Academic grammar

As I mentioned in my brief post last week, this week I’m going to write about Julie Moore’s excellent webinar for OUP on Approaches to Teaching Academic Grammar. This was the first time I’d attended a webinar and I found the experience very interesting. Over a hundred attendees from all over the world could comment on and discuss Julie’s informative talk as she was giving it.

Julie began by outlining the main differences between grammar in general English and in EAP – that’s English for Academic Purposes.  In fact, general English is quite grammar-driven, with a big focus on verbs and tenses, whereas studying EAP involves a greater emphasis on skills.  However, because accuracy and clarity are crucial in order for academic writing to have credibility, it is still important to ensure that your grammar is correct.

One major difference between general and academic language is that an academic register relies much more heavily on nouns.  Julie used some examples, which we analysed together, to show that in a typical conversation, the verb: noun ratio is about 1:1, whereas in a typical academic text it is 1:4.  So although you still need to know your verbs, you should focus on learning nouns and on nominalisation – this is where you make a noun from a verb.  For example, instead of saying ‘modify’ you can say ‘modifier’ or ‘modification’.  In fact, nouns in academic English are often used with a modifier such as an adjective, another noun, a prepositional phrase or a clause.  So when you’re reading academic texts you should make an extra effort to notice which words and phrases typically go with which nouns. 

As for the verbs themselves, academic English has much less of a focus on tenses.  Of course, you still need to know your tenses!  However, 95% of the verbs in academic texts are in the simple aspect and 75% are in the present tense.  This is because the present simple is used to describe general truths and situations.  In fact, academic English often prefers the present simple even where general English might use a past tense – for example, when I was studying English Literature, we would usually write ‘Shakespeare writes about’ rather than ‘Shakespeare wrote about’ – this is because we were interested in the work itself as it still exists today, rather than the idea of Shakespeare writing at a specific time in the past.  So if you’d like to brush up your grammar for EAP I’d suggest forgetting about the future perfect continuous for the time being and instead getting as comfortable as possible with the passive voice – as you’d expect, it is used much more often in academic English than in general.

Finally, Julie talked about two important skills in academic writing; paraphrasing and hedging.  If you’ve ever done one of our EFU courses you’ll know that paraphrasing is an important part of your writing skills in academic English.  This is when you rewrite something in a different way to avoid repetition or copying another writer word-for-word.  At first it seems difficult but everyone gets better with practice!  Hedging is where you avoid making a very strong statement by using verbs such as ‘seems’, ‘appears’ or ‘tends’, or phrases such as ‘to some extent’, or ‘in general’.  This is important because making a claim which is too strong can make your writing seem too simplistic, or even dishonest.

I know that many of you are preparing for university right now, so I’d be really happy to answer any further questions you may have on academic English.

By Laura


to outline (v.) - to give an overview

crucial (adj.) - extremely important, necessary

credibility (n.) - if something is believable and reliable, it has credibility

to ensure (v.) - to make sure

register (n.) - the style of speaking or writing, e.g. formal, informal, academic

to brush up (phr.v.) - to improve on existing skills or knowledge

for the time being (adv./idiom) - at the present/for the moment

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