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English has a history of borrowing words from other languages, especially French, Latin and Greek. This has resulted in the co-existence of two vocabularies: one to talk about things in an everyday context, and one to talk about thoughts, theories and events in a more formal context. Compare these two groups of verbs

  • words of Old English origin, commonly used in conversation
  • believe, know, mean, say, tell, think, understand

  • words of French or Greco-Latin origin, used in more formal speech or writing
  • assert, assume, claim, concede, conclude, confirm, contradict, criticize, declare, define, deny, discover, doubt, explain, hypothesize, imply, infer, interpret, observe, predict, prove, remember, suggest

In addition, the multi-word verbs of Old English origin which we use in common conversation have Latinate equivalents which are more formal or academic. Some examples are given in the table below:

Old English origin Latin origin
look into investigate
work out determine, calculate
come up with develop
make up constitute
get rid of eliminate

Academic core vocabulary

Every discipline has its own specialised terms, and its own particular uses of words (eg, significant has a particular meaning when used in statistical analysis). However, some academic vocabulary is used in research writing across all or most disciplines with the same meanings, eg, assumption, suggestion, claim, implication, prediction, epitome, anecdotal, hypothesis, etc.

There are also a large number of idiomatic phrases, collocations and expressions to be found in academic writing generally.

First introduced by Firth (1957), the notion of collocation refers to the 'the company that words keep' or the tendency of words to work together in predictable ways, for example blond collocates with hair and flock with sheep. Some of these are totally predictable (eg, spick and span, cup and saucer) while others have less strong relationships. Collocations differ across languages so in English we 'face' problems and 'interpret dreams' while in Hebrew one 'stands in front of problems' and 'solves' dreams. The more fixed a collocation is the more idiomatic it becomes and is part of our native speaker phraseeology. (Crystal 1998:105).

Native speakers in general have high levels of this kind of competence and it is gaining this that is hard for non-native speakers of English when speaking and writing about their research.

The following set phrases, for example, may occur in writing from any discipline of study:

  • recent studies have focused on…,
  • increasing necessity has come about for…,
  • the contribution that X has made to the discipline of…,
  • X's hypothesis has been based on the premise that…,
  • these findings imply that…,
  • from the above discussion it seems that…, etc

Set phrases such as these are familiar to readers of academic writing and this familiarity speeds up the comprehension. Any change in the set patterns, therefore, may obstruct readability, or lead to the feeling that the writing is 'not academic'.

Avoidance of emotive, colourful or idiomatic language

Other features that can lead to the feeling that writing is 'not academic' are:

  • language with high emotional content or descriptive colour
  • Example

    Australian participation rates for women are shockingly low compared with European and North American employment patterns.

    It would be better to replace shockingly with very or extremely.

  • slang or journalistic idioms
  • Example

    International business heavyweights played a role in the process.

    A better wording would be 'leading international business interests'

Find out more about the academic vocabulary Opens in new window of English.

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