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Tips for Writing in North American Colleges: Objectivity

Summary:

This handout is an introduction to the basics of academic writing conventions for students who are new to American colleges and universities.

Contributors:Michael Maune, Hwanhee Park, Ghada M. Gherwash, Joshua M. Paiz, Tony Cimasko
Last Edited: 2013-06-24 11:47:57

Using “I,” “We,” and “You”

The differences between spoken and written academic English become very clear in the ways that first- and second-person pronouns are used. Underlying these differences are two basic characteristics of all academic writing: 1) the readers of academic writing tend to be more interested in the insights that a writer has to offer than in the person who is offering the insights, and 2) these readers value precision.

Although you may have been told that “I” is never used in academic writing, that is not true. It is okay to use it, but only if the “I” is a vital part of the thing that is being discussed. For example, a student conducted a chemistry experiment and is reporting on the procedure. If the student is writing a paper for a chemistry class, the people reading it are probably not interested in who did it; they are interested only in the chemical phenomenon. She would remove the “I” by writing in the passive voice:

The pH level of the acid was raised by adding water.

However, if her readers were more interested in the writer and her experiences than in the chemical phenomenon, then it would be okay to use “I”:

I raised the pH level of the acid by adding water.

The first-person plural pronoun “we” (and “us” and “our”) is used even less frequently. The problem lies in the fact that it often is not clear who the pronoun, “we” represents. Take the following example, written by one student working by himself:

We have become accustomed to commercialization in sports.

If this had been written by a group of people working together, then “we” could refer to all the writers together. But this is only one writer, working alone. So who is “we”? Maybe the writer was referring to himself and his readers together—but he cannot know who is reading the paper, and it might be that one of the readers disagrees with him. Since there is no clearly defined group here, it would be best to change it so that it is more accurate:

Many people have become accustomed to commercialization in sports.

“You” is almost entirely non-existent in academic writing, again because it is not clear who will be reading a text, so the writer cannot accurately account for each and every reader.

It seems to be the easiest way to meet people in your own community.

It is common to use “you” this way while speaking, but it since it is so imprecise, academic readers generally do not like it. A common strategy is to replace “you” with “one”:

It seems to be the easiest way to meet people in one’s own community.

If a writing situation calls for direct instructions on how to do something, rather than describing or arguing for something (as is the case in this handout), it is okay to use “you.”

Abstract and General Nouns and Noun Phrases

Academic writers often express abstract ideas in their writing. Abstract ideas are concepts that do not refer to specific, concrete, observable things that can be experienced through human senses of touch, taste, sight, smell, and hearing. Academic writers express abstract ideas because abstract ideas can apply to many people and many situations (Schleppegrell 130-131).

An example of an abstract idea is the concept of acceleration. Acceleration is a concept from physics that refers to a change in an object’s speed (Arny & Schneider 544). An academic writer does not need to be referring to specific speed measurements or even a specific object to discuss the concept of acceleration. The concept of acceleration is abstract, so it could refer to any object and any change in speed.

Academic writers value knowledge and ideas that are generalizable—that is, knowledge that can apply to many people and many situations. In order to express these abstract ideas, academic writers use abstract nouns and abstract noun phrases. An abstract noun is a noun that refers to an abstract idea, like justice, freedom, beauty, etc.

Academic writers do not always use abstract nouns. Sometimes they use concrete nouns that express ideas about things that can be experienced through human senses. At times, it is appropriate to use concrete nouns to express ideas in academic writings—particularly when you are describing specific data from observations.

The choice of abstract nouns is determined by the topic of the writing. Each academic discipline has its own specialized vocabulary, which is sometimes called jargon (words that are used within a given discipline). Each discipline uses jargon to express their ideas accurately. Sometimes this jargon takes the form of abstract nouns. For example, examine the following sentence from a statistics text book:

A numerical summary of a distribution should report its center and its spread or variability. (Moore, McCabe, and Craig 47)

In this example, the word “variability” is an abstract noun because it refers to a concept that cannot be experienced through human senses. The concept of variability is, essentially, the degree to which numbers in a numerical data set differ. Whenever an academic writer in statistics wants to express an idea about the amount of difference in a numerical data set, they will use the word “variability” because it accurately refers to that idea, and other people in statistics will understand and accept the idea. Furthermore, the abstract noun allows the writer to express an abstract idea without having to refer to a specific, concrete data set.

Some abstract nouns have similar features. For example, some suffixes in English are used to create abstract nouns. Below is a short list of abstract nouns with common suffixes. You can use this list to recognize and create other abstract nouns that are appropriate to your topic.

Abstract Noun

Suffix

Other words with same suffix

variability

-ity

capability, complexity, majority, humanity, possibility

communication

-tion

elimination, reservation, continuation

enjoyment

-ment

excitement, arrangement, replacement, measurement

happiness

-ness

sadness, darkness, emptiness, kindness

romance

-ance,  -ence

arrogance, importance, silence, absence

 

Kinds of Verbs

Sentences in academic writing often express ideas about different kinds of processes and states of being. These process and states of being usually are expressed through verbs. We can identify three main kinds of processes expressed in academic writing:

Kind of Process

“Doing” or “Happening”

“Relating”

“Existing”

Definition

Events that take place in the real world.

Relationships between things, people, and abstract ideas.

Assertions that something exists.

Example

Biological processes also remove some CO2  from the atmosphere. (Arny  & Schneider 254)

Cultural diffusion is the transmission of cultural elements from one society or cultural group to another. (Andersen & Taylor 59)

In fact, there are still problems in understanding what drives the motions and causes a new rift to develop. (Arny & Schneider 160)

Kinds of Verbs adapted from Christie and Derewianka (9)

As we mentioned earlier, abstract ideas of academic writing are often expressed through abstract nouns. Academic writers choose verbs that express what their ideas are “doing” or what is “happening” to their ideas. Other times, they choose verbs to express how different ideas relate to one another (Schleppegrell 137-138). And, sometimes they choose verbs to express the idea that something exists. 

In the examples of “doing,” “relating,” and “existing” verbs, you can see how academic writers use different kinds of verbs to express processes and states of being between abstract ideas. In the “doing” example, “biological processes” is the abstract idea that “remove[s]… CO2.” The verb “remove” tells us about an action that is happening in the real world. The “biological processes” are the things that are “doing” the action of “remov[al].” Because the noun “biological processes” is abstract, the act of “remov[ing]” may not be referring to something specific and observable. As a result, both the nouns and verbs combine to express how an abstract idea can do something to affect the real world.

In the example of a “relating” verb, there are two abstract noun phrases: “cultural diffusion” and “transmission of cultural elements.” The two abstract ideas represented by these noun phrases are related through the verb “is.” Is is a very common “relating” verb in academic writing. In this example, “is” is used to show that two ideas are equivalent to one another—that “cultural diffusion” and “transmission of cultural elements” are the same idea expressed in different words. Academic writers often use “relating” verbs when they are defining ideas or describing the attributes of an idea. Another common “relating” verb is “have,” which might be used to express certain attributes of an object or idea. 

Lastly, the example of an “existing” verb shows simply that the ideas expressed by the noun “problems” actually exist. This sentence is taken from part of an astronomy textbook discussing plate tectonics It suggests that a certain theory of plate tectonics has “problems.” The writer chose to assert that the problems exist in order to introduce a contrast to the prevailing theory. Academic writers use “existing” verbs less often, but they are useful for creating contrasts and introducing topics.     

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