Writing in a formal style
Essays are formal entities, and the language we use should reflect that. The style of an academic essay should be appropriate and consistent. This is very different from an informal piece of writing.
When we speak, or write informally, we often use multi-word verbs but this is not appropriate in formal writing. Here are some examples of multi-word verbs:
take in (deceive)
call on (visit)
go into (a problem)
come by (a book)
One of the differences between some of these verbs is that some of them can have an item inserted before the preposition:
he ran down the man - he ran the man down
he took on the challenge - he took the challenge on
the fire set back their plans - the fire set their plans back
In contrast, other verbs cannot have an item inserted before the preposition.
ask for a number ? ask a number for
believe in a theory ? believe a theory in
part with a lot of money ? part a lot of money with
Multi-word verbs are very common in spoken English as they are less formal than single verbs. In contrast, single verbs can sometimes sound quite pompous in everyday speech. Compare:
I asked for another appointment.
I requested another appointment.
Now compare these pairs of verbs:
He checked up on his accountant.
They put up with their neighbours.
She caught on very quickly.
She made up for it with an early night.
He went down with a fever.
The cost of living went up.
He investigated his accountant.
They tolerated their neighbours.
She understood very quickly.
She compensatedfor it with an early night.
He contracted a fever.
The cost of living increased.
In formal writing, we use single verbs. This is an important element in achieving the correct style in academic writing. An essay with good ideas might well be marked down if the style is inappropriately informal.
Use the verbs below to complete the sentences. Remember to change the verb into the correct tense.
postpone establish fluctuate investigate reduce
deceive maintain acquire
- The research team tried to find out the truth.
- The project managed to get hold of a new scanner.
- His discovery enabled school heads to cut down on the time lost between classes.
- When the team looked looking into the problem, they found that it was much more complex than they had first thought.
- The levels go up and down as a result of the pressure changes.
- The government put off a decision until they had heard the report.
- The inspector was taken in by the apparent calm in the building.
- The solicitor made out that his client was unfairly accused.
Notes on the Task
- The research team tried to establish the truth.
- The project managed to acquire a new scanner.
- His discovery enabled school heads to reduce the time lost between classes.
- When the team looked investigated the problem, they found that it was much more complex than they had first thought.
- The levels fluctuate as a result of the pressure changes.
- The government postponed a decision until they had heard the report.
- The inspector was deceived by the apparent calm in the building.
- The solicitor maintained that his client was unfairly accused.
Replace the informal verbs in italics with more formal verbs.
- The business was built up over a number of years.
- Smith (1991) found out that the bank had surprising rules when it came to new customers.
- Their request for further funding was turned down.
- The situation was made worse by the high levels of lead in the sample.
- They have been asked to come up with a solution to the problem.
- The research team forget to check the acid levels.
- The team said that there figures were accurate.
- Dr Liu will meet with a lot of opposition when she makes her proposal.
Notes on the Task
- The business was developed over a number of years.
- Smith (1991) established that the bank had surprising rules when it came to new customers.
- Their request for further funding was rejected.
- The situation was exacerbated / intensified by the high levels of lead in the sample.
- They have been asked to propose a solution to the problem.
- The research team neglected to check the acid levels.
- The team suggested that their figures were accurate.
- Dr Liu will face a lot of opposition when she makes her proposal.
The sentences below are grammatically accurate but the style Is inappropriate. Re-write these sentences in a more academic style making any changes you need to.
- The planners reviewed the report and said that it was great.
- It's obvious that the work environment is going to get a lot worse.
- The Chinese economy would like to look after itself, but it's also affected by things that happen outside the country.
- Their historical approach to economics is just not the right way to go about it.
- Personally, I think that economic stability depends upon social cohesion.
- The research team said that their techniques were ok but needed to be further refined.
- It was clear that the team had done a lot and were satisfied with what they'd done.
- They worked together on the project for 10 years.
Notes on the Task
- The planners reviewed the report and said that it was very satisfactory.
- There is evidence to suggest that the work environment is going to deteriorate.
- The Chinese economy would like to be self-sufficient, but it's also affected by external factors.
- Their historical approach to economics is inappropriate.
- Some writers maintain that economic stability depends upon social cohesion.
- The research team said that their techniques were satisfactory but needed to be further refined.
- It was clear that the team had completed a significant amount of work and were satisfied with their achievements.
- They collaborated on the project for 10 years.
Using single word verbs instead of multi-word verbs is not the only way to achieve a more academic style. Here are some further points that you may find useful.
- In academic writing, you often find that actions, processes and events are written in the form of a noun. This produces a more formal style. For example:
The compound was discovered …. à The discovery of the compound was….
They invaded the island and ….. à The invasion of the island was …..
He achieved his goal and …... à The achievement of his goal was…….
- Avoid addressing the reader with the general you. This is informal and inappropriate. Look at this example:
As soon as you start to look carefully at children's home, you frequently find evidence of abuse.
The sentence can be rephrased in different ways to avoid the use of you.
Evidence of child abuse becomes apparent once careful investigative work is carried out.
Careful investigation frequently leads to the discovery of child abuse.
- Do not use contractions in essays. They are inappropriate in academic work. For example:
can't won't shouldn't haven't hasn't couldn't
- State meaning very clearly. The reader can read the essay but not the mind of the writer so do not use etc and expressions like and so on. Use clear explanations and to make a coherent argument. The use of expressions like etc suggest a woolly and rather careless mind that cannot really be bothered to complete a sentence or an idea.
The invasion of the island resulted in misery, starvation, destitution etc.
- Make sure every sentence makes sense. It is helpful to ask a friend or relative to read your draft essay to ensure that it is clear. Avoid ambiguous or confusing sentences. This proposal creates a way for raising awareness in the UK of effective approaches to combat poverty practised by overseas partners. We can take a guess at what the writer is trying to say, but there is no doubt that the sentence is unclear.
- Do not overstate the argument that is being made in the essay by using expressions like this:
It is obvious that ...
It is clear that ...
The evidence proves ...
Anybody can clearly see that ...
Always comment upon your own conclusions in a quietly confident manner, without attempting to claim too much. If a writer tries to claim that the study proves something, you might find a later researcher taking great pleasure in disproving the findings! Instead, use a less strident and a more detached academic tone. This is called hedging. Subsequent research may suggest other theories or produce results that conflict with your own, but by describing your findings as we have done below, your work can be seen as a further step in the academic road rather than a barrier that other people can knock down.
The data reflect the fact that ... (note: the word data is strictly speaking plural but often used as an uncountable or mass noun)
These findings support this writer's view that ...
The results suggest that ...
The chart supports the theory that ...
- Avoid the use of expressions such as I think/I believe unless your own views have been specifically asked for, and use expression like these:
It is believed...
Many researchers have noted...
Some writers have stated..
The research suggests...
The evidence indicates...
- Use link words and expressions (however, nevertheless, as a result, in contrast, despite this) as well as link words like firstly, secondly ………… finally quite regularly throughout your writing as these help to guide the reader
- The passive form is often avoided in other written texts but you will probably use more examples of the passive form in academic writing as these tend to sound more detached and formal.
Active: They often found evidence of child abuse in rural areas.
Passive: Evidence of child abuse was often found in rural areas.
Active: The researchers have proposed a variety of solutions.
Passive: A variety of solutions have been proposed.