Ken Paterson Logo

What is 'academic grammar'?

3 March 2020


When you analyse the language of academic articles and essays, you notice that it is characterised by the repeated use of certain grammatical features, such as complex noun phrases, relative clauses, hedging devices, depersonalising structures, passives, and particular types of linking and signposting language.

So when, a few years ago, a colleague asked me what was meant by ‘academic grammar’, I think I said something like, ‘a group of grammatical features that characterise academic writing’.

But on reflection, that’s a rather top-down perspective – and not particularly useful from a teaching point of view. In my own case, it led to me keeping a kind of tick-list of disconnected grammatical items that I felt I ought to cover at some point in my EAP courses.

What would happen, then, to the definition above, if we took a bottom-up approach instead, and asked ourselves why these items occur with such regularity?

Well, if we assume that the writer, apart from adopting a certain level of formality, does not set out deliberately to sound ‘academic’, it must be that the grammatical features mentioned in my opening paragraph result naturally from the process of what you could call ‘operating academically’.  

Of course, people will have different views about what that process actually means. But let’s take three broad and reasonably uncontentious ‘sub-processes’ and see what grammatical features they throw up.

1. Being objective

Firstly, however passionate academic writers are about their subject, they try to be objective. They take a step back, in other words, and look as carefully as they can not only at the evidence, but also at the commentary on that evidence.

This tends to result in the use of features such as

a. hedging devices, e.g.:

It could be argued that internet retailing is still in its infancy.

– The latest research appears to confirm that buildings are responsible for approximately 40% of energy consumption and 35% of EU carbon emissions (Gibb 2017).

b. passives, e.g.:

The first task in the process is to draw up a detailed list of performance objectives. This list should be discussed and agreed by everyone in the team.

– When the vaccine had been produced, it was stored in airtight containers and transported under military escort to the main hospital in the region.

c. impersonal subjects, e.g.:

It is essential for busy senior managers to define exactly how much authority they plan to delegate.

There may be a case for rewarding drivers who regularly take colleagues to work.

d. defining language, e.g.:

The term ‘person specification’ normally refers to a written statement that sets out the experience, qualifications and personal attributes needed to carry out a specific job.

– The phrase ‘organic food’ is generally agreed to describe any foodstuff that is produced without the intervention of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and genetically-modified organisms.

2. 'Building' information

Secondly, in order to build a persuasive case, academic writers will inevitably have to take into account a wide variety of source material, which in itself is likely to produce a density of information that you wouldn’t normally find in other types of writing.

This tends to result in the use of

a. complex noun phrases, e.g.:

With simple problems, a top-down communications channel may achieve the most rapid results.

– There is a growing interest in ecologically-sustainable ways of heating domestic properties.

b. relative clauses, e.g.:

Organizations that bring together unusual capabilities are likely achieve a competitive advantage.

– Barbara Hepworth, regarded by critics as a key modernist sculptor, created ‘Single Form’ for the United Nations building in New York.

c. particular types of verb pattern, e.g.:

The case study suggests that Prime Events needs to consider whether a move into the drinks market will suit their business aims.

– Computer modelling enables the likely deterioration pattern of a new building to be examined.

3. Connecting ideas

And thirdly, as a result of that density – and the continuing attempt to make an objective and logical case – academic writers need to ensure a high level of ‘connectivity’ or ‘linking’ not only within complex sentences and paragraphs, but also between sections of the text.

This tends to result in the use of

a. certain types of cohesive device, e.g.:

An alternative to the guided interview is the focus group, in which respondents are asked to discuss their views collectively. This method, where participants engage with each other, has the advantage of lowering the risk of interviewer bias.

– Luxembourg and Bolivia do not seem to have much in common. The former is a comparatively prosperous European country; the latter is one of South America’s poorest states. Both, however, are landlocked, and this has influenced their history in ways which will be explored below.

b. a wide variety of linkers, e.g.:

A client brief should, in theory, supply all the information that an advertising agency needs. In some cases, however, the agency may need to commission additional research.

In addition to eating smaller fish, the tiger shark has been known to consume weaker members of its own family.

c. language that links cause and effects, and makes comparisons, e.g.:

Over a two-year period, GSDK plc saw a sharp rise in its exports to Africa. As a result, it began to construct its own assembly unit in Nigeria.

– In law, a responsive brief differs from an original brief in that it contains arguments directly responding to positions taken by the other side.

d. ‘signposting’ language, e.g.:

As discussed in the early part of this essay, charismatic leadership does not always lead to business success.

– The statistics below, in the final section of this report, are regularly updated by the Office for National Statistics.


This bottom-up perspective not only changes my original definition into something like, ‘the grammatical features that inevitably recur when you take an academic approach in a piece of  writing’, but may also provide a context or organising principle for a grammar syllabus or short course in the classroom.