Academic English

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:

General Advice

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:

Spelling

UK, US, Canadian, … Spelling

General Guidance

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…

Examples

-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

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

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-
-e- in ageing, gamification, …

Notes:

Frequently Misspelled Words

Capitalisation (Upper Case or Lower Case)

The following rules are not exhaustive but should be sufficient for writing papers and other academic publications.
Capitalise:

Do not capitalise:

There is no consensus on:

Examples from project deliverables:

Hyphens Versus One Word or Separate Words

The hyphen or dash is used:

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:

Examples of words written with a hyphen:

Examples of words without a space or hyphen

Examples of words with a space:

Special cases:

Punctuation

Comma

The comma is used in the following situations:

Notes:

Incorrect use of the comma can lead to unintended changes in meaning:

Semicolon

Outside programming, the semicolon is mainly used in two situations.

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.

Colon

The colon is used to illustrate, explain or elaborate the preceding sentence.

Examples:

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.

Long Dash

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":

Examples with that (with the subclause in italics):

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.

Present

The present progressive indicates an action that is taking place at the moment of speaking. The form is: be [conjugated] + verb + -ing.

The present simple (or simple present) refers to

Form: verb [conjugated], i.e. the bare infinitive (without "to"), marked for person and number.
Form in questions: do [conjugated] + verb [infinitive].

Past

The past progressive refers to

Form: be [past tense] + verb + -ing.

The past simple (or simple past) refers to

Form: verb + -ed (except for irregular verbs: went, wrote, ran, made, did, ...).
In questions: do [conjugated] + verb [infinitive].

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.

Future

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.

The future simple (or simple future) is mainly used to refer to

Form: will + verb.

Notes:

Split Infinitives

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:

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:

A/An” is used in the following situations:

No article (or the zero article) is used in the following situations:

Prepositions

Examples of common errors:

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):

There are a few special cases:

The following phrases have different meanings:

For more details about possessives, see Larry Trask's Guide to Punctuation.

Singular They

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:

Note: hen referring to a person of known sex, it is advisable to use the singular pronoun. For example:

Adjectives and Adverbs

In general, adverbs can be formed by adding -ly to adjectives.
Examples:

There are a few exceptions to the above adverb formation rule:

Syntax

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:

Sentence Length

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:

Vocabulary

Confusable Words and Phrases

Some words in project deliverables and papers have a different meaning than the author intended.

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:

Some words in deliverables are chosen because they are longer, sound smarter or more “impressive” but make the text harder to read. For example:

Abbreviations

e.g.” versus “i.e.”:

Nominalisation

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.

Examples:

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.

Examples:

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.)

References & Book Recommendations

Books on Academic English

Online Style Guides and Writing Advice

British English:

American English:

Scientific & academic English:

Grammar

Online Grammars

British English Grammars

The grammars below are suitable for learners of British English.

American English Grammars

The grammars below are suitable for learners of American English.

Specific Grammar Topics

Use of tenses or verb forms:

Use of 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.

Also useful:

Other Resources

Books and Articles on Bad Academic Writing