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Study Skills

Grammar

How to write using an academic style

In this section, common problems relating to language construction have been identified so that students can become aware of these and avoid them in their writing.

Common problems in language construction

Sentence structure

Sentences can be short and concise, or longer and more complex. However, it is important to vary the length of your sentences so that your writing doesn't sound too abrupt (with the overuse of short sentences), or too densely packed with ideas (with the overuse of long sentences).

One of the most common problems in writing is students writing sentence fragments rather than complete sentences.

What is a sentence?

A complete sentence (which is also called an independent clause) must always contain a subject and a verb.

Example 1: The bushfires devastated many of the areas in the Adelaide Hills.

This first sentence contains a subject (The bushfires) and a verb (devastated) and then more information in given about what the bushfires devastated.

You may sometimes see sentences without a subject but these are usually instructions.

Example 2: Use the exit stairs in case of fire.

The subject (you or anybody reading this notice) is inferred from the situation but the verb is still there.

What is a sentence fragment?

A sentence fragment (which may also be a dependent clause) is an incomplete sentence because it is missing either the subject or the verb or both.

Example 1: Because of the northerly winds

Example 2: Because of the northerly winds, years of drought and tinder-box bushland, along with an ill-prepared and under-equipped country fire service.

The sentence fragment can be made into a complete sentence:

Because of the northerly winds, the fire spread quickly through the bushland.

The fire spread quickly through the bushland because of the northerly winds, years of drought and tinder-box bushland, along with an ill-prepared and under-equipped country fire service.

Examples of independent clauses

  1. Many of our laws originated from customary law.
  2. The authority of customary law should be limited.
  3. The customary system of law varies in different areas.

Examples of dependent clauses/phrases

  1. In resolving disputes and meting out justice.
  2. Outside of the major cities.
  3. Particularly in areas of criminal justice.

By adding an independent clause to each of the dependent clauses above, we can complete each sentence.

  1. Village councils play the main role in resolving disputes and meting out justice.
  2. Outside of the major cities, village councils play the main role in resolving disputes and meting out justice.
  3. The customary system of law varies in different countries particularly in areas of criminal justice.

Joining two complete (independent) sentences

If you want to make a longer sentences from two complete sentences, you will need to use a linking word or phrase.

Examples:

  • The bushfires devastated many of the areas in the Adelaide Hills. Many people lost their homes.
  • The bushfires devastated many of the areas in the Adelaide Hills and many people lost their homes.
  • The national government has little control over what happens in rural areas in north-west Pakistan. The people rely on their village councils to enforce the law.
  • The national government has little control over what happens in rural areas in north-west Pakistan so the people rely on their village councils to enforce the law.
Parallel structure

Another common problem in writing is ensuring that when we list a number of components in a sentence, we must keep the same grammatical structure. Generally the rule is to use all nouns (or noun phrases) or verb + noun (or noun phrase).

Example 1: The main student attributes include an ability to communicate well, think critically, and problem solving.

This is not a parallel structure because it uses a noun phrase, verb/noun and noun. The following sentence is correct as all nouns are used.

The main student attributes include effective communication, critical thinking, and problem solving.

Example 2: Because of northerly winds blowing, out of control bush growth and the lack of rainfall for years, the fire quickly spread.

This is not a parallel structure because it uses a noun/verb phrase, noun phrase and noun phrases. The following sentence is correct as all nouns are used.

Because of the northerly winds, uncontrolled growth of the bush and the lack of rainfall for years, the fire quickly spread.

The use and non-use of articles

Definition of articles

English has two types of articles: definite (the) and indefinite (a, an.) The use of these articles depends on whether the noun following the article possesses one of these paired qualities:

  • general or specific

Coffee is a popular drink.

The most popular drink in Australia now is coffee.

  • countable or uncountable

I drank a cup of tea.

I drank tea.

  • first mentioned or subsequently mentioned

A cyclist crossed Trower Road on a red light and was lucky not to be hit by a car. However, the police noticed and stopped the cyclist further up the road.

  • is unique or forms part of shared knowledge

Do you know I saw Tony Blair in Geneva. Do you mean the Tony Blair?

Subject verb agreement

Most students are familiar with the basic rules of subject verb agreement.

Example: I live in Darwin, she lives in Melbourne and the Scotts live in Bendigo.

Complicated sentence structures

It becomes more complicated with the following sentence constructions:

Using a noun phrase

The Commission for Renewable Energy is convening the conference in Melbourne.

The repeated scene of rioting shown on television news leads some teenagers to believe that civil disorder can be a legitimate form of protest.

Indefinite pronoun such as someone, anyone

Anyone is going to get lost in the labyrinth of the Turkish bazaars.

A phrase starting with a quantifier such as some, any,

Some breakfast cereals have nutritious ingredients.

Any part of the crowd is at risk from the military.

Phrases using either ... or and neither ... nor

The energy crisis will neither be solved by increasing the price of petrol nor by rationing fuel.

The energy crisis is not going to be solved by either increasing the price of petrol or by rationing fuel.

Complex sentences

The result of atmospheric pollution and soil degradation is the destruction of plant life and increased respiratory problems amongst the population.

Many people who have been unemployed for several years and have given up hope of ever obtaining paid employment are beginning to think about how they might start their own small business.

Sentences starting with words ending in 'ing'

Getting into town is going to be more difficult than we think after that heavy rain.

Going without water for more than three days is going to irreparably damage the vital organs of the body.

What to avoid in formal writing

When writing an essay, it is important to construct a reasoned argument that is supported by carefully researched evidence.

The language that you use needs to be precise and uncluttered by unnecessary devices which have the potential to distract the reader, shift the meaning or detract from the clarity of the argument.

Where to avoid personal pronouns

It is usually the case that in formal writing you avoid the use of personal pronouns.  These include I, me, we, us and you. 

However there are instances in certain disciplines where your lecturer will invite you to use the first person. In reflective journal writing, for example, using the first person is appropriate.

Example 1: When you are reporting what you did

Instead of writing:
I prepared all the laboratory equipment for the whole group.

Write:
The laboratory equipment for the chemistry experiment was prepared.

Instead of writing:
I presented the group’s findings to the class.

Write:
The group’s findings were presented to the class.

Example 2: When you are referring to what you have said

Instead of writing:
As I have already mentioned, Save the Children are leading the policy discussions on the establishment of Early Childhood Centres.

Write:
As previously mentioned, Save the Children are leading the policy discussions on the establishment of Early Childhood Centres.

In each of these examples, we used the passive voice to make sure that the language sounds impersonal.

Example 3: When you want to signal that you are drawing a conclusion, use an impersonal form such as: It can be seen that...

Instead of writing:
When using this teaching methodology with children from non-literate homes, you can easily see why it will never be successful.

Write:
When using this teaching methodology with children from non-literate homes, it can easily be seen why it will never be successful.

Example 4: When you want to use evidence to arrive at a conclusion you can also use similar language. 

Instead of writing:
We can see, after examining the students’ results, that children are much more likely to be successful in their first two years of school if they have benefitted from preschool activities that promote cognitive growth.

Write:
The students’ results show that children are much more likely to be successful in their first two years of school if they have benefitted from preschool activities that promote cognitive growth.

Making judgements: evaluations and opinions

You are often asked to present a point of view in your writing, but it is important that you do this in an appropriate way.

The words in the table below help to grade the strength of your opinion. That is, they fill in the space between ‘yes’ or ‘absolutely’ or ‘no’ ‘not at all’. They are words which cover the ‘shades of grey’.

StrongModerateWeak
MustWillMay
CertainlyProbablyMight
UndoubtedlyLikely/unlikelyCould or possibly

You can also use the different phrases given below to show the strength of what you are saying your language by using expressions like:

StrongModerateWeak
It is certain thatIt is likely/unlikelyIt seems possible
It seems clearIt seems probablyIt appears possible
It appears obviousIt appears probably/likelyIt is possible

Examples:

It is unlikely that government funding for university research will increase over the next five years.

It seems clear that the number of online courses will increase.

Cliches

A cliché is an expression that has been overused.

Examples:

  • We cannot build a new school at this point in time.
  • Who would have thought that slavery could exist in this day and age?
  • The Prime Minister believed that at the end of the day her policies would be vindicated.
Metaphors

A metaphor takes a name or descriptive term and applies it to a person or object in a non-literal sense.

Examples:

  •  A glaring error
  • The heart of the matter
  • Pillar of the community
  • A wave of terrorism
Similies

A simile compares a person, action or object with something else.

Examples:

  •  Fly like an eagle
  • Solid as a rock
  • As happy as Larry
  • Pleased as Punch

Well-chosen metaphors and similes can give your writing immense expressive power.

Once a metaphor or simile has become a cliché, it no longer provides a vivid image for the reader.

Consequently, instead of impressing your readers with your writing style, you leave them with the impression that you have nothing of substance to say.

Figures of speech

Figures of speech are closely related to clichés. Like metaphors and similes, figures of speech provide a writer with a colourful or forceful means to draw attention to a particular point but should be avoided in academic writing.

  • The cleaners were advised to lift their game or else.
  • Management has been on a steep learning curve.
  • It would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Colloquialisms and slang

What are colloquialisms?

Colloquialisms are words or phrases that belong in conversational contexts.

Examples:

  • Everybody was wandering around like stunned mullets. (Dazed and confused)
  • We'll all be pushing up daisies soon enough. (Dead)

In everyday speech or conversation we often contract words so that what we say does not sound too pompous. E.g. 'can not' (e.g. can't), 'have not' (e.g. haven't), 'is not' (isn't), 'would have' (would've), 'should have' (e.g. should've) and so on. However, in academic writing, colloquial forms should be avoided.

Some colloquialisms, such as slang expressions or phrases might demean or exclude other language users and must also be avoided. See inclusive language.

Padding

Padding consists of all the extra words added to writing that do not add anything to the meaning or content of the text.

This includes:

  • redundant phrases such as 'It is interesting/worthy/important to note that ...’ 'For what it's worth ...’
  • irrelevant material which has no bearing on your topic
  • 'Dead' words include words which repeat other words e.g. dead corpse, combined together
  • adverbs add quantity but little to the meaning. Adverbs such as: really, rather, quite, totally and so on, may not enhance your expression. For example: really obscure, rather tedious.
Pomposity and pretentiousness

Sometimes writers think that by using big, unfamiliar words or complicated sentence structures that this makes their writing sound sophisticated or more important. But it usually just means that no one understands it. For example:

This author concludes that, after due and full consideration, some writers exhibit discursive practices that produce undecipherable sentences, the intelligibility of which beggar even the most sophisticated ratiocinative beings.

The sentence could instead be rewritten.

  • A simple rewrite: Some people write so badly that no one understands it.
  • A complex rewrite: Some people write in a way that makes it difficult for even quite educated people to understand them.
Texting language

Texting language is the collective term used for the shorthand way that people talk to each other using text messages, email, instant messaging and other forms of written contact. Abbreviating words is common in text language as the examples below show.

  • asap - As soon as possible
  • atm - At the moment
  • b4 - Before
  • brb - Be right back
  • btw - By the way

These examples and others are used in informal texting exchanges. It is important to remember that text language is not acceptable in formal writing such as essays, exams, reports etcetera.

Did you know that we run free study skills workshops?

Our workshops are for all students and can be delivered online and on-campus. If you want to know more, get in touch.

E: languageandlearningsupport@cdu.edu.au 

Tutor in workshop