens your academic standpoint by protecting it from being undermined. Let’s take a look at the first sentence of this article for a demo. If I have said,

we will have to add Zealandia to the list of continents.

this sentence could easily have been disproven. However, by saying

we may soon have to add Zealandia to the list of known continents.

I’ve largely protected my statement from counterargument.

Hedging also lets us acknowledge that we are working with the best information currently available, but that this will likely be superseded in the future. Regarding their own conclusions, Mortimer et al. state,

This is not a sudden discovery but a gradual realization; as recently as 10 years ago we would not have had the accumulated data or confidence in interpretation to write this paper.

This type of language is so prevalent in academic writing that most native speakers hedge automatically, but non-native speakers would do well to pay attention to how (and how frequently) it is used. For instance, the GSA Today article is peer reviewed, the abstract clearly states the authors’ thesis, and their well-structured argument is convincingly supported. Nonetheless, the whole text is peppered with various types of hedging language:

adverbs relatively thick… more correctly… almost never…
introductory verbs it seems unlikely that… possibly suggests that…
adverbial phrases To our knowledge,
lexical verbs It is assumed that… first proposed
adjectives many authors…
nouns interpretation
double hedges It is generally agreed that…
if clauses [descriptions are] misleading if they omit Zealandia.

Once you start to look for examples of academic hedging, you will realise just how widespread it is in English. Of course, you can overuse hedging, but in my experience few non-native writers are in danger of this (at least initially).

As ever, the best way to develop a ‘feel’ for hedging is to actively read academic writing, noting and reflecting on the language used. If you’d like a more specific list of terms to use in your own writing, I recommend this section of Manchester University’s Academic Phrasebank.

Do you actively reflect on the hedging in your writing? Does hedging exist to the same degree in your language? Let me know!

How to lower your word count with reduced relative clauses

In this blog post, we’ll be looking at one method of decreasing the total word count of your academic essay or assignments: the use of reduced relative clauses.

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that I – a blogger, after all – love to write. In all types of texts, I’m effusive: I send text messages that take up the whole screen of my iPhone, I always run out of room on my tweets, and ‘quick emails’ run to many paragraphs. In academic writing (where I’m expected to outline, explain, and argue a line of thought) I’m frankly verbose, and my first drafts usually end up between 10 and 20% over the word limit. Personally, reducing the overall word count is a skill I’ve had to master when editing my own work.

Even students who do not necessarily enjoy the essay writing process are often surprised by the quantity of their output once they start expounding on a topic they know well, and which interests them. Of course, some assignments don’t have a maximum word limit, but even then, concision is a necessary academic writing skill, and the technique below will help you vary your sentence structure and write with greater brevity.

When reducing your word count, removing a few words here and there can make a surprising difference to your total, and I often start by isolating my relative clauses.

Remember, clauses in their simplest form consist of a subject noun, plus a main verb. They are the smallest grammatical structures which can ‘survive’ as a sentence in their own right, e.g.

The students returned.

Adding an object noun will make the sentence more complex:

The students returned their questionnaires.

This sentence is still a little too simplistic for an academic essay, and we can add relative clauses to give the reader necessary information in a complex but – crucially – clear way. A relative clause is connected to a main clause by one of the following words:

  • who
  • which
  • that
  • where
  • when, or
  • whose

In our example, we might therefore write,

The students who had been selected for participation returned their questionnaires, which were then processed by researchers.

This is a perfectly acceptable sentence, but could be made more succinct if necessary or desirable. To achieve this, I recommend reducing your defining relative clauses, as this is generally more straightforward. In this case, the first relative clause is defining, so we’ll focus our attention here (if you need to review your understanding of defining and non-defining relative clauses, take a look at this explanation).

When the defining relative clause uses the verb to be, we can usually reduce it by removing the relative pronoun and verb, as follows:

The students who had been selected for participation returned their questionnaires, which were then processed by researchers.


The students selected for participation returned their questionnaires, which were then processed by researchers.

The sentence is as clear and informative as the original wording, but we’ve reduced the word count slightly and made it more snappy.

If, after a first edit, we still need to reduce the word count, we can go back to some of our reduced relative clauses and see if we can strip them back to adjective form. For instance, if I was really struggling meeting a word limit, I might write:

The selected students returned their questionnaires, which were then processed by researchers.

Of course, if you’re considerably exceeding your word limit, you may need to consider jettisoning some of your arguments. In the initial re-drafts, however, I suggest chipping away at unnecessary language, rather than abandoning relevant arguments.

A word of caution: don’t go overboard! Removing too many relative pronouns will likely lead to confusion for your reader. If in doubt, ask a critical friend to read your sentence tell you if the meaning is still clear. Varying your sentence construction will produce engaging, natural-sounding text, but in academic writing, clarity and accuracy are imperative.

If you have any questions or queries, you can ask them in the comments. You can also read about reduced relative clauses in more detail and try related grammar activities here.

Do you struggle to meet word limits? Have you studied relative clauses before? Let me know!