There are no grammatical features that are exclusive to academic writing. There is, though, a significant group of lexico-grammatical items - noun phrases, passives and hedging devices, for example - that are used frequently and in such a way as to shape academic texts and give them their recognisable style. (See my blog post on what I learnt from taking a new look at academic grammar: What is 'academic grammar'?)
In 2010, Oxford University Press commissioned me to research and write a grammar practice book for EAP (English for Academic Purposes), suitable for self-study or classroom use. The first task was to decide which grammatical features to include. After consulting colleagues, corpus-based grammars and coursebooks, and then studying texts, articles and student essays, we settled on 20 items (click here for the Contents Page).
The book itself is aimed at international students studying or preparing to study in any subject area, and intersperses clear grammatical explanations with short exercises. Example text is drawn from a variety of disciplines, including business studies, economics, computer science, law and social studies. In 2012, my former university colleague Roberta Wedge was invited to join the project to supply extensive grammar practice sections (titled ‘Challenge yourself’) at the end of each unit. In January 2013, the Oxford Grammar for EAP was published.
Meanwhile, a fellow EFL author, Mark Harrison, asked me to join him and IELTS specialist Vanessa Jakeman in writing a grammar practice book aimed this time at English-speaking university students whose grammatical mistakes were impeding their progress. Native-speaker errors, as we confirmed through an analysis of sample essays, are often different from the mistakes that foreign students make. A Portuguese student might produce ‘should to go’, but she’s unlikely to write ‘should of gone’ (a native-speaker mistake that originates in the sound of spoken English). Other common errors by mother-tongue English speakers include ‘comma splicing’ (using a comma between two complete sentences) and ‘spaghetti writing’ (confused syntax in longer sentences).
The study resource book we produced, Improve Your Grammar (second edition), comprises 60 two-page units (models of academic language, explanation and practice), and the first edition was published by Palgrave in 2012. To see my blog post about the book, 'Grammar as a Foreign Language', please click here.
In 2016, I wanted to go in a new direction, designing a course in grammar for teachers giving classes to international business students, much as I had done at the University of Westminster. So I went back to basics, trying to answer the question: what are the underlying cognitive processes that result in the grammatical features we observe on the surface of a typical academic text such as an essay? In March 2016, I gave a talk (‘Organising academic grammar’) at IATEFL Birmingham, focusing on three of these processes, which I labelled ‘being objective’, ‘building information’ and ‘connecting ideas’, and discussing how they might inform a syllabus of academic grammar in the following way:
Being objective: cautious language, defining language, passives, preparatory subjects
Building information: noun phrases, relative clauses, verb clauses
Connecting ideas: cohesion, cause and effect, comparison, signposting
When I got back to designing the actual course, I realised it might have a natural home online as long as I could find a suitable platform (i.e. one that would allow it to remain, as far as possible, a low-tech, teacher-to-teacher, classroom-style course). The completed course, Teaching Grammar for Business Essays, was published by Udemy, the Californian online learning platform, in November 2019.
Teaching Grammar for Business Essays (Udemy, 2019)
Improve Your Grammar (Palgrave, 2016)
Oxford Grammar for EAP (OUP, 2013)
For journal and website reviews of Improve Your Grammar, Oxford Grammar for EAP and Teaching Grammar for Business Essays, please click here.
Please click on the titles below to see these blogs on the Oxford University Press English Language Teaching Global Blog:
Language for Hedging in Academic English
EAP Power Grammar: Noun Phrases and Wh-clauses
If you’re a teacher, you can access these webinars by logging in to or registering for the Oxford Teachers’ Club (it’s free). Click here and then search top right for ‘Webinar Library’ and look under ‘English for Academic Purposes’ for the two titles above.
Click here for a Word doc lesson plan on impersonal subjects.
Click here for a Word doc lesson plan on compound adjectives and prepositional phrases.
Click here for a Word doc lesson plan on hedging in business essays.
Click here for a printable pdf lesson plan on noun pairs in academic grammar.
‘Academic grammar’: what is it and how can we teach it?
For details of this talk for teachers’ groups, please click here.
Talks on academic grammar previously delivered: