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Formal language

When writing or speaking, we choose the words which seem most suitable to the purpose and audience. In academic writing we use formal language, avoiding the use of slang and colloquial language.

Try to learn a range of appropriate language for expressing your opinions and referring to those of others.

Some of the language in the following examples is more appropriate for speaking than writing. Identify which expressions are too informal.

  1. When I look at the situation in emergency wards, with many staff leaving, it's hard not to worry about how many doctors will be available to treat patients in the future.

  2. If we consider the situation in emergency wards, with increasingly low staff retention rates, there are concerns about the capacity of hospitals to maintain adequate doctor to patient ratios.

  3. It's so obvious that people were given jobs just because they were male or female. I don't think that is an acceptable approach and is even against the law.

  4. It appears that in a number of instances jobs were assigned on the basis of gender. Given the current anti-discrimination laws, this raises serious concerns.

In contrast to spoken English, a distinctive feature of academic writing style is for writers to choose the more formal alternative when selecting a verb, noun, or other part of speech.

English often has two (or more) choices to express an action or occurrence. The choice is often between, on the one hand, a verb which is part of a phrase (often verb + preposition), and a verb which is one word only. Often in lectures and in everyday spoken English, the verb + preposition is used (eg speak up, give up, write down); however, for written academic style, the preferred choice is a single verb wherever possible.

For example

Informal: The social worker looked at the client's history to find out which interventions had previously been implemented.

Academic: The social worker examined the client's history to establish which interventions had previously been implemented.

Exercise 1

Rewrite the sentences in a more academic style using verbs from the list below. Note that you may need to change the verb tense.

  • investigate
  • assist
  • raise
  • discover
  • establish
  • increase
  • eliminate
  1. Systems analysts can managers in many different ways.

  2. help out

  3. This program was to improve access to medical care.

  4. set up

  5. Medical research expenditure has to nearly $350 million.

  6. gone up

  7. Researchers have that this drug has serious side effects.

  8. found out

  9. Exercise alone will not medical problems related to blood pressure.

  10. get rid of

  11. Researchers have been this problem for 15 years now.

  12. looking into

  13. This issue was during the coroner's inquest.

  14. brought up

Adapted from Swales, J. and Feak, C. M. Academic Writing for Graduate Students, pp. 5-9

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