Language Style

Making generalisations

One way of thinking about learning at university is to think of it as a process of learning to think, speak and write about ourselves, the society we live in and the physical world in ways that go beyond the personal or particular.  We are interested in what is generally the case and that is why we base what we write on research rather than common sense or personal experience.  It is also the reason why we do not use the first person ("I", "We" and "Our") or the second person ("You" and "Your") except to perform certain specific functions. 

Outside of the university setting writing often uses time and storytelling as the organising principles.  For example:

We went to the shopping centre and while we were there we… and then we…

To replace a carburettor in a combustion engine first you … when you have done that you.

Time and storytelling are rarely used in academic writing.  In many disciplines material is organised in paragraphs which move from the general to the particular.   In order to talk or write at the general level academics use general ideas, called concepts, such as unemployment, democracy, evolution, pollution, and force. 

Research based writing

Above we noted that university work is concerned with the general case and for this reason it is based on research.  The most common form of research for undergraduates at university is reading what academics and other professional researchers have said about the topic or issue under consideration.  Writing at university is almost always writing about what you have read rather than expressing your personal opinion or relating what happened to you. 

The meaning of ‘critical' in university assignments

Lecturers often make one of the criteria for assignments evidence of critical thinking.  In a research based culture such as a university the usual way to satisfy the requirement of critical thinking is to look at what different academics have said about an issue and then decide who you agree with.  Note you should decide which view in the literature you agree with rather than offer your personal opinion.  Once you have a basic understanding of an issue, concentrate on looking at similarities and differences between the authors. 

A brief summary of what lecturers mean by critical thinking is given below:

  • Intention to understand for oneself
  • Ability to use concepts rather than individual examples
  • Ability to see relationships between concepts
  • Ability to construct an argument based on credible research

Formal style

Finally academic style is formal.  Unlike informal letters, notes and personal journals, academic writing is not modelled on everyday speech.  Academics write in full grammatical sentences and express ideas in a concise and clear way.  They concentrate on relating concepts or main ideas to each other rather than describing things in particular detail.