5.4 The Rules for Academic Writing in English

Erin Kelly, Sara Humphreys, Natalie Boldt, and Nancy Ami

English grammar for academic writing is a special subset of the English language. There are some grammatical conventions you will see in almost all examples of Academic English – and that you should expect to follow in written work for your classes. These conventions include the following, most of the time:

  • Ideas are usually expressed in complete sentences. Sentences begin with a capital letter and end with a final piece of punctuation (most often a period but sometimes a question mark or exclamation mark).
  • Words that make up sentences are expected to be spelled correctly according to the agreed-upon spellings provided in a standard dictionary.
  • Verb tenses won’t change (from past to present or present to future) unless there is a reason for them to do so and normally such shifts will be signalled explicitly.
  • Punctuation will follow a standard set of rules for when, where, and why to use commas, hyphens, dashes, and other punctuation marks.
  • Word choices will be precise and might even be quite technical.
  • Vocabulary and phrasing is likely to be formal rather than colloquial.
  • A set of specially formatted elements (headings, page numbers, lists of sources, references to sources, graphs, abbreviations, etc.) allow readers familiar with the conventions of a field to find and use complicated information quickly and easily.

In other words, academic writing generally follows a set of rules for what is sometimes called “correctness” or simply “standards” for more formal written English. Here are some good reasons to get to know and follow these rules for Academic English.

Clarity and precision: Using language in ways that follow agreed-upon rules can lead to greater clarity for readers familiar with these rules. Here’s an analogous case: at its most basic, mathematics is a language. When everyone agrees about what mathematical symbols mean, especially when they are put into a particular order, it becomes possible to convey an enormous amount of information clearly and precisely in a concise formula. Sentences and paragraphs can’t be as straightforward as a mathematical equation in the ways they convey information to an audience, but written language that follows rules is likely to be clear and precise for an academic audience.

Ease of reading: When a piece of writing aligns with a set of standards that readers find familiar, they’re not distracted by errors or stylistic experimentation as they try to understand the ideas the essay or article is trying to convey. The ideas in your own academic writing will be easier for your intended audience to comprehend and engage with the more closely your work follows the rules for academic writing.

Audience awareness: Remember that the audience for academic writing is usually most interested in the ideas and information being conveyed – and given this set of priorities, your readers don’t want to have to work hard to decipher a sentence or understand a turn of phrase. When you read poetry, creative nonfiction, or even your friends’ social media posts, it can be pleasurable to figure out if a sentence includes a purposeful error because it’s creating an interesting pattern, making a joke, or imitating a celebrity’s gaffe – but readers don’t usually want to do this sort of reading when they are encountering complex academic information and arguments.

Building scholarly ethos: Following grammar rules associated with academic writing demonstrates that you understand the conventions of the genre of academic writing and thus suggests your ideas should be taken seriously. Is it entirely logical to believe that a person who hands in an essay with a spelling mistake in the title doesn’t have great ideas? No, but this sort of violation of rules concerning “correctness” will damage a writer’s scholarly authority or credibility, and thus potentially weaken the impact of the essay.

All that said, it is possible to communicate effectively with other types of audiences in different rhetorical situations without following these sorts of rules. For example, it would be inappropriate and ineffective to write a resume or a love letter according to the guidelines for formal academic writing. There’s nothing natural about grammatical rules for writing in Academic English. You simply need to learn and follow them (most of the time) if you want to produce readable academic writing.

Note that there are some conventions you will see only in certain specialized examples of academic writing. We think you’ll benefit from knowing certain rules, such as the following:

When scholars of literature write about events in literary texts (such as novels, short stories, plays, and poems), they use present tense, such as “In the novel The Marrow Thieves, Frenchie watches his brother Mitch being brutalized and kidnapped by Recruiters” (not “Frenchie watched his brother Mitch being brutalized…”).

When scientists write about lab experiments, they regularly make invisible the people doing the experiment. They sometimes write as though objects are doing things to and by themselves (“Compound A mixed with Compound B produced enough heat to ignite the hydrogen”) and sometimes use passive voice in ways that obscures the researcher doing the work (“Compound A was mixed by Compound B”). You’re unlikely to read in a scientific paper that “Lab Assistant Chunhua Wang mixed Compound A with Compound B.” We talk about this effect more fully in Section 5.8 Voice.

Learning these more specialized rules – and following them in your writing – helps to build your scholarly ethos as someone who has authority and expertise in a particular academic field.

Basic Rules for Academic Writing and How to Master Them

Even if you’re convinced that learning the basic grammar rules for academic writing is a good idea, you might still be worried. Grammar as a term can be intimidating. Perhaps you feel like grammar is something you should have learned before graduating from high school. And what if you find that even though you know grammar rules, you still submit essays in which your teachers identify errors? What are you supposed to do after getting an essay handed back marked up with terms like “agreement problem” or “comma splice”? How are you supposed to know what that means and more importantly, how to fix these problems?

Let’s start with what we hope will be some reassurance. It’s true that some individuals grow up speaking English as a first language and happen to be familiar with a dialect of English that is somewhat aligned with the patterns of Academic English; those people might find it a bit easier to follow standard grammar rules in their writing. Others may have a knack for noticing and following language patterns. These individuals might more quickly understand and be able to put into action grammar rules. But even for such individuals, there’s no way to follow the rules for formal written English without studying said rules. (There isn’t a magic grammar fairy who visited some people in their cradles and gave them the gift of always being able to punctuate sentences perfectly – a fairy who you might suspect skipped you.)

No matter what you have been told, you can’t always tell when a sentence needs a comma by thinking hard about whether it sounds right or has a place where you need to breathe. Reading a text aloud might help you identify strings of words that sound odd, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to make them better. All the logic and common sense and smart thinking in the world won’t necessarily make it obvious to you that a reader will have a hard time figuring out what a pronoun in your sentence refers to. If you want to be able to follow standard grammar rules, you need to learn them and practice putting them into action in your own writing.

There are lots of ways to learn these rules, and we will suggest some. But it seems important to say first that research shows there are some not-very-effective ways to learn grammar so that you don’t waste your time. Beyond the point of basic language acquisition (or learning a second language to the point of being able to function at the university level in speaking, reading, and writing), rote grammar exercises have been shown to have little ability to improve student writing.[1] That is, multiple choice quizzes or online exercises that ask you to correct a single type of error across a lot of sentences are more likely to make you better at completing quizzes and exercises than being able to eliminate grammar problems in your writing. That said, if you love taking online grammar quizzes, go for it. Some people do find these sorts of exercises helpful and entertaining.

More commonly, though, studies suggest that students develop facility with the rules of grammar by reading a lot.[2] We suggest you not only read other writers’ work but also try to notice how they put together their phrases and sentences. This is not copying, but imitating another’s writing style. You might even want to try imitating[3]  another writer’s way of structuring and punctuating sentences.

As well, there is research that suggests students can improve their understanding of English grammar rules through exercises that involve sentence combining.[4] If you want to try this sort of exercise, try writing an entire paragraph made up of very simple, basic sentences:

Most places in Canada get hot summers. Summer should be hot. Victoria, BC is not hot. Today is 6 August. The sky is cloudy. A breeze is blowing. Customers at an outdoor cafe look chilly. People are wearing sweaters. A cup of hot tea would be good. No one wants lemonade.

Then combine these sentences while trying to figure out ways to express and connect up the same basic points:

Canadians living in most of Canada reasonably assume that summer days will be hot, but in Victoria, BC, however, customers at an outdoor cafe on 6 August are glad to be wearing sweaters and drinking hot tea (not lemonade) as they watch a breeze blow clouds across the sky.

Sentence combining lets you practice various ways of structuring and punctuating sentences, and experimenting with sentences helps you master grammar rules while writing. Please do give sentence combining a try.

You can also be strategic about teaching yourself the rules that are most relevant to the kinds of academic writing you are doing. Andrea Lunsford and Karen Lunsford’s 2008 study[5] of undergraduate essays submitted in academic writing classes in the United States identified the twenty errors that showed up in undergraduate student writing. Although there isn’t a similar study of Canadian undergraduate writing yet, focusing on these particular types of errors is an efficient way to develop your familiarity with some important rules for formal academic writing.

Finally, rely on your course instructors to guide your study of rules for academic written English. If the person marking an essay you have submitted for a grade adds commas to your sentences and suggests you need to work on comma usage rules, then you might want to head over to The Online Writing Lab website at Purdue University. Often simply called “Owl Purdue,” this site has clear explanations of Mechanics, Grammar, and Punctuation issues that crop up frequently in student writing. Similarly, if your Teaching Assistant notes that your work includes sentence fragments or run on sentences, look up those terms online to learn more about why these sorts of sentence-level issues are seen as errors – and learn how to fix them. If you’re not at all sure where to start, make an appointment with a tutor at your university’s Writing Centre[6]—it’s a great use of half an hour to have an expert identify which writing rules you need to work on and to recommend high-quality resources.


  1. For a good overview of this research (and links to scholarly articles), check out Michelle Navarre Cleary’s Atlantic article “The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar” (February 25, 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/02/the-wrong-way-to-teach-grammar/284014/).
  2. See, for example, Stephen D. Krashen’s The Power of Reading, 2nd ed. (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2004).
  3. You can find information about imitation and a sample imitation exercise on Brian Jackson and Jon Ostenson’s Style Academy website: https://styleacademy.byu.edu/about/.
  4. For an example, read Bruce Saddler’s “Improving Sentences via Sentence Combining Instruction,” The Language and Literacy Spectrum 16 (2006): 27-32, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1071604.pdf.
  5. Lunsford and Lunsford, “Top Twenty Errors in Undergraduate Writing,” Hume Center for Writing and Speaking, Stanford University, accessed September 9, 2020, https://undergrad.stanford.edu/tutoring-support/hume-center/resources/student-resources/grammar-resources-writers/top-twenty-errors-undergraduate-writing.
  6. Most universities will have a designated place where you can get help with your writing and research skills. These spaces are often called simply “Writing Centres” but they also appear under other names—like, for example, at the University of Victoria where we have the Centre for Academic Communication. If you’re unsure where your university Writing Centre is located, check with someone in your university’s Student Services Department or ask at the library.

License

Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Why Write? A Guide for Students in Canada by Erin Kelly, Sara Humphreys, Natalie Boldt, and Nancy Ami is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book