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Features of academic writing


Written language is relatively more complex than spoken language (Biber, 1988; Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad & Finegan, 1999; Chafe, 1982; Cook, 1997; Halliday,1989).

Written language is grammatically more complex than spoken language. It has more subordinate clauses, more "that/to" complement clauses, more long sequences of prepositional phrases, more attributive adjectives and more passives than spoken language.

Written texts are shorter and have longer, more complex words and phrases. They have more nominalisations, more noun based phrases, and more lexical variation. Written texts are lexically dense compared to spoken language - they have proportionately more lexical words than grammatical words.

The following features are common in academic written texts:

Subordinate clauses/embedding, Complement clauses, Sequences of prepositional phrases, Participles, Passive verbs, Lexical density, Lexical complexity, Nominalisation, Noun-based phrases, Modification of noun-phrases, Attributive adjectives

Subordinate clauses/embedding

There are several factors which help to prolong this period to perhaps three or four times that in the male.
The other way in which the economic aspects of military expenditure were presented was in the form of the public expenditure costs.
The family establishes a variety of bases for refuges which seem to be used at different times of the year.


Complement clauses


This conforms conveniently with Maslow's (1970) claim that human motivation is related to a hieracrchy of human needs.
It follows that if the Labour Government is to secure acceptance of its economic package, it has to secure the support of MPs from either the Liberal or the Conservative party.


Britain's apparent ability to rally Commonwealth support at Chicago seemed to the Americans to be evidence of Britain's continued world power.


The possibility of increasing dollar receipts was coupled with a belief that Africa could be a strategic centre for British power.


Sequences of prepositional phrases

Sequences of prepositional phrases are common in academic English.

This article analyses the constitutional aspects behind the formation of the first and second National Governments, examining in particular the role of the king in the formation of the two governments.


Formal written English uses verbs less than spoken English. -ed and -ing participles allow verbs to be used nominally or adjectively.

Similar temptations overcame philosophers concerned with establishing a secure base for individual responsibility
The Egyptians regarded time as a succession of recurring phases.
Doubts as to the proper division of property at death, as well as rights between partners living together, were resolved by having legal rules prescribing a formula.
It was only to be tolerated in a controlled and formalised context.
A frequent change found in proper names is syllable loss.


Passive verbs

In spoken English we often use a subject such as "people", "somebody", "they", "we", or "you" even when we do not know who the agent is. In formal English, particularly writing, we often prefer to use a passive.


They're installing the new computer system next month.
The new computer system is being installed next month. (more formal)

Try these exercises: Exercise 1, Exercise 2, Exercise 3


Lexical density

Written English generally has a much denser pattern of  words, it is more lexically dense. If we define lexical density as the number of  content words in a clause, then written English has a higher lexical density than spoken English (Halliday, 1996, p. 347).

For example, the written text:

is more lexically dense than the spoken version:

Lexical complexity

Adding affixes to existing words (the base) to form new words is common in academic English. Prefixes are added to the front of the base (like right arrow dislike), whereas suffixes are added to the end of the base (active right arrow activate). Prefixes usually do not change the class of the base word, but suffixes usually do change the class of the word.

The most common prefixes used to form new verbs in academic English are: re-, dis-, over-, un-, mis-, out-. The most common suffixes are: -ise, -en, -ate, -(i)fy. By far the most common affix in academic English is -ise.

e.g. verbs + prefix right arrow verb

Prefix Meaning Examples
re- again or back restructure, revisit, reappear, rebuild, refinance
dis- reverses the meaning of the verb disappear, disallow, disarm, disconnect, discontinue
over- too much overbook, oversleep, overwork
un- reverses the meaning of the verb unbend, uncouple, unfasten
mis- badly or wrongly mislead, misinform, misidentify
out- more or better than others outperform, outbid
be- make or cause befriend, belittle
co- together co-exist, co-operate, co-own
de- do the opposite of devalue, deselect
fore- earlier, before foreclose, foresee
inter- between interact, intermix, interface
pre- before pre-expose, prejudge, pretest
sub- under/below subcontract, subdivide
trans- across, over transform, transcribe, transplant
under- not enough underfund, undersell, undervalue, underdevelop


e.g. Suffix used to form verbs with the meaning "cause to be".

Suffix Example
-ise stabilise, characterise, symbolise, visualise, specialise
-ate differentiate, liquidate, pollinate, duplicate, fabricate
-fy classify, exemplify, simplify, justify
-en awaken, fasten, shorten, moisten


The most common prefixes used to form new nouns in academic English are: co- and sub-. The most common suffixes are: -tion, -ity, -er, -ness, -ism, -ment, -ant, -ship, -age, -ery. By far the most common noun affix in academic English is -tion.

e.g. noun+prefix right arrow noun

Prefix Meaning Examples
anti- against anticlimax, antidote, antithesis
auto- self autobiography, automobile
bi- two bilingualism, biculturalism, bi-metalism
co- joint co-founder, co-owner, co-descendant
counter- against counter-argument, counter-example, counter-proposal
dis- the converse of discomfort, dislike
ex- former ex-chairman, ex-hunter
hyper- extreme hyperinflation, hypersurface
in- the converse of inattention, incoherence, incompatibility
in- inside inpatient,
inter- between interaction, inter-change, interference
kilo- thousand kilobyte
mal- bad malfunction, maltreatment, malnutrition
mega- million megabyte
mis- wrong misconduct, misdeed, mismanagement
mini- small mini-publication, mini-theory
mono- one monosyllable, monograph, monogamy
neo- new neo-colonialism, neo-impressionism
out- separate outbuilding,
poly- many polysyllable
pseudo- false pseudo-expert
re- again re-organisation, re-assessment, re-examination
semi- half semicircle, semi-darkness
sub- below subset, subdivision
super- more than, above superset, superimposition, superpowers
sur- over and above surtax
tele- distant telecommunications,
tri- three tripartism
ultra- beyond ultrasound
under- below, too little underpayment, under-development, undergraduate
vice- deputy vice-president


e.g. Suffix added to a verb (V), noun (N) or adjective (A) right arrow noun

Suffix Meaning Examples
-tion action/instance of V-ing alteration, demonstration
-ity state or quality of being A ability, similarity, responsibility
-er person who V-s
something used for V-ing
person concerned with N
advertiser, driver
computer, silencer
astronomer, geographer
-ness state or quality of being A darkness, preparedness, consciousness
-ism doctrine of N Marxism, Maoism, Thatcherism
-ment action/instance of V-ing development, punishment, unemployment
-ant/-ent person who V-s assistant, consultant, student
-ship state of being N friendship, citizenship, leadership
-age collection of N
action/result of V
baggage, plumage
breakage, wastage, package
-ery/-ry action/instance of V-ing
place of V-ing
bribery, robbery, misery
refinery, bakery


Many adjectives are formed from a base of a different class with a suffix (e.g. -less, -ous). Adjectives can also be formed from other adjectives, especially by the negative prefixes (un-, in- and non-).

The most common suffixes are -al, -ent, -ive, -ous, -ful, -less.

e.g. Suffix added to verbs or nouns right arrow adjective

Suffix Examples
-al central, political, national, optional, professional
-ent different, dependent, excellent
-ive attractive, effective, imaginative, repetitive
-ous continuous, dangerous, famous
-ful beautiful, peaceful, careful
-less endless, homeless, careless, thoughtless
-able drinkable, countable, avoidable,


e.g. adjective + negative right arrow adjective

Prefix Examples
un- unfortunate, uncomfortable, unjust
im-/in-/ir-/il- immature, impatient, improbable, inconvenient, irreplaceable, illegal
non- non-fiction, non-political, non-neutral
dis- disloyal, dissimilar, dishonest

e.g. base with both prefix and suffix

  -able -tion -tive -ment -ar
un- uncomfortable

mis-   misinformation   misjudgement
re- recoverable
reformulation reproductive realignment
in- irreplaceable incoordination
dis-   disconnection   disappointment  
semi-     semiconductive   semi-circular



Formal written English uses nouns more than verbs. For example, "judgement" rather than "judge", "development" rather than "develop", "admiration" rather than "admire".

Instead of:

This information enables us to formulate precise questions.

we would write:

This information enables the formulation of precise questions.

More examples are:

There appeared to be evidence of differential treatment of children.
This is reflected in our admiration for people who have made something of their lives, sometimes against great odds, and in our somewhat disappointed judgment of those who merely drift through life.
All airfields in the country would be nationalised, and the government would continue with the development of new aircraft as recommended by the Brabazon Committee.

Associated with nominalisation is the occurrence of prepositional phrases, introduced by of:

judgment of those
treatment of children
development of new aircraft

-tion is the most common suffix used in this way. For example: alteration, resignation.

However others are: -ity ability, similarity, complexity; -ness blindness, darkness, preparedness; -ment development, encouragement; -ship friendship; -age mileage; -ery robbery, bribery; -al arrival; -ance assistance, resemblance.


Noun-based phrases

Formal written English uses nouns more than verbs.

One example is:

Like all other forms of life, we human beings are the product of evolution.
Like all other forms of life, we human beings are the product of how we have evolved.

The noun "evolution" is preferred to the verb "evolve" and the "wh" clause.

Another example is:

Premack used a set of plastic chips to teach a chimpanzee named Sarah the meaning of a set of symbols.
Premack used a set of plastic chips to teach a chimpanzee named Sarah what a set of symbols mean.

"The meaning of the symbols" is preferred to "what the symbols mean"

Try this exercise: Exercise 4


Modification of noun-phrases

Written English is lexically dense - there is a higher proportion of content words per clause. This can be done by modification of noun-phrases.

premodifier + noun

adjective - the constitutional aspects

ed-participle - a balanced budget, from the confused events of 19-24 August, the emitted light

ing-participle - growing problem, one striking feature of the years 1929-31, existing structures

noun - market forces, cabinet appointments

noun + post modifier

relative clause - students who have no previous experience

to-clauses - the solution to the problem of inflation, the question to be debated

ing-clauses - a brake consisting of a drum divided into twelve compartments

ed-clauses - canoes preserved by a hard plaster, a brake consisting of a drum divided into twelve compartments, the curve shown

prepositional phrase - we need to bring to the box a special tool with a ready-compressed spring

adverb (phrase) - the road back, the people outside

adjective (phrase) - varieties common in India, the festival proper, something different

Attributive adjectives

Adjectives can be used either attributively (e.g. the big house) or predicatively (e.g. the house is big). Attributive adjectives are common in academic English.

With economic specialisation and the development of external economic linkages, division of labour intensifies, a merchant class is added to the political elite, and selective migration streams add to the social and ethnic complexities of cities.



Halliday (1989, p.79) compares a sentence from a spoken text:

You can control the trains this way and if you do that you can be quite sure that they'll be able to run more safely and more quickly than they would otherwise, no matter how bad the weather gets.

with a typical written variant:

The use of this method of control unquestionably leads to safer and faster train running in the most adverse weather conditions.

The main difference is the grammar, not the vocabulary.

Other equivalents are given below (p.81):



Whenever I'd visited there before, I'd ended up feeling that it would be futile if I tried to do anything more.

Every previous visit had left me with a sense of the futility of further action on my part.

The cities in Switzerland had once been peaceful, but they changed when people became violent.

Violence changed the face of once peaceful Swiss cities.

Because the technology has improved its less risky than it used to be when you install them at the same time, and it doesn't cost so much either.

Improvements in technology have reduced the risks and high costs associated with simultaneous installation.

The people in the colony rejoiced when it was promised that things would change in this way.

Opinion in the colony greeted the promised change with enthusiasm.

Try these exercises: Exercise 1, Exercise 2.