Understanding academic grammar

 

collins cobuild grammarThis article has been written by Julie Moore, who is an ELT materials developer and lexicographer.  

For students new to dealing with academic texts in English, they can seem daunting; full of long words and long complex sentences. Are academics just trying to show off how clever they are and confuse their poor readers? Well, maybe just a little bit sometimes, but most of the time, there are good reasons for the grammatical choices made by academic writers. Understanding the reasons for those choices can help students of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) make more informed choices in their own writing.

Collins COBUILD English Grammar has a supplement dedicated to the grammar of academic English, explaining some of the features typical of an academic register. In this post, we’ll look at three key features of academic writing and the reasons behind them.

Nominalization

In everyday conversation, we use roughly equal numbers of nouns and verbs (Biber et al., 1999). Because we’re coming up with ideas on the spot, our linguistic processing power generally only allows us to construct quite simple structures, often consisting of subject + verb (+ object) clauses:

I bought a new bag yesterday. (pronoun + verb + noun)
Your phone’s ringing. (noun + verb)

In speech, if we want to give more details, we tend to string together a sequence of simple clauses. An academic writer, on the other hand, often needs to convey a lot of detailed information in a concise way. To do this, they tend to use long noun phrases and relatively fewer verbs (roughly three or four nouns for every verb; Biber et al., 1999). Look at the following examples, in which the noun phrases have been underlined, and consider how long and awkward the ideas would be if you tried to express them as a string of simple noun + verb (+ noun) clauses:

The maintenance of blood pressure is achieved less rapidly as we age.
Parliament is a national governing body with the highest level of legislative power.

Of course, it takes time for students to learn how to unpack these long noun phrases. Breaking them down and looking at the processes involved can help. In the examples above, we can see three of the key building blocks of noun phrases:
– nominalization of processes: maintain becomes maintenance
– premodification: adding details before the main noun; a national governing body
– postmodification: adding more information after the main noun. In the second example, a relative clause (which has the highest level …) has been reduced to a prepositional phrase (with the highest level …) to make it neater.

Passives

Students new to EAP will often say that passives are more common in academic writing, but they only have the haziest understanding about why this might be the case. In fact, passives are slightly more frequent in academic writing than in other registers, but they still only account for around 25% of verb forms (Biber et al., 1999). Consider these two versions of a short text and the effect of the verb form in the second sentence in each case.

  1. In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the first antibiotic drug. Doctors around the world now use antibiotics to treat infections and save lives.
  2. In 1928, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, the first antibiotic drug. Antibiotics are now used around the world to treat infections and save lives.

In A, the subject of the second sentence, doctors, is not especially important to the message and in fact, I found it quite hard to choose an appropriate noun; doctors, medical staff, healthcare professionals, hospitals? The focus of the sentence is the drug itself, antibiotics, so it makes sense to make this the subject. To achieve this, we need to use a passive form of the verb (are used). This is often the case in academic writing where the product of an action is more significant than the person performing it: 40% of the world’s coffee is grown in Brazil (we’re less interested in the farmers who grow the coffee, so we omit the performer of the action and focus on the product).

What’s more, in B, the text has a more cohesive feel because the second sentence conforms to the typical ‘known information’ > ‘new information’ structure. So the writer mentions antibiotics first to link back to the previous sentence (the reader already knows the text is about antibiotics), and then goes on to add the new information (used around the world …). This ‘known’ > ‘new’ structure is one technique that can be used to guide a reader through a text and make it more readable. Choosing an active or a passive verb form is one grammatical feature we can manipulate as writers to allow us to move information around in a sentence to best achieve this flow. It isn’t that a passive verb form is always more ‘correct’ or more ‘academic’, it’s just one option that can help us to organize information in the most effective way.

Tentative language

So we’ve seen how we can use grammar to organize lots of academic detail into a concise and easy-to-follow form. Good academic writers don’t only need to describe ‘facts’, however; they also need to think about how they want to communicate their message. Concepts such as voice and stance are essential to becoming an effective academic writer. Student writers need to learn to emphasize what’s most important, to express evaluation, and comment critically on ideas. They also need to develop their use of tentative language, sometimes known as hedging, to express their degree of certainty – or uncertainty – in their message. Tentative language can include adverbs (partly, approximately, apparently), modal verbs (could, may, might, can), semi-auxiliary verbs (seem, appear), and prepositional phrases (in most cases, in general). Consider the effect of the underlined words in the following examples. How does the message change if they are removed?

Increased risk of infection is predominantly linked to poor sanitation.
As will be seen later, current models are inadequate in some respects
.
Electric cars appear to offer a pollution-free alternative to conventional vehicles powered by fossil fuels.

It can seem counterintuitive to new student writers to include language that’s intentionally vague or cautious. Surely they want to confidently demonstrate what they know, don’t they? Overconfidence and overgeneralization though can leave the writer open to criticism. Poor sanitation may not be the only reason for increased infection. Current models may not be completely inadequate, they may have some good points. And there may be some reasons we haven’t yet thought of why electric cars aren’t completely pollution free. By acknowledging possible limitations and uncertainties, the writer is pre-empting potential criticisms and thus, actually making their claims more difficult to argue against.

All of these features of academic writing, when properly understood, enable the writer to make choices about the most effective way to express their ideas and the most appropriate way to get their argument across to their reader. They can, of course, be overused and misused as well, making writing muddled and difficult to read. The key for new academic writers is to understand their options and to always be asking themselves why they’re making particular grammatical choices.

Explore this topic in greater detail with our free guided worksheet.

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References:

Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. (1999) Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English Longman: Harlow