Your essay has been marked, and the feedback says you have used informal English and it’s not academic enough.
But English isn’t your first language, and you’re not too sure what is formal and what isn’t formal.
If this describes you, then this guide was written especially for you!
We’re going to look at the 5 most common causes of informal English writing, and how to correct them.
This is a big issue!
I was guilty of this one in my first year of university when I overused the phrase ‘in my opinion’ in my first essay. My tutor wasn’t very subtle when she marked my paper and commented that she didn’t only want to see my opinion.
Not long after that, I learnt that using pronouns was not appropriate. Pronouns like ‘I’, ‘my’, ‘you’ etc are too personal.
They make your essay more about your feelings and opinions rather than your argument and research.
So, leave out all of those personal pronouns: I, my, we, our, your, you, us and etcetera.
Correct it: Use the passive voice or impersonal subjects!
Don’t write how you speak (Unless you’re writing a blog!)
Seriously though, in academic writing, you shouldn’t write how you speak. It should be as formal as possible.
This means you need forget all of those things you have learnt to help you speak fluently like a native. I’m talking about:
It is important to make interview participants comfortable or they may get tongue-tied and they won’t speak from deep down.
There are several reasons why the results don’t reflect the whole population.
Nowadays, kids spend too much time watching TV.
It is important to make interview participants comfortable in order to obtain useful data.
There are several reasons why the results do not reflect the whole population.
In recent years, children have been watching excessive amounts of television.
Idioms: If a sentence or expression doesn’t have a literal meaning, it could be an idiom. Rewrite it.
Contractions: Try my ‘search and destroy’ tactic: ctrl+f or command+f and search your essay for ‘. If you find them, chances are you’ve used contractions. Locate them, and write the words in their full form.
Slang: Check the dictionary. A good dictionary will tell you if the word is slang or not. Sometimes, if the word is not in the dictionary, it’s probably slang.
Now, I know that was a lot to take in, so let’s have a quick recap!
We’ve covered TWO informal Engish issues so far: personal pronouns and spoken language. In academic writing, we should avoid using personal pronouns (I, you, we etc) and spoken language.
Okay! Feeling refreshed? Let’s carry on!
Vague language is when you use words which don’t specify a number or a type of something. You should avoid this type of simple and general language, and try to be as specific as you can. If you must be vague or general, do it academically.
A lot of people like music.
There are some reasons why learning a language is good.
A significant number of young people like pop music
There are three reasons why learning a language can result in higher paid company positions.
Use noun phrases: These are great for making your writing more complex, and they help you to add more information. Noun phrases are a group of words which work like a noun. They can also work as the subject of a sentence.
There are quite a few different structures.
For example, you can have simple structures like:
adjective + noun: [central library] & [biographical text]
noun + noun: [computer room] & [note book];
And more complex structures like:
the + noun + of adjective + noun[the number of abandoned dogs has fallen] & [the disposal of nuclear waste is quite a technical process.]
Use a thesaurus: If your word is a simple one, such as big or small, use a thesaurus to find a more academic alternative. Make sure that your new word is the same word type (verb/noun/adjective etc) and has the same or similar meaning.
Be academically general: Don’t say ‘everyone does this’; say ‘most adults do this’.
Don’t use exclamation marks in your essays! (See what I did there?) You can use them in your group chats, emails, status updates.
But don’t use them in your essays.
There is an exception, and that’s when you’re quoting someone. If someone used it in a text that you are referencing, you can include it in your quotation.
This piece of research shows that many people learn languages in different ways!
This piece of research proves that many people learn languages in different ways.
Let your writing show your opinions: by using ‘proves’, we can show that we think the piece of research is quite strong. Other reporting verbs can be used to show your opinion.
As we discussed earlier, academic writing should be impersonal and formal. This means you should keep your emotions out of your writing as much as possible (unless your assignment asks you to include your feelings).
Thus, it’s a good idea to avoid words such as ‘ridiculous’, ‘awesome’ and ‘a real shame’.
It is disgusting to think that some elderly people go weeks without human interaction.
The fact that some elderly people do not have human interaction for long periods of times is unacceptable.
Use stronger language: Try to make your argument and opinion strong but impersonal. You want to hint and suggest your opinion, not shout loudly about it.
If you’ve powered through this whole article, well done!
We’ve covered the five main causes of informal writing and how to correct them. These causes are:
Post your answers in the comments section below:
Sam is the founder and creator of English For Study. He's also lecturer in EAP/Academic English. Apart from making Academic English easy, he likes learning languages, lifting weights and eating good food.