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Good Academic Practice: A Guide

Academic Language

Thinking about our academic practice involves paying attention to the language we use. 

This section considers how we learn to write, how we come to understand and use 'difficult words', and how we might use reporting verbs, tentative language and pronouns in our writing.

How do we learn to write?

You will often read about how important it is to use ‘appropriate’, or ‘academic’ language in your university essays. But how do you know which words or expressions are ‘appropriate’ or ‘academic’? How do we actually learn to write an essay or a report? This is something that is worth considering.

It can be useful to look at examples of the kind of writing that you want to produce. This is a useful way of familiarising yourself with the conventions of a particular type of writing. You might have a bank of assessed work for your course where you can look at good examples of essays, for example.

Reading, more generally, is a way of learning about writing. When we read academic writing in articles and books, we pick up ideas about how to write. You might want to take notes on how something is written as well what is written when you are making notes. You might, for example, be reading a book and notice that the author introduces something in an elegant way. You could make a note of the expression that is used. You might read an article and notice that the author describes how the article will be structured in a really clear way. You might want to note down some of the general phrases that are used. This way you build up a bank of general phrases that are useful when you write. 

Difficult Words

How do you come to use the ‘difficult’ words that you come across in your readings? How do we learn what words mean? Our understanding of them, of course, grows with exposure. We see a word in context and come to understand its general meaning. For some words that you are unfamiliar with, it will be enough to look up the word in a dictionary to find out its meaning. Other words are more tricky to grasp. You might look up the word but not understand the definition. You might see authors discuss the word and still not understand what it means. This is often the case for abstract theoretical concepts.

If your course involves lots of these 'difficult words' then it might be useful to try the following:

  • Stick a piece of paper on the wall or open a document on your computer that is simply titled with this word. So imagine the word is ‘neoliberalism’. You keep coming across it on your course but you don’t feel you understand its meaning.
  • Then, note down any definitions you have found for the word on the document.
  • When a lecturer uses the word you could make a note of it, in context, or paste that section of the lecture slide into this document. Here, you are building up a picture of what the word means.
  • You might also come across the word when reading the news or listening to the radio. In the case of the word ‘neoliberalism’, you might find a journalist describing something as 'neoliberal' - again, make a quick note.
  • Your document will grow and, perhaps, when taken together, these notes start to help you get a sense of how the word is being used. 

You might want to begin to build your own glossary of subject specific words that are used in your course. Remember to make a note of the page number of the article or book if you are noting down definitions of words. You’ll then be able to cite them easily.

Reporting Verbs

Whenever you are discussing the ideas or findings of others you have a choice to make about the reporting verb that you use.

You might say 'Yang (2020) found …' or 'Yang (2020) argues …' Other useful reporting verbs include describes, suggests, finds, shows, observes, reports, proposes, discusses, indicates, examines, identifies, points out, asserts, assumes, and maintains. You might be able to think of lots of others.

The verb choice is important since it helps you to indicate the stance of the author. You might be able to subtly indicate something about your knowledge of the literature in a particular field. For example, imagine you knew that Yang had held a particular position for some years. You might then read a recent journal article authored by Yang which holds the same position and be able to write ‘Yang (2020) maintains that…’, indicating your awareness of this past research.

You might be able to use the choice of verb to help you to point out the limitations of a particular piece of research. You might say ‘Yang (2020) assumes that…’, for example, where you want to highlight problematic assumptions. 

When you’re reading, have a think about how authors in your discipline introduce research that they refer to. You could make a note of verbs that you come across and then keep the list handy when you write.


Tentative Language

Sometimes, when we’re writing, we want to be very definite about something. Sometimes we want to be more hesitant. The use of hesitant, cautious or tentative language is a common feature of academic writing. Tentative words include may, might and could.

You might see expressions such as:

  • This may be because..
  • Andrews (2017) might view this as…
  • The results could be interpreted as…

The writer might want to express hesitancy about something that they are not sure about. The evidence or the results from an experiment, for example, might be inconclusive. The writer might want to talk about possibilities for what the results means without being too firm in their conclusions. 

A writer might also be tentative when they want to think about how a particular theory or framework could be applied in a context other than that intended by the author. The example on the previous page, ‘Andrews (2017) might view this as…’, could be a case of this. Andrews might have written something in 2017 that could be applied to a different context. The writer couldn’t say for sure what Andrews would say on this new matter but might be able to say it is likely or possible that Andrews would take this view based on what they have read. Using a structure like this ‘x might view this as…’ is a nice way of showing your understanding of an idea beyond its original context.

Additionally, the author might want to explore different possibilities for some phenomenon. Writers weigh up evidence or think about alternative explanations for something. Indeed, this is something that is often rewarded in essays. 

Finally, academic writers often use tentative language out of what is sometimes called 'academic humility'. This is a recognition of the fact that no essay, book or journal article ever has the final word on any topic. There might always be another piece of research that changes our understanding. For these reason, writers are sometimes tentative when drawing conclusions.



Students often wonder whether to use the first person pronoun ‘I’ in their writing. Different disciplines have different conventions regarding the use of pronouns. You could seek guidance or look at examples of writing in your discipline to see how pronouns are used. If first person pronouns are avoided, students might say ‘This essay argues ….’ instead of writing ‘I will argue ...’.

 Academic writing tends not to use the second person pronoun ‘you’. Instead of ‘You can see this in the graph below’, you might write ‘The graph below shows…’.

Although once seen as ungrammatical, the pronoun ‘they’ is now viewed as an acceptable, indeed preferable, third person pronoun in cases where one person is being referred to but the relevant pronoun is not known. For example, a research report might state that ‘Each participant was asked to make some notes about their experiences’. The use of ‘he’ as a generic pronoun is avoided.


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