Academic writing style – Using appropriate vocabulary Package 1

When you write tertiary level coursework assignments or answer examination questions, you will need to pay close attention to the style of the language. This part of the course is designed to help you with this important aspect of academic writing.


These packages introduce you to two key areas of academic style, namely:
  1. using appropriate vocabulary
  2. using appropriate grammar
When asked to describe the characteristics of the style of academic writing, you would probably come up with words such as:

So whilst you more than likely have a clear picture of what academic writing is, you may still need to think about how you achieve that style effectively and accurately. We can do this by examining academic writers’ choice of vocabulary and grammar.

Formal verbs

Use formal (single-word) verbs such as examine rather than phrasal or prepositional verbs such as look at.

This report looks at [examines] the problems created by unregulated mass immigration.

Greece has still not got over [recovered from] the latest recession.

Joint ventures in Vietnam have not taken off [been successful] as they were predicted to.

Colloquial expressions

Avoid informal or colloquial expressions such as a lot of in your written assignments.
a lot of complaints a great deal of / a considerable amount of
lots of research numerous / a large number of / myriad / a plethora of
a really detailed analysis very / extremely / particularly
a bit unusual    somewhat / rather / fairly 
it is a must       essential / necessary / crucial / vital
the pros and cons the advantages and disadvantages / the arguments in favour of and against


Clichés are worn-out or vague expressions that have become so by overuse. The cliche is the last refuge of the lazy thinker. The expressions below are dull, unoriginal and frequently meaningless so avoid using them in your written work.

hot topic heated debate last but not least
every coin has two sides all in all in a nutshell
first and foremost crystal clear golden opportunity
thinking outside the box knowledge economy a win-win situation


Idioms are common in informal written and spoken English but must be avoided in academic writing. In a seminar discussion, the idiom old hat might be acceptable; in a term paper, it would be better to use out of date.

The belief that teachers can be replaced by technology is ironically now old hat.
[out of date].

Sophisticated words

Avoid simple everyday words such as good, bad, big, small, nice, get and thing in your academic writing. Use precise formal words instead (like those in brackets).

  Transparency of governance is a big [major] problem in Hong Kong .

  The initial proposal was bad [inadequate].

  A significant amount of data was got [obtained] from Kowloon University.

Emotive words

You should also avoid direct, negative words such as lies, cheat, cheap, useless and worst. Try to use cautious, indirect language when expressing negative ideas.

Only 13% of the student questionnaires were returned; a ridiculously low figure which proves that most students are lazy.

Only 13% of the student questionnaires were returned; a disappointing figure which suggests that the administration of the survey requires investigation.
a surprising the timing of the survey was questionable.


If you repeat the same words and phrases in your written assignments, it will make your work appear monotonous and unsophisticated. To make your writing more interesting, you should use appropriate synonyms. Here are some more examples:

  findings results   appear seem
  inquiry investigation   argue contend

Below is an excerpt from an academic essay on the problems faced by new university students when giving oral presentations. Rewrite the text in a more appropriate style in the space provided. Once you have finished, click on the SUBMIT button and compare your answer with the original version.

Students face loads of hassle when they start uni. The independent way people learn is a whole new ball game, just like the teaching which is nothing like secondary school. Nearly everyone is still tested through boring old exams, but they are also expected to do proper presentations and this can scare the living daylights out of some people.

Unlike highschool, undergrads’ve gotta’ do research, plan the body and then speak to their schoolmates and teachers normally using pictures and slides. This isn’t easy ‘coz it presents tonnes of problems to freshmen.

In this essay I will first look at the problems faced by students when delivering presentations in an academic setting before going on to give you some suggestions to sort them out.

One of the main problems that students face when giving presentations is that they are scared stiff. According to Beaver (2012), this is because the Hong Kong education system doesn’t pay much attention to speaking and listening which means students aren’t any good at them. Also, Plankton and Wing (2008) point out that kids at university don’t have any chance to practice their speaking skills outside of class. This is also bad for their confidence and so standing up and presenting in front of 20 or 30 contemporaries as well as professors, can be a really terrifying.

The only way of dealing with this issue is for the Education Department to put more stress on developing the speaking skills of secondary school students (Clandestine, 2011). She reasons that this would lead to increased confidence and brilliant communicative skills when students move to university later.

Another idea from Long, John and Silver (2013) is like doing individual and group presentations in the Diploma of Secondary Education the same as at university. This would also probably bring about an improvement in performance, confidence and organization of oral presentations and hence reduce nerves.

Write your version in the box below and then click on the SUBMIT button. You will then be able to compare your version with the original.

Copyright© 2012-2013 UGC ICOSA Project, Hong Kong. All rights reserved.