Academic English skills

Successful academic writing requires the accurate use of various academic English conventions and rules.

These conventions involve academic English that is cautious in tone, formal, precise and concise, impartial and objective, and claims and opinions that are substantiated with evidence.

For further assistance, advice or tutoring/coaching in these skills contact Dr Bill Wrigley.

Click on the arrow beside each skill below to learn more.

 Cautious in tone

Write in a cautious tone, avoiding extreme, absolute or definite English.

Academic writing requires a cautious or tentative tone when describing or reporting the strength of a claim or interpretation. Try to avoid making statements that sound definite or fixed and final, extreme, absolute or are overgeneralizations. This practice is in keeping with the empirical traditions of adopting a questioning attitude and a balanced and neutral approach.

An academically cautious tone describes degrees of certainty, likelihood or possibility.

1.  Avoid using the words must, should, ought, or have to. Use might, may, could or can.


✖  The fine weather must have been the reason for the large crowd.

✓  The fine weather was likely to have been the reason for the large crowd.

✖  More  research of this issue should be undertaken.

✓  More  research of this issue could be undertaken.

2.  Avoid using always or every. Use often, very frequently, many or most.


✖  These variables always respond in this way.

✓  These variables often respond in this way.

3. Avoid using definitely, undoubtedly, obviously, or absolutely. Use likely, probably, seems to, appears to, or tends to.


✖  This is definitely not the case for everyone.

✓  This does not appear to be the case for most people.

Convey levels of strength

 A common convention in academic writing for conveying levels of strength or frequency of an occurrence is to refer to the degree of certainty, likelihood or possibility of an occurrence:

Degree of certainty or likelihood

  1. It is certain that….,
  2. It is almost certain that…,
  3. It is highly likely that…
  4. It is likely that…,
  5. It is possible that….

Degree of possibility

  1. There is a definite possibility that…,
  2. There is a strong possibility that…,
  3. There is a good possibility that…,
  4. There is some possibility that…

Degree of frequency

  1. Few believe that…
  2. Some believe that…
  3. Many believe that…
  4. Most believe that…

Table 1. List of definite and final words and their corresponding cautious language equivalents.

Definite, Final
(avoid using)
Cautious, Tentative
 must might, may, could, can, advisable
 should could, advisable
 have to could, likely
 always very frequently, mostly, many
 every many, most, much
 definitely likely, appears to
 undoubtedly probably, likely
 obviously seems to, appears to, tends to
 absolutely probably, likely
 Of course… (delete)
 Everybody knows that…. It is widely known / understood  that…

Table 2. Common verbs, adverbs, nouns and phrases used to convey a cautious tone.

VerbsAdverbsNounsCommon Phrases
may, might, could, wouldperhapsThe probability of this occurrence is unlikelyIt seems / appears that…
suggestpossible, possiblyIt would appear that….
probable, probablypossibilityIt might be suggested that ….
seems to, appears to,
tends to indicatelikely, unlikelyprobability
definitelylikelihoodIt may be possible to obtain…
points toassumption
tends to be/indicatesconceivablyIt could be the case that...
It could be said that…
The evidence suggests …

seeminglyIt is generally considered that…
It is likely...
occasionally, rarely
infrequentlyIn some/many/most cases…

sometimesSome believe that…
frequentlyTo the extent that…
mostly, mainly, largelyWith the exception of….
usuallyIt is relatively uncommon that…
The procedure is perhaps central to …


Avoid using conversational English, contractions, clichés, colloqualisms or slang when writing academically. Construct sentences using formal English.

1.  Avoid using conversational English

Use formal written English. Informal, casually spoken English used in everyday conversation should be avoided.


✖ The worker spent a lot of time getting a hard job done.

✓ The employee spent considerable time completing a difficult job.

✖ People who fill out surveys on this topic must be really down.

✓ People who complete surveys on this topic are often quite depressed.

2.  Avoid using contractions and some abbreviations

A contraction is a shortened version of a word or word group, such as isn’t (is not), can’t (cannot), there’s (there is), and won’t (would not). Some abbreviations should also be avoided, such as eg (for example), i.e. (that is), yrs (years), and etc (ecetera, or, and so on). Etc should never be used.


There’s considerable debate about the veracity of this claim.

There is considerable debate about the veracity of this claim.

There’s several reasons for this, eg the current weather.

There are several reasons for this, for example, the wet weather.

✖ The symptoms examined in the study were palpitations, insomnia etc.
✓ The symptoms examined in the study were palpitations, insomnia….. and…..(list all of the symptoms).

3. Avoid using clichés, colloquialisms or slang

A cliché is an overused or stereotyped expression (such as, over the hill, meaning old). A colloquialism is a phrase that is in very common use. Slang is a word(s) that is not considered standard English, such as cool: That performance was really cool.


The moment of truth arrived for the teacher to begin the exam.

The time came for the teacher to begin the exam.

✖This assignment is a piece of cake compared to the previous one.

✓This assignment is easier than the previous one.

Informal and formal language

There are many words and phrases often used by students that, although used in conversational or informal English, are not considered formal English required for academic writing. The table below lists many of these, together with a formal English alternative.

Table 3. List of informal words and their formal equivalents.

Informal, ‘Wordy’ Language Formal Language
a lotmany, considerable number, numerous
came backreturned
came up withproduced, provided
come up withdevelop
carried out (a study)conducted, performed
deal with manage, respond to
did, doneconducted, performed
getobtain, receive
get rid ofeliminate, removed
go down, get smallerdecrease, reduce
go into, talk aboutdiscuss
go up, get biggerincrease
(a) great deal ofconsiderable
in accordance withconsistent with
enough ofsufficient
filled outcompleted
find outdetermine ascertain, discover, learn
(it is) fitting(it is) appropriate
looked intoinvestigated
made up ofconsisted of, comprised
make up, constitute, comprise
make it easierfacilitate
make sureensure, verify
not been muchfew, little
pointed out, watched, indicated, observed
pretty goodencouraging
put forward (an idea, view, theory)present, propose
rightcorrect, accurate
saidreported, indicated, stated
set out to do something, try to doaim
set upestablished
sort ofquite
tell apart/between, make a distinctiondistinguish, differentiate, discern
went back over, looked over, reviewed
went throughchecked
worked onconducted
worked out, figured outdetermined
wrongincorrect, inaccurate
whole lot ofvarious

 Precise and concise

Successful academic writing is economical and precise in its use of words and phrases. It is concise

 1. Use precise words in your descriptions that avoid vague or overly general language:


✖ It’s was around about 1923 that he moved house to some other part of the country.

✓ It was in approximately 1923 that he moved to another region of the country.

✖  We mailed about 50 questionnaires to everyone.
✓ The questionnaire was mailed to each of the 50 participants in the study.

and exact, and avoids wordiness (verbosity), and redundant or unnecessary words.

2. Avoid wordy sentences that contain unnecessary words (such as this sentence – “contain unnecessary words”  = “wordy”).


✖ The inventors came up with a better method for solving the puzzle that got rid of the need for going back over the ideas they came up with before.

✓ The inventors discovered a better method that eliminated the need to review their previous ideas.

3. Avoid using redundant words (unnecessary repetition):

They were both alikeThey were alike
six different groupssix groups
It has been previously foundIt has been found
a total of 68 participants68 participants
The reason is becauseThe reason is that
very close to significancenon significant

*Parts of this table were adapted from American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington. DC: Author.

4.  Avoid using redundant categories:

Redundant categories*Correct
at an early timeearlier
brown in colourbrown
economics fieldeconomics
extreme in degreeextreme
heavy in weightheavy
honest in characterhonest
in a confused stateconfused
large in sizelarge
modern in designmodern
of an uncertain conditionuncertain
of cheap qualitycheap
often timesoften
round in shaperound
small in sizesmall
unusual in natureunusual

*Parts of this table were adapted from American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington. DC: Author.

5.  Avoid using redundant pairs:

Redundant pairs*Correct
basic fundamentalsfundamentals
both of theseboth
combine togethercombine
consensus of opinionconsensus
continue to remainremain
completely unanimousunanimous
each individualindividual
each and everyeach
end resultresult
established factfact
final outcomeoutcome, result
free giftgift
future plans / prospectsplans /prospects
important essentialsessentials
in close proximity toin proximity to
one and / exactly the samethe same
past historyhistory
past experienceexperience
past memoriesmemories
period of / in timetime
random chancechance
reason whyreason
rough estimateestimate
separate outseparate
sudden crisiscrisis
sufficient enoughsufficient
sum totaltotal
terrible tragedytragedy
true factsfacts
unexpected surprisesurprise
various differencesdifferences
whether or not whether

*Parts of this table were adapted from American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington. DC: Author.

6. Avoid using verbose language – unnecessary words:

at the present time; at the momentpresently, currently, now
a great number of timesoften
a lot ofmany, several
along the lines ofsimilar to
a majority ofmost
a number ofsome
are /were able tocan / could
as a matter of fact(delete)
as the case may be(delete)
based on the fact thatbecause
being usedincorporated in
being used more and morebeing increasingly used
by and largemostly, (or delete)
by means ofby
decreased number offewer
despite the fact that / in spite of the fact thatalthough
due to /in view of the fact thatbecause
during the course ofduring
extra yieldsbenefits
for all intents and purposes(delete)
for the purpose offor
has been shown to beis
has / had the ability tocan /could
in order toto
in other wordsthus / hence / therefore
in the event thatif
is /was able tocan / could
it is interesting to note thateliminate
it is possible thatmay
it may seem reasonable to suppose thateliminate
last but not leastfinally, in conclusion
longer time periodlonger
modern daycontemporary
on a daily basisdaily
on account of the fact thatbecause
plays an important roleis important (because)
through the use ofthrough
with the exception ofexcept for

 Impartial and objective

Use impartial or neutral language that reflects an objective tone in your academic writing. This means the language is fair and accurate.

1. Avoid emotional, exaggerated or judgmental language.


The results from this study make the most wonderful contribution to the field.

The results from this study provide an important contribution to the field.

This treatment method will have enormous implications for the future.

✓ This treatment method is likely to have significant implications for the future.

The response rate for the questionnaire was awesome.

✓ The response rate for the questionnaire was higher than expected.

2. Avoid using subjective language involving the personal pronoun.

Generally, it is advisable to limit or avoid using the personal pronouns – I, you, we, and us. This is because the personal pronoun can convey a personal, partial or subjective approach. However, some disciplines allow for the judicious use of personal pronouns in some essays, assignments and journal articles.


✖ I interviewed a total of nine students during the first semester.

✓ A total of nine students were interviewed during the first semester.

      a. Avoid the use of ‘You’

It is important to avoid referring to the reader or people in general as you:


You will be surprised to know from us that there are several species of this bird.

It is important to know that there are several species of this bird.

✖ In public, you cannot wear what you want wherever you go.

✓ In public, people cannot wear what they want wherever they go.

✖ You will notice that the data for males has been omitted from Table 3.
✓ In Table 3, the data for males has been omitted.

3. Avoid using rhetorical questions.

It is also important to avoid the use of rhetorical questions. A rhetorical question makes a point for which a reply is not expected. Clearly, this is not appropriate for academic writing, as the focus of an academic essay is to provide a logical argument on the topic.


✖ What is the current state of affairs with the economy?

✓ The current economy shows that….

✖ How can this be addressed?

✓ This essay will address the issue by….


An important element of successful academic writing is the quality and range of the evidence provided to support your position or viewpoints. Providing sufficient evidence for your arguments, claims or opinions goes to the heart of academic writing because it reflects objectivity in your writing.

Every claim, argument or opinion you write needs to be substantiated (supported or justified) with credible evidence from research or other authoritative sources. You need to also explain how the evidence you present supports your viewpoint or argument.

Evidence usually involves expert or authoritative data, research results or statements from reputable or recognized sources, such as peer-reviewed journals. This means NOT using information from sources that have little or no academic credibility, such as from a popular magazine, newspaper, your lecture notes, or stating personal opinions, interpretations or anecdotes without evidence to support them (unless they are specifically sought in a specific type of writing), as these are unlikely to be considered credible.

There are various types of credible evidence and your selection of these will depend on the topic, the type of academic writing, and the qualities of the evidence that are valued by your discipline. Six of the most frequently used forms of credible evidence are described here:

Types of Credible Evidence

  1. Empirical studies

Research studies that empirically test hypotheses or research questions by measuring variables and collecting and analysing data are important sources of evidence. These can be either qualitative or quantitative designs, and using observational or experimental methods.

  1. Statistics, facts and surveys

Statistical data can be provided to support viewpoints. The sources of these need to be cited in   the text.

  1. Theory and concepts

You can support a claim or argument by reference to a theory or concepts, and then describe how this refers to a specific example in reality.

  1. Authoritative opinions

An accepted form of evidence is the citation or quotation of a recognized authority or expert on the topic about whihc you are writing.

  1. Examples

Examples from real life, case examples, and hypothetical examples can serve as useful evidence to clarify an argument or illustrate a viewpoint.

  1. Quotations, testimonies, interviews

Views expressed in quotations, testimonies and interviews can be used to support your position, or emphasize a particular point. It is important to recognize that these usually come from one person and should not be overused, unless the topic calls for the presentation of this type of evidence, such as an essay or thesis that focuses on qualitative or narrative studies.

When using evidence to support your position, it is important to ensure it is relevant to the argument you are expressing and is accurate.

Standard English words to cite evidence

There are several standard English words used to cite evidence in order to substantiate arguments and claims. These words, often referred to as reporting words, describe the type of claim or idea that is cited from the researcher or author of the source you report in your writing.

These reporting words are verbs usually written in the past tense because they refer to opinions or research results that occurred in the past.

The 10 most frequently used reporting words are:

  Believed   Found
  Suggested   Investigated
  Evaluated   Showed
  Persuaded   Explained
  Agreed   Disagreed



1. Smith (2011) believed that an improved theoretical framework was required to explain the phenomenon more fully.

2. Previous studies have investigated the effects of exercise on resting blood pressure in children.

3. White (2009) explained the mechanism of the action of ultraviolet radiation on cells.

Methods for citing and describing the evidence

The table below contains various commonly used words and phrased to provide substantiation, including citing evidence, comparing views, giving examples of evidence, describing relationships between the evidence, and outlining alternative views.

Methods for presenting evidenceExamples
Cite evidence for the claimResearch findings show/indicate that...
There is evidence to show that...
Evidence of this can be found in....
It is claimed that…
This indicates that... These findings show that...
Jones (2010) states/claims that...
According to Holmes (2012), .....
As Holmes (2012) has indicated, ....
Show agreement in the literatureIn support of this claim...
Most researchers agree that...
There is general agreement that ...
As indicated by,...
Further to...
The findings of Smith (2010) concur with this view.
Give examples of evidenceFor example,... For instance,....
To illustrate..... To demonstrate...
One such occurrence...
In this case,...On this occasion...
Describe a relationship in the evidence -cause & effectTherefore,... Thus,... Hence,...
Consequently,... As a consequence of...
Accordingly,... Owing to this,....
As a result of.... resulting in...
For this reason... Due to this...Because of this...
In response to...
Compare views or resultsIn/by comparison,...
A comparison of….
than... Equally,...
In the same way,...
Similarly,...Likewise,...Similar to....
Balanced against....
Use time in describing the evidencePresently,... Immediately... Currently,...
After a few hours.. soon...
At that time... At this point...Then....
In the meantime,.... Sometime...
As soon as....
Describe order or sequence of the evidenceFirstly, ... At first,... To begin with...
Secondly.., Subsequently,.. Finally,...
Previously... Formerly... Before.. Prior to..
Then,... Next,...
Following... Thereafter....
Simultaneously... at the same time...
Later,... Afterwards,...
Meanwhile,....In the meantime,....
Outline alternative or contrasting results, claims, propositions, or ideasHowever,.... Nevertheless,... Nonetheless,...
While.... Yet.... but...
In contrast,...On the other hand,.....
In opposition to...Whereas,...
In contradiction to….
On the contrary,...Contrary to these findings... On the other hand,....
Despite these findings...
A different conclusion has been drawn by...
An alternative explanation has been proposed by...
Differing from this.... Balanced against this.... Alternatively, it was demonstrated that…
Alternatively,...Conversely,...A different view is...
One could also suggest...
One might object here that...
Although..... In spite of... Instead....
Even though/so... Still,...
Despite... In spite of.. Regardless of...
A disadvantage/drawback of this is that ...
Offer resolution for the issues with the evidenceThis view appears to be mistaken...
There is insufficient evidence to support this claim...
Although this view is plausible and valid it is less important/less likely than....
Qualify the view, findingsAdmittedly,... Despite...
It is true that...
In a sense...
Concede shortcomings in the evidenceUnfortunately,
It is likely that...
In spite of...
Consider the implications of the evidenceTaken together, these findings suggest that...

This seems to suggest that...
It is clear from this research that...
From the evidence it follows that...
Several conclusions can be drawn from these findings...
Serious implications can be drawn from...

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