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Academic Language: How to Avoid Common Mistakes

The most common essay mistakes may be classified as pertaining to structure, language, and formatting, which are all considered on the blog.  Students generally know that they have to use academic language in your essays, but not all of them understand what stands behind the term. In particular, many students wrongly limit academic language to correct grammar.  It goes without saying that an essay should have no grammar mistakes or misspelled words, but there is more to it than that.  In this post I review common language mistakes students make in their essays, avoiding or eliminating which will have a positive impact on your style grade.

Use of Pronouns

It is forbidden to use personal pronouns in academic language (the professors occasionally allow to use them, but it should be specifically stated in the essay requirements). It relates not only to the use of “I” (“I think”, “according to my experience”), but also to the use of “you” (either in the direct address or in the impersonal sentences), “we” (even standing for people, students), and “our” (e.g., “Organ trafficking has become a burning issue in our country”).  Academic language should be unbiased and the meaning should not change depending on the reader. Thus, the logic of the demand is clear.

It is also recommended to use authors’ surnames in a possessive case (Johnson’s study, Carr’s article) instead of his/her to avoid pronoun reference mistakes (when one pronoun can relate to several nouns).

Contractions

The use of contractions – short form of the word (I’ve, it’s, they’re, etc.) – is a serious mistake, which reduces the grade for an essay. If it is a common mistake for you, better search (Chrl+F) for apostrophe in your essay and consider each case of its use. It will also help you eliminate mistakes with apostrophe before/after s with sg. or pl. nouns (students’ vs student’s).

Conversational tone, colloquial words and phrases

The style of the academic language does not allow colloquial words and phrases. Although all the students feel that ‘the essay language’ should be different, they find it difficult to recognize and avoid colloquialisms in writing.

Usually, useful tips are not to use colloquial contractions like wonna/gonna, choose one-word verbs instead of their two-word synonyms (decrease instead of run low, eliminate instead of get rid of, etc.), not to use emphatic sayings (“Carr and other birds of a feather criticize Internet for making people dumper and shallower”), and proverbs.

The views on the rhetorical questions vary. Some professors teach rhetorical questions among the useful ways to appeal to the reader or to begin an essay. Some – prohibit their use. As a rule, the more serious or formal the essay is, the less likely the occurrence of rhetorical questions is. Thus, you may be free to use rhetorical questions writing essays for Eng 101 where the mastery of rhetorical techniques is appreciated and avoid them in research papers written for your majors. The same may be told in relation to metaphors, which are not to be used in scientific papers.

Sentence length

The ideal sentence length is 25-35 words. Long sentences (more than 40 words long) are bad for a number of reasons. First, the idea presented in one long sentence is usually difficult to understand. Since clarity is very important in academic language, ideas, which are ‘obscure’ due to the complicated sentence structure, are sure to take some points off your grade. Second, long sentences more often contain wordiness and grammar mistakes.

Therefore, if you have sentences with more than 60 words – you should split them into two, and if you have sentences with 40-50 words – you should make them more concise (omitting some non-relevant information and lengthy introductory phrases or changing the sentence to active might help). This will also help fight wordiness.

Likewise, attentions should be paid to short sentences (up to 10 words). If a short sentence occurs among the longer ones – it places emphasis and adds to the sentence variety. Nevertheless, several short sentences in a row seem choppy and unprofessional. It is better to combine two such sentences.

Repetitions

In academic language, you should avoid repetition of separate words, introductory phases and linking words, sentence structures, and, of course, ideas. Among the commonly repeated introductory phases, there are “For example”, “In addition”, or “It is important to note”, you may have your favorite ones though. The usage of the same words and phases is usually not intentional, so it is important to proofread the essay to see this mistake.

Nevertheless, the repetition of words and structures is a literary devise and it may be used intentionally to impress and to persuade (e.x. “Is the impact of the Internet really bad? The data proves Internet provides daily exercises to the brain. The statistics shows people read more than they used to. People tell they communicate more than they ever did. Why do we still perceive it as something bad?”). Students usually see such repetitions as merits of their essays and do not feel like cutting them from their papers. Still, again, what is suitable for literary style, articles and blog posts, is not suitable for scientific and research papers.

Repetition of ideas? Well, if you hope to get a good grade, do not fill the required word count with the repetition of what has already been stated. The very phase “as it has been mentioned earlier” is long and boring. Better use +/- 10% rule than fill the missing part with a repetitive content.

Unsupported claims

Unsupported claims are the ones you make basing on your ideas and assumptions or invalid generalizations. For example, “All people are concerned with the global warning” or “Selection is the most important stage of a hiring process” (simply because I have to write about selection), etc. Such statements are biased and should not appear in the academic writing.

Long direct quotations

Mind that when professors insist on citing the sources, they do not necessarily mean quoting. Quoting is taking exact words, phrases, or sentences from the source text. Citing is presenting the paraphrased version of the source text giving credit to where the idea/fact was taken from.

Some professors forbid to use direct quotations overall. They believe that if you cannot render the meaning of the source in your own words, you have not comprehended it. Still, well-chosen and well-incorporated direct quotations make essays more credible and persuasive. What you have to remember is that that all direct quotations should take not more than 10% of the essay word count. Thus, chose only the most interesting and effective quotations.

Hope these tips will help you effectively proofread your essay and learn to avoid common mistakes when writing.

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          Read also:

How to Avoid Common Mistakes: Structure

A Comprehensible Guide to Formatting

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