Formal English

Successful academic writing requires the accurate use of formal English. Try to avoid using conversational English, contractions, clichés, colloqualisms or slang when writing academically.

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

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.

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).

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.

Use the passive voice to convey objectivity

Using formal English often means writing in an impersonal style by using the passive voice. However, the active voice is often preferred.

The active and passive voices refer to the form of the verb in a sentence.

Active voice: says what the subject of the sentence does or did. The subject performs the action.

Example : The teacher explained the principles clearly.

Passive voice: says what happens to the subject. This is achieved by using the word(s) was …., has been ….., is being…., will be….

Example: The theory was explained clearly by the teacher.

Avoid using ‘you’

Replace ‘you’ with ‘one’. Alternatively, use the passive voice.

✗  You would not expect this group to have responded negatively to the intervention.

✔  One would not expect this group to have responded negatively to the intervention.

✔ The negative response to the intervention would not be expected. (passive voice)

List of informal and formal academic words and phrases

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 1. 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

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