Difference between revisions of "Clearer wording guide"

From English Wiki
Jump to: navigation, search
(Created page with "<big> Clearer wording in academic writing </big> The following are a few tips for academic writing, especially common issues for learners of English as a second language. Som...")
 
(No difference)

Latest revision as of 20:48, 9 August 2019

Clearer wording in academic writing

The following are a few tips for academic writing, especially common issues for learners of English as a second language. Some of these result from differences in the structure between academic English and that of other languages.


1 Verbs

1.1 Replace light verbs

Light verbs are general use verbs with many meanings. Their meanings are more general and less precise, and depend very much on the context. They are very common in colloquial speech because of their flexibility in informal communication. For academic writing, however, they are less precise and can often be deleted or replaced with more specific terms.


Light verb Substitutes
be exist, occur, equal, consist of, comprise (of), typify, appear, seem, tend...
have possess, contain, exhibit, with*...
give provide, yield, produce, lead to, impart...
do perform, execute, carry out, implement, manage...
make create, produce, facilitate...
go, run, come proceed, journey, travel, progress, exceed...
set, put place, position, arrange...


Some Korean light verbs include 하다, 이다, 있다, -나다 (e.g., 화니다), 내다, 되다, -지다 (become), 오다, 가다, 주다. Some of these do not translate well into Korean (especially 있다, -나다), so it is best to avoid trying to render these in English, which can lead to overuse of be, have, there is/are. Instead, use more specific expressions.

The verb have in descriptive phrases can often be replaced with the preposition with or other descriptive phrases:

  • He passed the package to the man who had three eyes. →
  • He passed the package to the man with three eyes. / to the three-eyed man.


1.2 Phrasal verbs

When possible, phrasal verbs should be replaced with more formal Latinate verbs. For example, many ESL students use find out when a better expression for formal writing would be discover, determine, ascertain.

Phrasal verb Slightly formal or more formal
go out exit, diminish, leave, depart, extinguish, cease, die, dim, expire, subside, decline, dwindle, recede, quit, retire, withdraw
go around circumvent, circumnavigate, sidestep, ignore, rotate, gyrate, orbit, circumduct, twist, revolve, meander, ramble


1.3 Reporting & communication verbs

Certain verbs of reporting and communication are misused by Asian ESL writers.

Mention Mention does not mean ‘discuss’ or ‘describe’ but to briefly refer to something, e.g., a minor point. Mention and discuss take direct objects (not mention about, discuss about).
  • His study only mentions a few ideas for connecting the concepts together, but does not develop these ideas in any detail.
Find out Find out is colloquial; in formal English, ascertain, find, determine are better.
  • Our study found the idea conditions for this process, and determined that a pressure of 205 kP yields the best results.
Recommend Recommend can take a simple noun phrase as an object, a gerund phrase, or a that-clause (specifically, a contrary-to-fact that-clause).[1]
X We recommend they increase the required number of days in school.
✔️ We recommend increasing the required number of days in school.
✔️ We recommend that they increase the required number of days in school.
✔️ We recommend that the state increase the required number of days in school.
Support Support does not take a that-clause (complement clause) but a noun phrase as an object.
X The findings supported that consumption of the drug could lead to liver damage.
✔️ The findings support the claim / the view / the hypothesis that consumption of the drug could lead to liver damage.
Stress, emphasize Stress or emphasize are not used like ‘describe’ or ‘mention’, but are used to actually put emphasis on an important point.
  • At the meeting, we discussed the new policy, and the manager stressed the importance of strict compliance with it.
Blame cf. criticize Koreans also confuse these two words, using blame when criticize would be more suitable. To criticize is more general in meaning, as it refers to pointing out faults (including general faults or failures), negatively evaluating, or negatively judging someone, while blame refers to with assigning specific fault, cause, or liability for a particular problem or mistake, i.e., ‘blaming someone for something.’
  • Stop blaming me. -- I'm not blaming you; I'm just criticizing your behavior.


1.4 Incorrect or awkward passive verbs

Many English intransitive verbs indicate a change of state in the subject; that is, the subject undergoes the change. The transitive form of the verb indicates an agent acting upon an object to bring about the change (a good example is the verb change). For simply describing the subject undergoing a change of state, it is better to use the regular intransitive active, rather than the passive of the transitive verb. The passive would be better used only if the agent (person or thing causing the change) has been mentioned, is somehow significant, or is to be inferred from the context.

X The monitor was suddenly changed. (This sounds strange as a sentence.)
? The monitor was suddenly changed into a screen full of “illegal operation” messages.
✔️The monitor suddenly changed. (Okay, but this would often sound incomplete.)
✔️ The monitor suddenly changed into a screen full of “illegal operation” messages.
✔️ The monitor was suddenly changed into a screen full of “illegal operation” messages by the evil operating system.


Many intransitive verbs, such as those denoting change of state and existence, do not have transitive counterparts and so they cannot be used in the passive, e.g.:

X it is existed, it is consisted of

This is a common problem for Korean (and Japanese and Chinese) writers. They incorrectly use some passive verbs, namely, (1) verbs indicating a state or change of state, which are intransitive (자동사, 自動詞) and cannot be made passive; and (2) some verbs that can be either intransitive or transitive (타동사, 他動詞), whose passive use sounds awkward in some contexts.

Verb type Verbs Notes
existence or state
[intrans.]
be, exist, happen, appear, tend, occur, seem, remain, consist of Indicates presence, existence, stat, or status of items
  • There exist only a few fundamental particles in the universe, from which all atomic particles are built.
change of state or appearance
[intrans.]
go, come, die, arise, appear, disappear, vanish, arise Indicates change in position or state of an item, or appearance of an item upon the scene or to the discourse – the sentence subject undergoes a change by itself (no outside agent is specified or relevant)
  • There arose such a clamor in the room that I woke up.
change of state or appearance
[intrans. & trans.]
break, change, increase, decrease, grow
  1. [intrans.] The subject undergoes a change by itself.
  • The caterpillar changed into a beautiful butterfly.
  1. [trans.] The subject undergoes a change due to a force or agent acting on it.
  • The oil filter was changed by a rather slow mechanic.


Some English intransitive verbs indicate a change of state in the subject; that is, the subject undergoes the change. The transitive form of the verb indicates an agent (e.g., a person, other agent, or force) acting upon an object to bring about the change; a good example is the verb change. For simply describing the subject undergoing a change of state, it is better to use the regular intransitive active, rather than the passive of the transitive verb. The passive would be better used only if the agent (person or thing causing the change) has been mentioned, is somehow significant, or is to be inferred from the context.

X The monitor was suddenly changed. (This sounds strange as a sentence, as if some magical force changed it.)
? The monitor was suddenly changed into a screen full of “illegal operation” messages.
✔️ The monitor suddenly changed.
✔️ The monitor suddenly changed into a screen full of “illegal operation” messages.
✔️ The monitor was suddenly changed into a screen full of “illegal operation” messages by the evil operating system. (This makes sense because there is a logical force or agent causing it.)


1.5 Experiencer / Stimulus verbs

For verbs of emotion, states, and mental states, one needs to distinguish (1) the present participle and other adjectives – indicating the source, cause or stimulus of the condition – from (2) the past participle, indicating the experiencer – describing the feeling or state that one experiences.

Experiencer: bored, interested, excited, scared, afraid, pleased, amused, disgusted
Source: boring, interesting, exciting, scary, pleasing, pleasant, amusing, disgusting


2 Nouns and pronouns

The following nouns are often misused by East Asian writers.

  • chapter (cf. section)
  • part → section, aspect, sector, etc.
  • thesis, dissertation, article


2.1 Replace other “light” words

Informal or vague More specific
thing object, device, item, situation, circumstance, subject, element
person, people, someone, man individual, Canadians, researchers, subjects, voters, males, participants
good sufficient, excellent, optimal, ideal, studious, prime


Substituting human or human being as a noun for person/people generally sounds unnatural outside of an appropriate scientific context.

When possible, more colloquial sounding indefinite pronouns and similar expressions can be avoided: someone, something, somewhere, anyone, anything, anywhere, everyone, everything, everywhere.

  • We sought someone who could... → We sought those who / some subjects who …


2.2 Count nouns vs. non-count (mass) nouns

Note the following properties of these types of nouns. [2].


  • Mass nouns essentially denote names of substances, materials, and other non-concrete items (e.g., water, jello, love, existentialism).
  • Count nouns essentially denote objects, things, and other concrete or quantifiable items (countable items, e.g., water droplet, container, computer).
  • Sometimes a particular item may be treated as a mass noun by default in one language and as a count noun in another. For example, the following nouns are most often treated as mass nouns in English, especially in American English, unlike their count noun equivalents in many other languages: information, homework, research, evidence, advice.
  • Singular count nouns must always occur with an article or quantifier (determiner) word – e.g., the, a, each, this, that, my, your, any, no.
  • Often mass nouns and count nouns change from one category to another with a change in meaning. Some mass nouns can be changed to count nouns by using a measure phrase (a piece of..., a cup of...), a determiner, or a compound; otherwise, a synonym must be used for a count meaning instead.
  • To use a count noun with a mass, general, or indefinite meaning, it is most common to use it in the plural; i.e., not referring to any specific item, but in general.


Mass cf. count = an instance of X, a specific type of X
(some) yogurt → a / a cup of yoghurt;
jello, water
Please give me a yoghurt. ( = a container of yoghurt)
Please give me a cup of yoghurt.

A jello that I like ( = a particular type of jello)
The waters of Finland (= various bodies of water, i.e., lakes)

count → mass = all X, or X’s generally speaking; no particular X in mind, but any X, any kind of X, or all X’s
penguin → penguins Penguins do not eat ice cream. (general statement about all penguins)


The following nouns are usually singular (non-count or more abstract nouns), not usually plural.

  • equipment, faculty, furniture, homework, literature, research, staff, vocabulary

However, data is usually plural in academic English, while it is treated as a singular noun in informal English, e.g., “the data were conclusive.”


To express a specific item, type, or instance of a mass noun, one can use a measure word phrase, a compound, or a synonym.

  • information →piece of information
  • homework→ homework assignment, assignment
  • research→research project, piece of research, study


To express a specific item, type, or instance of a mass noun, one can use a measure word phrase, a compound, or a synonym.

  • (some) coffee; please give me a coffee (i.e., one cup).


For countable nouns, a more general meaning comes from using in the plural, especially without the for a more abstract sense, when talking about X as a category, or about X’s in general.

  • Children should not drink coffee.
  • Penguins regurgitate food for their young. (Penguins = plural generic count noun; food = mass noun)


Many nouns can have countable or mass meanings; they can become more specific (identifiable) and countable when referring to a specific quantity, container, or type of something.

  • I like to drink coffee. cf.: Give me a coffee / two coffees. Give me the coffee.
  • We like the atmosphere here. cf.: We compared the atmospheres of Earth and Mars.


Some nouns are more generic, for example, when talking about all members of the class (plural count nouns with no article). There is a singular generic form, when giving definitions, or when discussing a hypothetical or non-specific, non-identifiable item.

  • Penguins regurgitate food for their young. [generic plural]
  • I want a man who knows what love is. [hypothetical]
  • Helium is a gas with the atomic number of 2. [helium = mass noun; a gas = definitional]
  • A penguin is a flightless seabird. [a penguin, a bird = definitional]


2.3 More complex noun phrases

Second language writers tend to use simple noun phrases, which sound less sophisticated. Note the difference between the (a) and (b) versions of these sentences.

1a. We investigated patients in Sri Lanka who had symptoms of Hansen’s disease.
1b. We investigated patients in Sri Lanka with symptoms of Hansen’s disease.
2a. We found evidence that teachers who came from a middle-class background treated children differently according to whether they spoke in standard English or a dialect.
2b. We found evidence that mothers from a middle-class background treated children differently according to their use of standard English or a dialect.
3a. This is reflected in how residents admired their congressman because of how he brought home government projects that benefited his home district.
3b. This is reflected in residents’ admiration of their congressman for his success in bringing government projects to his home district.


More complex noun phrases are preferred, such as the following structures.

Premodifier + noun Examples
attributive adjective
(before noun)
these more provocative aspects
(cf. predicate adjective: these aspects are more provocative)
adverb + adjective these more interesting aspects
present participle the growing problem of meth abuse
past participle the last completed study
compound nouns an epidemiology study in Haiti [cf. a study of epidemiology in Haiti]


Postmodifier + noun Examples
relative clause the patients who reported no previous symptoms
prepositional phrase the solution to the problem of lactose intolerance
the growing problem of methamphetamine abuse by unemployed users
present participle phrase an instrument consisting of an infrared camera and a headpiece was used
past participle phrase an instrument consisting of an infrared camera aimed at the pupils and infrared cameras mounted on the monitor was used
adverb phrase the patients outside the target group
adjective phrase the varieties of the plant common in India


For example:

Unlike the classical genetic tests that look for rare genetic abnormalities (such as Huntington's disease), genetic tests sold directly to consumers cannot diagnose a disease. They merely provide information about DNA sequence variations, or single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). Certain SNPs can be found more often among individuals with a particular disease or condition. For example, one particular combination of two SNPs in the APOE gene occurs 3 to 20 times more frequently in individuals with Alzheimer's. Consequently, a person with this particular combination of SNPs could be at a greater risk to develop Alzheimer's; the mere presence of these SNPs is not diagnostic. (Science, 330, 17 Dec. 2010, p. 1626)


2.4 Collocations

Collocations are typical word combinations – words that usually go together in normal use – such as the following.


Structure Examples
Verb + Noun inflict a wound, withdraw an offer , make a lot of money, make a lot of friends, ease tension, override a veto
Adjective + Noun a crushing defeat, a rough estimate
Noun + Verb a bee buzzes, a bomb explodes
Noun 1 + Noun 2 a flock of sheep, a pack of dogs
Adverb + Adjective deeply absorbed, closely acquainted, hopelessly addicted
Verb + Adverb appreciate sincerely, apologize humbly
Noun + Prep apathy toward, influence on
X + Comp an agreement that, recommend that



Particular collocation difficulties for ESL include:

  1. Light verbs, e.g.,
    • take a chance, take liberties with the results, run aground, run an experiment, go bungee jumping, take notice, set an example
  2. Prepositions and phrasal verbs, which are often metaphorical
    • working (in) → working at the university [‘in’ is possible in certain contexts, but ‘at’ is generally preferred]
    • The work environment has cut down diminished our motivation, especially when team members have been split apart up.
  3. Prep. combinations: [1] Verb + Prep.; [2] Adj. + Prep.; and [3] Noun + Prep; these can involve metaphorical uses of prepositions
    • is different than → different from
    • apply X into Y→ apply X to Y
    • influence to X→ influence on X
  4. Noun + Prep. combinations, and their Verb counterparts with no prepositions.
    • X has an influence on Y cf. X influences on Y
    • a discussion about Xcf.to discuss about X
  5. Use of speak, talk, tell, say -- see the page on reporting verbs (introduction). One speaks a language or a statement; one says words, discourse, or something general; one tells a story or information.



3 Transitionals (connectors)

3.1 Unnecessary there expressions.

The sentence initial there construction (there is/are...) should not be overused in formal writing. It functions as a transitional device for introducing new or related items to the discourse, e.g.,

  • Looking out the window, one exclaims, “Hey, there’s a unicorn in my garden!”


Because of its explicit transitional function, using too many there expressions sounds redundant, especially in topic sentences and introductions. Its use is also restricted to certain intransitive verbs; it cannot be used with any verb. Specifically, it is used mainly with intransitive verbs that indicate existence, appearance, and change of state.


existence Indicates presence / existence of items
be, exist, happen, appear, tend, occur, seem, remain There exist only a few fundamental particles in the universe, from which all atomic particles are built.
change of state, appearance Indicates change in position or state of an item, or appearance of an item upon the scene or to the discourse
break, go, come, die, arise, break, change, appear, disappear There arose such a clamor in the room that I woke up.


New paragraphs are essentially a topic transitional device indicating a shift to a new topic. Thus, using there is/are expressions or first, second, third, at the start of a new paragraph often sounds stylistically weak and redundant.


3.2 Greater variety of transitional words.

Avoid overuse of the same transitionals, especially formulaic sounding first, second, finally. These may be useful sometimes (especially for standardized tests like the TOEFL/TWE), but a better variety is needed for formal writing.


3.2.1 Overuse of topic shift transitional devices.

Topic transitional devices like as for, as regards, speaking of, as to, and such signal a shift to a related topic, or resuming a previously mentioned topic or item. Cleft sentences like it’s X that... are colloquial devices for contrast and emphasis. These functions are commonly marked in the grammar of some languages, and are often marked by equivalent transitionals in the colloquial speech of various languages[3]. They may be somewhat more common in English business writing, and are rather common in colloquial English. In academic English writing, however, it is better to use them sparingly or rarely, because they are considered colloquial. They can be replaced with a sentence beginning with the new subject, a paragraph break, or other types of transitionals.

? As for sub-arctic penguins, rockhoppers are the most unique.
? It’s rockhoppers that are the most unique among penguins.
✔️ Rockhoppers are the most unique among the sub-arctic penguins.
? Speaking of penguins, there are 18 species of penguins in the world.
✔️ There are 18 species of penguins in the world. / 18 species of penguins exist in the world. / Furthermore, 18 species of penguins are found in the world, all in the Southern Hemisphere.


3.3 Konglish expressions

Avoid Konglish terms like next next, last last, Y-shirt (=dress shirt), cunning (=cheating), event, condition, consent (=electrical outlet), hand phone, Hotchkiss (=stapler), MT, service, after-service, AS, one-room, well-being and many others; also, the German-Japanese term 아르바이트. Other problems result from using an incorrect word when their meanings and use differ between English and Korean, e.g.,

  • I have a promise → an appointment


4 Gender bias

Avoid using boy or girl when referring to adults. Avoid using he, him or masculine nouns (mailman, policeman) when the one referred to is generic, unknown, or could be female. Instead, use the following.

  1. Plural nouns and pronouns, if possible, to refer to specific persons, instead of singular nouns and pronouns; thus, the gender-neutral they can be used.
  2. The generic pronouns one, one’s in written English for generic and gender-neutral discussion (if not referring to specific people; but this is not common in spoken English).
  3. Gender-neutral nouns, e.g., mail carrier, police officer, business person.


5 Colloquial expressions

Some of the terms below are more informal, general, or vague, and are less commonly used in academic writing; the more formal alternatives are preferred.


Informal More formal alternatives
anyway This is used informally for changing topics; in formal writing, simply starting a sentence with a full noun topic, or starting a new paragraph, will often suffice.
besides More formal alternatives are ‘in addition to’ or ‘furthermore’ - e.g., “In addition to these factors, ...”.
bad negative, pejorative, poor, ineffective, adverse...
big, huge large, significant, enormous, incredible, gargantuan, gigantic, massive
good sufficient, excellent, optimal, ideal, studious, prime, positive, effective, beneficial
kind of, sort of somewhat, slightly
like is similar to; for example, such as
like this for example, for instance
lots of many, numerous, a large number / amount of
nowadays currently, recently
stuff, thing(s) matter, issue, affair, object, factor, device
way manner, method, means, methodology, instrument, aspect


Some common nouns and adjectives that are general or vague in meaning can be replaced in more formal contexts.

Colloquial More formal
thing object, device, item, situation, circumstance, subject, element
person, people, someone individual, Canadians, researchers, subjects, voters, males, participants
man males, (male) participants / subjects, male voters, etc.
women females, (female) participants, etc.


Substituting human or human being as a noun for person/people is possible, but may sound unnatural outside of an appropriate scientific context.


6 Contractions and abbreviations

Abbreviated forms like approx. or gov’t are not used in formal writing. Full forms instead of common contractions are preferred in formal academic writing, e.g., can’t cannot, doesn’t does not. However, academic abbreviations from Latin are acceptable, such as e.g. ‘for example,’ i.e. ‘that is, in other words,’ cf. ‘compare,’ and c. ‘approximately’ before numerals, e.g., “c. 500 participants signed up.”


6.1 Fillers

Avoid overusing filler terms like etc. or and so on. Avoid such terms after beginning a list of items with for example or e.g., as these filler terms then become redundant.

  • We tried a number of factors in our model, e.g., X, Y, Z, etc. → … , e.g., X, Y, and Z.




  1. Notice that when the main verb is a verb of ordering, suggesting or a similar verb, then the verb in the following dependent clause is not a regular verb, but a special verb form known as a subjunctive – similar to a conditional – which makes a difference with the verb for a 3rd person singular subject; one can use should + Verb, or the older subjunctive verb without -s / is for 3rd person.
    • The judge ordered that bail be lowered / that bail should be lowered.
    • The school ordered / suggested / demanded that he stop the experiment / that he should stop the experiment immediately.
  2. In Asian languages, count nouns are often marked with measure words:
    Korean:
    • 이번 역은 소울역입니다. This station is Seoul Station.
    • 바카스 한병 주세요. Please give me one (bottle of) Bachus.

    Chinese:
    • Wŏ yào yì-ge diànniăo. I would like a computer.
  3. E.g., the colloquial Chinese ...de huà, ...shuō de huà; in Korean, they are marked grammatically with 은/는.