What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.(attributed to Samuel Johnson)
This page is about the English skills that non-native speakers need in an academic context, especially when writing papers and reports. Since there are many varieties of English (not just British English and American English), and most people in Europe learn British English at school, the descriptions of the resources below mention which variety of English is used or taught.
Many papers and other academic publications are written by non-native speakers of English. This page contains some guidelines to help improve the readability and grammar of these documents.
A few reminders and notes:
- This page is work in progress.
- Most of this page is about British English. If you prefer American or Canadian English, you're on your own (but check out the references at the end of this page).
- Many native speakers may be used to a more informal writing style. This guide, however, is about academic English and therefore assumes a formal writing style.
- Many of the examples below come from deliverables produced in European research & development projects (projects funded by the European Commission and executed by consortia of organisations from all over Europe).
One of the sources of difficult prose is the "curse of knowledge": the inability to imagine that the reader does not know what you know. The following tips can help you exorcise the curse of knowledge:
- Keep in mind "the reader over your shoulder", i.e. try to imagine what the intended reader knows or does not know.
- Let a representative reader review a draft of your text. Ideally, this reader is an intelligent person who is not an expert in your field.
- Leave the text alone for a few months before rereading it. This way, you can be a surrogate for the "representative reader".
- Read the text aloud. This will help you detect some verbiage and hedging that looks fine on the screen but does not work when read aloud.
UK, US, Canadian, … Spelling
Choose a spelling convention and stick to it throughout the document. Make sure that the document's language setting matches the spelling convention you have chosen. In Microsoft Word you can check the language setting in the status bar below the editing area. You can make sure that the language setting is consistent throughout the document by pressing Control+A (to select all the content) and selecting the appropriate language under Review > Language > Set Proofing Language…
-our versus -or
UK spelling: (foreground) colour, …; US spelling: (foreground) color, …
-er versus -re
UK spelling: centre, home theatre, …; US spelling: center, home theater, …
-ce versus -se
- UK spelling: a licence, to license (or to licence), practice makes perfect, to practise, …
- US spelling: a license, to license, practice makes perfect, to practice, …
However, when citing the title of a specific licence, use the spelling used by that licence, e.g. "the General Public License (GPL), version 3.0".
-ise/-yse versus -ize/-yze
- UK spelling: customise, initialisation, organisation, analyse, …
- US spelling: customize, initialization, organization, analyze, …
Note: many organisations in the UK use the spelling with '-ize' and '-ization'. This is known as Oxford spelling or OED spelling. However, this does not affect the spelling of analyse!
-ll- versus -l-
- UK spelling: modelling, modelled, …
- US spelling: modeling, modeled, …
-e- in ageing, gamification, …
- UK spelling: ageing (see Cambridge and Oxford; Collins also accepts 'aging'), gamification (without 'e'; Oxford dictionary), …
- US spelling: aging (see aging (see Webster), gamification">Webster), gamification, …
- Many -ing forms have been accepted as adjectives and don't have in 'e' in British English, e.g. in "a raging thirst".
- Sometimes, there is a difference in meaning: singing comes form the verb 'to sing', while singeing comes from the verb 'to singe' (to burn slightly).
Frequently Misspelled Words
- screen reader (always written with a space)
- to fulfil (fulfilled); US: to fulfill
Capitalisation (Upper Case or Lower Case)
The following rules are not exhaustive but should be sufficient for writing papers and other academic publications.
- names of people, places, organisations, institutions;
- months and days of the week;
- titles of documents (books, deliverables) and journals.
Do not capitalise:
- nouns (e.g. project, deliverable, report, social network, …);
- in titles: prepositions (in, at, for) shorter than five letters, and articles (a, an, the), except when they are the first word in a title.
There is no consensus on:
- Internet or internet (a place or a technology?);
- the Web & the World Wide Web or the web & the world wide web.
Examples from project deliverables:
- "this Deliverable" -> "this deliverable". The word "deliverable" is not a title but an ordinary noun.
- "… to access the Social Networks" -> "… to access (the) social networks"
- "the Remote Control" -> "the remote control"
- "He uses Hotmail for emails, google docs for documents, …" -> "He uses Hotmail for emails, Google Docs for …": Hotmail and Google Docs are names.
- Examples of unusual capitalisation: TalkBack (Android feature), WebAnywhere (web-based screen reader), …
Hyphens Versus One Word or Separate Words
The hyphen or dash is used:
- in (attributive) adjectives formed from two or more words, e.g. a well-researched paper, a 30-year-old pilot, but not necessarily in predicative adjectives, e.g. "this paper is well researched" (see Attributive and Predicative Adjectives)
- in most words that begin with anti, counter, half, inter, non and semi
- in ex- when it means 'former': ex-wife
- to replace 'and', e.g. "the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator"
- to avoid ambiguity; for example:
- a "heavy metal detector" is a metal detector that weighs a lot or heavy detector made of metal, whereas a "heavy-metal detector" is a detector of heavy metals (example borrowed from Grammar Monster);
- "re-sign" means to sign again, "resign" means to quit a job or position;
- "re-cover" means to provide with a new cover, "recover" means to get well again.
- to avoid a confusing sequence of letters, e.g. "re-enter a password", "pre-echo", "pre-eminent" (but the hyphen is usually not needed in words with pre- followed by a consonant, e.g. prepaid)
- in compound adjectives where the main component consists of more than one word, e.g. “non-achievement-oriented students” (example from the APA Style Guide);
- in compounds containing the same "head", e.g. "cloud- and web-based" (note the "hanging hyphen" after 'cloud')
This is not a full list. The Economists' Style Guide gives more rules and examples. When in doubt, consult a dictionary.
Many new terms start out as two words, then become hyphenated, and finally become accepted as a single word. In some cases, there is no consensus whether a term should be written with a hyphen or as one word.
Examples from deliverables:
- "low-vision users" (though the phrase "users with low vision" is more correct)
- "a multi-user application"
- "Web-based screen reader" (needs a hyphen because "Web-based" is used as an attribute)
Examples of words written with a hyphen:
- hands-on demonstration/training/…
- hearing-impaired (some dictionaries list "hearing impaired" as an alternative)
- real-life scenarios/footage/…
- real-time (as an attribute; derived from the noun "real time")
- cost-benefit analysis
- a step-by-step approach (because used as an adjective; compare: "we will proceed step by step")
Examples of words without a space or hyphen
- deafblind (adjective)
- prepilot (though some spelling correctors prefer "pre-pilot")
- pretest (Oxford and Collins; Cambridge also accepts pre-test)
- shortcut (noun and verb; Collins used to allow the hyphen in the verb—short-cut—but no longer does now)
Examples of words with a space:
- end user (however, when the phrase is used as a modifier, you add a hyphen, e.g. "end-user experience")
- screen reader
- smart house
- task force
- data type
- value space
- e-mail / email: There is no consensus on the spelling of "e-mail" or "email", but the spelling without the hyphen tends to be favoured.
(See Email: Terminology (Wikipedia), "Think hyphens aren't contro-versial? Think again" (The Guardian, 4 April 2011), University of York: University Style Guide, University of East Anglia: Writing Style Guide.)
- run time (Collins) / run-time (Cambridge, which also allows "runtime") / runtime (Oxford). However, when used as an adjective before a noun, the spelling is either run-time or runtime: e.g. a run-time environment / a runtime environment.
- "front end" versus "front-end":
- "front end" and "back end" (without a hyphen) are nouns, e.g. "the front end of a mobile application", "the back end of the server";
- "front-end" and "back-end" (with a hyphen) are used attributively (see above), e.g. "a front-end fee" (=paid in advance).
The comma is used in the following situations:
- To replace "and" or "or" in an enumeration or a similar series of items, e.g.:
- "The guidelines do not cover the needs of people with all types, degrees and combinations of disabilities."
- "George shot the video, Maria added captions to it and Ignacio uploaded it to the server."
- Note: American English places a comma before the final "and".
British English only places a comma before the final "and" when the penultimate item in the list includes another "and".
- "He ordered coffee, bacon and eggs, and toast."
- To combine two sentences into a single one by means of a conjunction such as "but", "yet", "while" or "so":
- "The first evaluation phase will experience some delay, but this will not affect the next phases."
- Note: If the subject of the second sentence is omitted, or if the conjunction is "and" or "or", the comma is not obligatory.
- "The peer reviewers found the deliverable unsatisfactory(,) but did not give advice on how to improve the document."
- "The peer reviewers proposed several changes to improve the deliverable(,) and the authors followed the proposals."
- After an introductory adverb (e.g. "nevertheless", "however", "suddenly"), an introductory phrase or a parenthetical phrase:
Surface and ground water are two separate entities, so they must be regarded as such. However, there is an ever-increasing need for management of the two …
- "In Windows, for example, you can choose between different desktop themes."
Note: "For example" is not always a parenthetical phrase, i.e. removing the phrase changes the meaning of the sentences or creates a meaningless construction.
Example: "He sometimes has difficulty reading the screen, for example when his eyes get tired."
- To delimit a
"non-restrictive relative clause"
(a type of clause that you can leave out without changing the meaning of the main clause):
- "The tests, which will take only half an hour, will take place in the usability lab."
- "This document is available under Creative Commons, which is a licence for content, not software."
- After an introductory phrase:
- "The son of a shoe maker, he gained a place at King’s School Canterbury from where he won a Parker scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge." (Introductory appositive phrase; source: University of Cambridge - CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)
- "The result of eight years of research, this book is jam-packed with …" (Introductory appositive phrase; source: Legacy Project.)
- "W3C has published the January 2015 edition of Standards for Web Applications on Mobile, (…). A deliverable of the HTML5Apps project, this edition includes changes and additions since October 2014, and covers continued progress of the platform." (Introductory appositive phrase; source: W3C weekly newsletter, 3 February 2015.)
- For more examples of introductory phrases, see "Commas After Introductions" in Purdue University's Online Writing Lab.
- Note the difference in meaning between, "I saw a film which was very boring" and "I saw a film, which was very boring". The first sentence implies that the film I saw was very boring, while the second implies that watching films was a boring activity. In the first sentence, "which" can be replaced with "that"; this is not possible in the second sentence. In speech, there would be a pause before "which" in the second sentence, but not in the first sentence. Grammatically speaking, the first sentence contains a "restrictive relative clause" (the which clause restrict the meaning of "film" to one particular film), while the second sentence contains a "non-restrictive relative clause" (the which clause just provides some additional information but the main clause does not change in meaning without the which clause).
- You do not write a comma to introduce a "restrictive relative clause",
i.e. a clause that is necessary to identify the person or thing you are talking about.
- The man who can dominate a London dinner-table can dominate the world. (Oscar Wilde)
- The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them. (Mark Twain)
Incorrect use of the comma can lead to unintended changes in meaning:
Let's learn how to chop, marinate, and cook friends.(Grammarly on Twitter)
After retiring my wife, my parents, the kids, and I plan to travel around the country.(English Stack Exchange)
Outside programming, the semicolon is mainly used in two situations.
- To join two complete sentences without a connecting word such as and or but
and when the colon is not a valid alternative. Example:
- Some matchmakers are already implemented and integrated into the Cloud4all Personalisation framework; other matchmakers will be implemented in the next project years. (Quoted from Cloud4all deliverable D204.1.)
- To separate items in a list that already contain commas. Example:
- The people present were Jamie, who came from New Zealand; John, the milkman's son; and George, a gaunt kind of man. (Quoted from Wikipedia: Semicolon.)
Some other good examples are available in Larry Trask's Guide to Punctuation.
The colon is used to illustrate, explain or elaborate the preceding sentence.
- Code contributed to GPII should be made available under one of the following licences: the Apache License 2.0, the BSD 3-Clause License or the MIT License.
- To install an extension in OpenOffice, proceed as follows: open the Extension Manager in the Tools menu, click "Add…", browse to the folder where you downloaded the extension, click "Open" and follow the instructions that appear during the installation process.
- The presentation is available in two formats: ODF and PDF.
- I had a rough weekend: I had chest pain and spent all Saturday and Sunday in the Emergency room. (Quoted from Wikipedia: Colon.)
The colon is also used to introduce a longer quotation that is marked off from the rest of the text by indentation. Example:
As Samuel Johnson wrote:
Every man naturally persuades himself that he can keep his resolutions, nor is he convinced of his imbecility but by length of time and frequency of experiment.
Some other good examples are available in Larry Trask's Guide to Punctuation.
The hyphen (-) is not the appropriate punctuation mark for parenthetical remarks; use the long dash (—) instead.
Two successive hyphens do not replace a long dash, though some word processors may automatically replace the double hyphen with a long dash. (The double hyphen was a workaround on mechanical typewriters, which did not have a longdash.)
Common Grammar Problems
That, Which or Zero Relative Pronoun
That and which are relative pronouns, i.e. words that introduce a relative clause. A relative clause is a type of subclause that provides additional information about a word or phrase (the "antecedent") in the main clause. For example, in the sentence "The house that Jack built was large":
- "The house was large" constitutes the main clause;
- "that jack built" is a relative clause;
- "The house" is the antecedent;
- "that" is the relative pronoun that refers back to the antecedent ("the house").
Examples with that (with the subclause in italics):
- "that" is the subject of the subclause, so it cannot be omitted:
- The paper that won the award was highly influential in creating a new field of research.
- "that" is the object of the subclause, so it may be omitted:
- The paper (that) he presented at the HCI conference describes a new usability evaluation method.
- "that" is the object of a preposition ("to") in the subclause and is usually omitted:
- The research (that) she referred to was new to me.
- "that" can be used to introduce a clause following a superlative, "the only", "all" etc:
- Who was the greatest scientist that ever lived?
- This is the only paper that provides a literature review of resistance to technology adoption by people with disabilities.
- "that" can be used instead of "when" after an expression of time:
- By the time that/when the project ended, the software had been downloaded 25,000 times.
Note: The choice between "that" and "which" is sometimes a matter of dispute.
Use of Tenses
This section covers only a few basics. For more details, you should consult one of the grammars listed at the end of this page.
The present progressive indicates an action that is taking place at the moment of speaking. The form is: be [conjugated] + verb + -ing.
- John is attending a teleconference. Please don't disturb him now.
The present simple (or simple present) refers to
- actions or events that are generally true or habitual. The action or event does not necessarily take place at the moment of speaking.
- actions in a theoretical sequence of events.
- actions that depend on another action.
Form: verb [conjugated], i.e. the bare infinitive (without "to"),
marked for person and number.
Form in questions: do [conjugated] + verb [infinitive].
- John develops software. (He does this for a living.)
- At sea level, water boils at 100°C.
- The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west.
- Question: Why does the sun always rise in the east and set in the west?
- The user launches the PMT and creates a preference set. The system provides a token and the user saves the token to a USB key.
- I will respond as soon as I receive your e-mail
The past progressive refers to
- action that was ongoing in the past and serves as a background for another event or action;
- action that took place in the past in is viewed as an ongoing situation.
Form: be [past tense] + verb + -ing.
- The cat ate my homework while I was sleeping.
- At three o'clock yesterday, I was attending a teleconference.
- I was writing an e-mail when I received his phone call.
The past simple (or simple past) refers to
- an action that took place before the current moment and that has no connection with the current time;
- habitual actions or events in the past.
Form: verb + -ed (except for irregular verbs: went, wrote, ran, made, did, ...).
In questions: do [conjugated] + verb [infinitive].
- We submitted the deliverable last week.
- Question: When did you submit that deliverable?
- I wrote 20 e-mails this morning. (=Said when the morning is over.)
- Last week, it rained every day.
The present perfect
refers to an action that took place before the moment of speaking and that has a result
that affects the current situation or that took place in a time frame that extends to the present time.
Form: have + past participle.
- I have written 20 e-mails this morning. (It is still morning, so it is possible to write a few more before noon.)
- I have eaten. (Implies that the speaker is no longer hungry.)
- I have lived in Germany for four years / since 2012. (Implies that the speaker still lives there.)
The future progressive
is mainly used to refer to an action or event that will be in progress at a particular point in the future.
Form: will be + verb + -ing.
- I will be attending a conference call at 3 p.m. tomorrow.
The future simple (or simple future) is mainly used to refer to
- an action or event that will take place after the current moment and that has no real connection with the current time;
- a future action or event that depends on some condition.
Form: will + verb.
- The test facilitator will ask the individual if he or she wishes to be anonymous.
- The next face-to-face meeting will be held in November.
- I will review the deliverable if I can.
- Never use the future simple in an adverbial clause of time or condition
(e.g. introduced by "if …", "when …", "after …", etc.)
even though the event might be in the future. Instead, use the present simple in the subclause.
- Americans will understand you perfectly well if you use 'got' instead of 'gotten'.
- He will come home when he wants to.
- The verb will also has other uses, for example:
- You will submit your paper through the conference management system. (order)
- I will submit the paper on time. (promise)
- You will not go there. (negative order, refusal)
It is a myth that you cannot use a split infinitive, e.g. "To boldly go where no man has gone before". The split infinitive already existed in Middle English. See also The so-called "split infinitive".
Examples from deliverables:
- "to organize better the walks" → "to better organize the walks" (in this case, the split infinitive clearly improves the sentence)
Articles (a, the)
English has two articles: "the" (definite article) and "a/an" (indefinite article). The choice between the definite article, the indefinite article or the “null article” (i.e. no article) depends on several things. Below are a few basic rules.
“The” is used in the following situations:
- before nouns that refer to something that is identifiable to the reader:
- The project started in 2012. (We assume that the reader knows which project, e.g. because it has been mentioned before.)
- The version we will user for testing is not ready yet. (The phrase "we will use for testing" makes the version identifiable.)
- before nouns that refer to something unique:
- The Moon is the only natural satellite of the Earth.
- before an adjective to refer to all members of a class or nationality:
“A/An” is used in the following situations:
- before nouns that refer to something that is not identifiable to the reader:
- Updating a screen reader can cost hundreds of euros.
- before nouns that refer to any member of a group:
No article (or the zero article) is used in the following situations:
- with generic nouns:
- Accessibility is hard. (Generic mass noun. Compare "The accessibility of OpenOffice has improved a lot", which is specific.)
- Screen readers are a form of assistive technology (AT) potentially useful to people who are blind, visually impaired, illiterate or learning disabled. (Generic plural noun.)
- He designs and develops websites. (Indefinite plural noun.)
- I drink tea. (Indefinite mass noun.)
- The experimenter does not have information about the state of the box contents. (Or “The experimenter does not have any information about …”)
- There are lies, there are outrageous lies, and there are statistics. (Quoted on Wikipedia.)
- with many proper names: John, Spain, Lisbon etc.
Examples of common errors:
- “different from” (not “… to”)
- “independent of” (not “… from”)
- “used by” (not “… from”)
- “apply something to something” (not “at”): e.g. “the settings are applied to the interface”
Apostrophes, Possessives and Contractions
Journal articles, project deliverables and other forms of formal writing should avoid contractions such as "can't", "isn't", "it's, etcetera. Instead, write "cannot", "is not", "it is", respectively.
Possessive forms are usually written with an apostrophe followed by an 's' ('s):
- after names: "Douglas Crockford's new book";
- after nouns etc.: "the participant's name", "this year's review", "everybody's acceptance tests", …
There are a few special cases:
- names ending in an 's' that is pronounced: possessive form with 's: "James's car";
- names ending in an 's' that is non pronounced: possessive form with only an apostrophe: "Socrates' maeiutics";
- plural nouns: possessive form with only an apostrophe: "both users' preferences", "two days' work".
The following phrases have different meanings:
- "the user's participation" (the participation of one specific user) versus "the users' participation" (the participation of several users).
- "its" is a possessive pronoun (like "his" and "their") while "it's" is a contraction of "it is".
For more details about possessives, see Larry Trask's Guide to Punctuation.
Singular "they" is the use of "they" (and its inflected forms "them" and "their") to refer to a single person. It is typically used to avoid constructions such as "he/she", "him/her" and "his/her", i.e. as a gender-neutral pronoun.
Even though "singular they" refers to a single person, the verb should still be conjugated in its normal (i.e. plural) form. Examples:
- The user said that they prefer high contrast.
- When a user first sets up a preference set they can start by …
(Instead of: “When a user first sets up a preference set he/she can start by …”.)
- A manufacturer fills out their product descriptions one at a time before they submit …
(Instead of: “A manufacturer fills out his/her product descriptions one at a time before he/she submits …”.)
Note: hen referring to a person of known sex, it is advisable to use the singular pronoun. For example:
- No mother should be forced to testify against her child.
- John updates his preferences using the preferences editor.
Adjectives and Adverbs
In general, adverbs
can be formed by adding -ly to
- slow: to drive slowly.
- incredible: incredibly boring.
- “This is a kind reminder to fill in the Doodle poll.” (adjective) versus “May I kindly remind you to fill in the Doodle poll?” (adverb).
- “a brief presentation” (adjective) versus “briefly present the project” (adverb).
There are a few exceptions to the above adverb formation rule:
- Some adjectives cannot be turned into adverbs by adding -ly, for example, big, fast.
For example: "Drive fast, see our judge" (from a funny traffic sign).
- Some adjectives cannot be turned into adverbs by adding -ly without a change in meaning.
Conjunctions versus -ing Forms
Too many sentences connect a main clause with a subclause by means of an -ing form. Conjunctions express these connections better.
Examples from project deliverables:
This is a very interesting application scenario, highlighting the need to address contextual aspects in the applicability of user N&Ps.
The relationship between the main clause and the subclause can be made explicit by rephrasing it as follows:
“This is a very interesting application scenario, because it highlights…”
Sentences are not sausages in which you can stuff as many words as you want. Non-native speakers of English can considerably improve their writing by creating shorter sentences.
Examples from project deliverables:
Joad is 68-year old and one of his hobbies is walking through the paths around the mountains nearby the city area where he lives.
“Joad is 68 years old. One of his hobbies is …”
Although Lissa is using a computer keyboard and mouse, her mouse control skills are sometimes limited, making it hard for her to …
“Although Lissa uses a computer keyboard and mouse, her mouse control skills are sometimes limited. This makes it hard for her to …”
Confusable Words and Phrases
Some words in project deliverables and papers have a different meaning than the author intended.
- briefly means “In a brief manner, summarily” (e.g. “I will briefly describe the history of assistive technology.”) and “For a brief period”.
- shortly means “In a short or brief time or manner; soon; quickly” (e.g. “Diaspora will shortly announce 100 million users.” “The accident occurred shortly before noon.”.) or “In an irritable ("short") manner”.
- “what it looks like” = “how it looks”
- Both expressions have the same meaning but are sometimes incorrectly merged into how it looks like.
- needed versus necessary + to/for:
- “X is needed to/for” means that X is wanted or required for a certain purpose or to reach a certain goal.
“Needed to” introduces a verb or a verb phrase.
“Needed for” introduces a noun or a noun phrase.
Perfetti & Landesman (2001) suggest that more than 8 testers are needed to detect all usability issues.(How many testers are enough?)
More observed events would be needed in order to reduce the uncertainty surrounding the estimated effects of salt reduction.(Unclear results for salt reduction study)
- “What is the approximate number of words needed in order to reach conversational fluency in a language?”
Rolf Molich, in an article for UI 11 2006 Conference also states that “the number of users needed for web-testing depends on the goal of the test.”(How many testers are enough?)
- You cannot say “It is needed to (+ verb)”, unless “It” refers to a noun phrase from the preceding sentence. If “it” does not refer to a preceding noun phrase, you should write e.g. “We need to (+ verb)”, “The project needs to (+ verb)” or “It is necessary for us to (+ verb)” instead.
- “X is necessary to/for” means that X is essential for a certain purpose (especially when something cannot be done without X); in some cases there may be a rule or authority that demands X.
GBC is necessary to progress to training in the area of psychology that interests you and to practise as a professional psychologist.(Studying psychological therapies)
Universities tend to be flexible about which A-levels, A/S, GNVQ or Scottish Higher subjects are necessary for entry onto degree courses.(Career profile: Child psychotherapist)
We arrange appropriate tests for you when they are necessary for diagnosis and care.(Test Results)
No appointment is necessary for our daily open access sessions (…).(Appointments)
- “It is necessary for X to (+verb)” introduces an action that is essential or that cannot be avoided.
When a user has become too unfocused and it is not relevant to the usability test, it is necessary for the researcher to intervene.(Three Usability Testing Tips from a Rookie)
From time to time it is necessary for us to carry out changes and developments to areas of the website (…).(website accessibility statement)
- “X is needed to/for” means that X is wanted or required for a certain purpose or to reach a certain goal.
See also the list of confusable words by the University of Bristol.
Register and Bloated Language
Some words in project deliverables and papers have a different connotation than the author intended. For example, some researchers use legal English when more readable alternatives exist:
- hereinafter: “after this”;
- aforesaid (usage: “the aforesaid x”) and aforementioned: “mentioned earlier”, “referred to earlier” (usage: “the x mentioned earlier”).
Some words in deliverables are chosen because they are longer, sound smarter or more “impressive” but make the text harder to read. For example:
- the verb utilise/utilize sounds bureaucratic and is overused; write use instead, unless you want to emphasise that you use something in a way other than how it was intended.
“e.g.” versus “i.e.”:
- e.g. means “for example” (if you provide a list of examples, it is not necessary to add “etc.” at the end).
- i.e. means “that is” or “in other words” and is used to clarify something be restating it or explaining it more clearly.
Nominalisation is the use of an adjective, verb or adverb as if it were a noun. For example: “You cannot change the user interface language” (verb) versus “There was no change” (noun).
Many languages allow the nominalisation of adjectives and past participles in order to refer to persons. For example, “deceased” can be used in the phrase “the deceased” (persons or persons who have recently died). However, which adjectives and past participles can be used in this way varies between languages, so you sometimes need alternative formulations when translating into English.
- Write “the person(s) in charge of …”, “leader” or “person responsible for” instead of “the responsibles”.
Nominalisations such as “the blind”, “the poor” and “the unemployed” refer to a category of people and take a verb in the plural form. For example: “The blind have access to less than 5% of printed material in most parts of the world.” ("The blinds" has a completely different meaning.)
British, American and Canadian Vocabulary
British, American, Canadian and other varieties of English don't always use the same word to the same concept. In addition, the same word can have different meanings in different English-speaking countries.
- Both caretaker (UK) and caregiver (USA and Canada) can mean carer.
Online Courses (MOOCs)
Most of the MOOCs below are offered by American universities and therefore teach writing skills for American English. MOOCs offered by British universities teach British English. (MOOCs offered by universities outside the English-speaking world don't appear to specify which variety of English they teach.)
- How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper (Project-Centered Course) by the École Polytechnique in Paris (France), hosted on Coursera. Starts on 12 September 2016.
- Kickstart Your Academic Writing by Barry University (Florida, United States), hosted on Canvas. Latest session: 11 July - 30 September 2016.
- English Composition I, by Duke University (Durham, North Carolina, United States), hosted on Coursera. Starts on 12 September 2016.
- Scholarly Communication, by the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology (Russia), hosted on Coursera. Starts on 12 September 2016.
- English Grammar and Style, by the University of Queensland, Australia, hosted on edX. This course does not focus on academic English; the concepts and strategies taught in this course can be applied to any type of writing. Latest session started on 25 July 2016.
- English Composition, by the Arizona State University (Phoenix, Arizona, United States), hosted on edX. This is an introductory writing course that does not focus on academic English; students need to complete several written projects. Latest session started on 15 August 2016.
English Composition: Research and Writing,
by the Arizona State University (Phoenix, Arizona, United States), hosted on edX.
This is a course on
research, and research writing for the purpose of proposing solutions to problems. Starts on 10 October 2016.
How to Write an Essay,
by the University of California, Berkeley (California, United States), hosted on edX.
An introduction to academic writing for English Language Learners, focusing on essay development, grammatical correctness, and self-editing.Starts on 12 October 2016.
- Academic English: Writing Specialization, by UCI Extension - Continuing Education, hosted on Coursera. This is a package of 4 courses and a project where you apply the skills you have learnt in the courses. Each of the courses is also available individually, e.g. Grammar and Punctuation and Advanced Writing (both provided by the University of California, Irvine).
A Beginner's Guide to Writing in English for University Study,
by the University of Reading, UK, hosted on FutureLearn.
The course is for people who are interested in studying at university in an English-speaking country
and who's level corresponds to
IELTS band 4 or higher.
The last session ran from 26 September 2016 to 30 October 2016.
- Mastering the Fundamentals of College Reading and Writing, (self-paced course) by Wake Technical Community College (Raleigh, North Carolina, United States), hosted on Open Education.
References & Book Recommendations
Books on Academic English
- Skern, Tim:
Writing Scientific English: A Workbook. Wien: facultas wuv, 2011. (UTB 3112; 191 pages)
Written by a native speaker of British English who teaches at the Medizinische Universität Wien (Vienna).
- Macgilchrist, Felicitas: Academic Writing. Schöningh, 2014. (UTB 4087; 191 pages). ISBN 9783825240875.
- Wallwork, Adrian:
English for Writing Research Papers. Springer, 2011.
ISBN 978-1-4419-7922-3 (e-book).
ISBN 978-1-4419-7921-6 (paperback).
Adrian Wallwork is a native speaker of British English who has published a series of books on academic English for researchers whose native language is not English (see also below). The second edition of English for Writing Research Papers is scheduled for April 2016.
- Wallwork, Adrian: English for Research: Usage, Style, and Grammar. Springer, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4614-1593-0 (online) / ISBN 978-1-4614-1592-3 (print).
- Wallwork, Adrian: English for Academic Research: Writing Exercises. Springer, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4614-4298-1 (online) / ISBN 978-1-4614-4297-4 (print).
- Wallwork, Adrian: English for Academic Research: Grammar Exercises. Springer, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4614-4289-9 (online) / ISBN 978-1-4614-4288-2 (print).
- Wallwork, Adrian: English for Academic Research: Vocabulary Exercises. Springer, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4614-4268-4 (online) / ISBN 978-1-4614-4267-7 (print).
- Vicary, Anne:
English for Academic Study: Grammar for Writing - Study Book.
Garnet Education, 2012. (240 pages)
This self-study course is part of the series English for Academic Study; the series also has a dedicated website with student resources and teacher resources.
- English for Specific Academic Purposes (ESAP) is a book series that helps students develop English language skills for specific academic disciplines such as ICT studies, psychology, economics, medicine and mechanical engineering. The book series also has a dedicated website.
- Glasman-Deal, Hilary: Science Research Writing For Non-Native Speakers Of English. ICP, 2009. ISBN 978-1848163102.
- Tang, Ramona, ed.:
Academic Writing in a Second or Foreign Language: Issues and Challenges Facing ESL/EFL Academic Writers in Higher Education Contexts.
Bloomsbury, 2013. (272 pages)
This is not a book that helps you write academic English but a collection of studies. From the publisher's description:
This book looks at a major issue within the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP). It focuses on the issues confronting non-native-English-speaking academics, scholars and students, who face increasing pressure to write and publish in English, now widely acknowledged as the academic lingua franca. Questions of identity, access, pedagogy and empowerment naturally arise.
Online Style Guides and Writing Advice
- The Economist: Style Guide.
- Modern Humanities Research Association (MHRA): MHRA Style Guide (mostly for authors who want to prepare a manuscript for a humanities journal).
- GOV.UK: Style Guide (Guidance for government digital publishing and services: Content and publishing) (alpha release, July 2012, Version 2 released September 2012).
- European Commission’s Directorate-General for Translation (DGT): English Style Guide: A handbook for authors and translators in the European Commission (PDF (the HTML version has been discontinued).
- Richard Dobbs: Grammar and Style in British English: A Comprehensive Guide for Students, Writers and Academics.
- The Writer:
(The website also has a readability checker and whitepapers.)
- The University of York: University Style Guide (also available in PDF format; mostly aimed at students and staff).
- Several other UK universities have online style guides:
- Andy Gillett: Using English for Academic Purposes: A Guide for Students in Higher Education.
- Open University: What is good writing? (on OpenLearn) and Developing academic English, especially the section Academic writing style.
- Kevin Boone: How to write a technical report (May 2010).
- UW-Madison Writer's Handbook: see the sections Improving Your Writing Style and Grammar and Punctuation
- Paradigm Online Writing Assistant by Chuck Guilford: interactive handbook with guidance on different essay writing styles.
- Jack Lynch: Guide to Grammar and Style.
Scientific & academic English:
- Nancy A. Burnham and Frederick L. Hutson: Scientific English as a Foreign Language. (Freely available online. Written in the late 1990s for researchers at the École Polytechic Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland.)
- Duke University Graduate School: Scientific Writing Resource: an online course in effective scientific writing. It consists of three lessons that require about 45 minutes each.
- Steven Pinker: Communicating Science and Technology in the 21st Century. This is a recording of a lecture at MIT (12 September 2012; orginally available on MIT TV).
- Rachael Cayley: Explorations of Style: A Blog about Academic Writing. See especially:
- The Internet Grammar of English (University College London. Also available as an app for Android and Apple iOS.)
- Linguapress: English Grammar (for people who learn English as a foreign language).
- Purdue Online Writing Lab: Grammar (American English; aimed at native speakers).
British English Grammars
The grammars below are suitable for learners of British English.
- Geoffrey Leech, Jan Svartvik: A Communicative Grammar of English. 3rd edtion. Pearson, 2003.
- Michael Swan: Practical English Usage. Fourth edition, 2016. (Organised as an A-Z dictionary of problem points. Covers mostly grammar, but also selected points of vocabulary, idioms, style, pronunciation, and spelling. Does not contain exercises.)
- Raymond Murphy: English Grammar in Use. 4th edition. Cambridge University Press, 2012. (This book is for intermediate learners, i.e. levels B1-B2. It contains many examples and exercises; the book is available in editions with and without solutions.)
- Martin Hewings: Advanced Grammar in Use. Third edition. Cambridge University Press, 2013. (This book is aimed at levels C1 and C2. It contains grammar explanations followed by exercices, and is available in versions with and without answers.)
- Ronald Carter, Michael McCarth: Cambridge Grammar of English: A Comprehensive Guide. Cambridge University Press, 2006. (Very comprehensive; contains sections that highlight problem areas for language learners; contains a section on academic English; distinguishes between spoken and written English; appendices also cover punctuation and spelling.)
American English Grammars
The grammars below are suitable for learners of American English.
- Evelyn P. Altenberg, Robert M. Vago: English Grammar: Understanding the Basics. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
- L. Sue Baugh: Essentials of English Grammar: The Quick Guide to Good English. Third edition. McGraw-Hill, 2005. ISBN 9780071457088.
Specific Grammar Topics
Use of tenses or verb forms:
Use of articles:
- The Writing Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Articles: three basic rules for the use of articles, specifically written for non-native speakers of English. (Handout available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 2.5.)
- Purdue Online Writing Lab: Using Articles.
Vocabulary and Dictionaries
For non-native speakers of English, a "learner's dictionary" is more useful than a dictionary aimed at native speakers. When you choose a dictionary (whether printed or digital), check that it provides usage notes (e.g. on difference between certain synonyms and near synonyms, e.g. "change", "alter" and "modify"), full sentence examples and examples of prepositions that can be used with the noun or verb you are looking up.
- Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (also available as an app). See also the online version.
- Collins Cobuild Advanced Learner's English Dictionary. See also the Collins English Dictionary (online).
- Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English See also the Longman English Dictionary Online.
- Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary. See also Cambridge Free English Dictionary and Thesaurus (online).
- The Academic Phrasebank by the University of Manchester helps you find examples of key words and phrases. Non-native speakers of English are one of the primary audiences of this resource.
A free, comprehensive, peer-reviewed, award-winning Open Text for students and faculty in college-level courses that require writing and research.
- Grammar and Style in British English: A Comprehensive Guide for Students, Writers and Academics: this site grew out of a class handout that Richard Dobbs created for students in higher and further education.
- University of Leicester: Develop your writing: a good collection of resources, including video tutorials and study guides. Check for example the grammar guides on sentence structure and using paragraphs.
- Education Scotland: Knowledge of Language: English. Check especially the section on grammar and syntax.
- University of Manchester:
The Academic Phrasebank is a general resource for academic writers. It aims to provide you with examples of some of the phraseological ‘nuts and bolts’ of writing organised according to the main sections of a research paper or dissertation […]. The resource was designed primarily for academic and scientific writers who are non-native speakers of English. […]
- University of Reading: Academic writing.
- Leeds University Library: Academic writing. (Includes a page on style: Academic writing: developing your style.)
- University of Portsmouth, Department for Curriculum and Quality Enhancement: Writing clear sentences (PDF, 3 pages).
- Bednar, James A. (University of Edinburgh): Tips for Academic Writing and Other Formal Writing.
- Ferdinand-James, Debra Sharon: Academic Supporting Strategies for Students' Graduate Research, Caribbean Tertiary Level Personnel Association 19th Annual Conference 2016 (full paper on ResearchGate).
- Fox, Mary Frank: The Transition from Dissertation Student to Publishing Scholar and Professional, in: Scholarly Writing and Publishing, 1985. (Full text on ResearchGate.)
- Mumford, Simon: Explaining and Practising the Grammar and Lexis of Academic Prose, Humanising Language Teaching, Year 15; Issue 5 (December 2013).
- Wilfrid Laurier University - Centre for Student Success: Writing Centre: Handouts & Website.
- IELTS Academic exam preparation: a YouTube playlist of 9 videos (each between 8 and 26 minutes long, except for the intro video) by Canguro English that prepare learners for the IELTS test. Canguro is based in Spain, but the teacher, Christian, as an Australian who lived in England for many years (so his accent is a mix of Australian and British English).
- Academic English Help (IELTS Writing): a YouTube playlist with 21 videos (each between 9 and 12 minutes long) that prepare learners for the IELTS test. (The instructor speaks Canadian English.)
- Smrt: Academic Writing: a YouTube playlist with 26 videos (each between 2 and 6 minutes long) about academic writing. Smrt English is a partnership of three organisations in Canada and the USA.
- English for academic purposes (Wikipedia).
- Books on Writing: an annotated list of books by the American organisation Academic English Editing.
- Barros, Luiz Otávio: 70 useful sentences for academic writing (17 April 2013).
- What are good reads about writing? This question was posted on Writing Stack Exchange in November 2010. The recommendations are about writing in general, not specifically about academic writing.
Books and Articles on Bad Academic Writing
- Oppenheimer, Daniel M.: Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly, Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20.2 (March 2006): 139–156.
- Galak, Jeff; Nelson, Leif D.: The virtues of opaque prose: How lay beliefs about fluency influence perceptions of quality, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47.1 (January 2011): 250–253.
- Billig, Michael: Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences. Cambridge University Press, 2013. ISBN 9781107676985.
- Pinker, Steven: Why Academics Stink at Writing, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 26.09.2014 (only available to subscribers).
- Clayton, Victoria: The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing, The Atlantic, 26.10.2015.
- Krashen, Stephen D.:
RELC Journal, 43.2 (2012): 283–285.
(The author also
tweeted a cartoon from Calvin and Hobbes
in which Calvin says,
I realized that the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity.