It Has Been Noted by Experts… Phrases, Structures, and Register of Academia

It Has Been Noted by Experts… Phrases, Structures, and Register of Academia

Recently I was driving my daughter to her music lesson after school, and she noticed the large amount of traffic, which was strange for four o’clock in the afternoon.

I told her that given our economic situation in California, it was “not uncommon” for people to leave work early because their hours had been cut. “Why did you say it like that?” she asked. “‘Not uncommon’? Why not just say ‘common’?” I started to laugh, realizing, having just gotten off work myself, I had brought the academic “register,” or situationally appropriate language, into a conversational one. The great early twentieth century writer George Bernard Shaw had actually warned against just the usage my daughter complained about with the silliness of “A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall dog across a not ungreen field.” But Mr. Shaw came from a journalistic background, a different register which values brevity.

So in answer to my daughter’s question I would say, “In an academic situation ‘not uncommon’ and ‘common’ are not exactly alike.” I agree that in other settings “not uncommon” is silly, but by using it in an academic setting, I actually mark myself as a member of this community. Second, there is a shade of difference between the two forms of “common” and “not uncommon”: if someone observes, for example, summer weather into November in California is “strange,” I might protest it is “not uncommon.” However, if I’m raising the point myself, I would likely say, “It’s common to have long summers in California.” “Not un--” seems to be in response to a previously raised point.

So “not uncommon” is a specific phrase that students can use to clearly mark themselves a member of the academic community. There are some other words, phrases, and structures that students can use to place themselves within the academic community and therefore—because to join a community, you must speak its language—be taken seriously within that community and obtain a certain goal, such as permission to register late for a class. Many of these forms are, like “not un—,” rarely used outside of academia. In addition, because of their relative rarity or complexity, they may serve to obscure rather than illuminate an issue, sometimes deliberately.

Words, Phrases, Structures of Academic English

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    This word is used to emphasize a point. It is one of those words that is rarely used in conversational American English although it is used in writing: “Class size is not shrinking in California. Indeed, it has grown exponentially over the past decade.” Here “indeed” connects two opposing ideas as well as serves to emphasize the second point.

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    “Scarcely” is scarcely seen outside of academic writing. In conversation, American English prefers “hardly”: “I have hardly any money left at the end of the month.” However, in academic writing, preferred would probably be “There is scarcely any funding left for that particular project.” Since it seems to carry the same meaning as “hardly,” “scarcely” seems to be one of those words that exists solely to distinguish the academic from nonacademic registers.

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    With All Due Respect

    This phrase seems to often precede a sharp criticism: e.g., “With all due respect, Dr. Smith, I find you very inflexible and unaccommodating,” serving as an apparent attempt to soften the criticism.

  4. 4

    Please Advise

    This is a phrase than in recent years seems to have crept into the ending lines of an email from students: e.g., “With three weeks left in your course, I haven’t completed most of the work. Please advise.” It’s a form I have a personal irritation with: usually my advice would seem obvious—in this case, take the course another semester--and with the use of this “magic phrase,” of “please advise,” the student hopes I will somehow fix the situation. This reveals another issue with language use: often people think there are “magic charms” to its use, and this is sometimes true—the right choice of words can open doors for the talented speaker.

  5. 5

    It has been noted by

    This is a phrase found almost solely in the academic register, and is almost always followed by “experts,” “researchers,” and so forth. This phrase is another one that is used by writers to position themselves as members of the academic community, able to refer to previous research.

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    Avoidance of the use of the first person, even when necessary

    e.g., “For the entire term, this writer has been researching the topic of multiculturalism in California—”

    Well, who is “this writer”? I always think. This is an overgeneralization of the rule to avoid the first person in academic writing. However, as with most rules, there can be overapplication. Especially when asked to write about their own experiences, as college writers often are, use of the first person is almost unavoidable, the alternative being the really awkward “this writer” structure. Apply writing “rules,” which should be called in most cases “general principles,” where they make the most sense.

  7. 7

    “One” as a pronoun

    Following this avoidance of the first person and general impersonalness of the register, not only is “I” avoided, but also “he,” “she,” or “you.” So instead of the more conversational and natural sentence “You have to do a lot of work to get a teaching credential in California” is the less natural but certainly more academic “In order to obtain a teaching credential in California, one must complete a number of steps.”

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    Use of Passive Voice

    Along with “one” and “this writer,” the academic register is replete with the use of the passive voice because of its very impersonalness: no agent of the verb or pronoun need be named at all. For example, in the example above for “one,” in the passive voice, this sentence would appear as “A number of steps must be completed in order to obtain a teaching credential in California.”

Methods for Teaching the Academic Register

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    Extensive Reading and Discussion in the Register

    To learn this register - or any, for that matter - students must read and/or speak in it extensively. Assign essays in academic English and then have students discuss them. This will help in students’ acquisition of academic English. After all, they listened to many hours of conversational English before they could speak it fluently; the same holds true for academic English.

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    Noticing the Forms of the Register

    While reading along with students, make a point each session to focus on a couple of academic usages: a sentence with the passive, “indeed” used as a transition. Discuss why the writer made these choices.

  3. 3

    Assign Tasks that Demand the Forms

    Finally, in essays and other assignments you give students, assign the use of academic forms, such as three sentences in the passive voice. Acquiring a register requires practice; often students won’t practice unless directed to.

Acquiring a new register is not easy; in fact, it can be as difficult as learning a new language.

But the reward in the ability to function in the academic community is immeasurable.


What strategies do you use to help students acquire academic English?

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