Academic Registers


“Yo, dawg, wassup?” or “Good afternoon, Mister Giles, may I be of assistance to you?”

How formally we choose to speak or write depends on the context we’re in. We adapt our words, phrasings and punctuation to who we’re communicating with and the situation we’re in.

“Could you hand me that tester over there by the heater to its left?” or “Could you hand me the multimeter by the space heater?”

How specialized or precise our language is also depends on the context. We can use more precise terms in a work setting with co-workers who share our specialized knowledge than we can with co-workers who don’t.

In short, when using language we vary how formal we are and how specialized our vocabulary is and we make our choices based on our audience and the context.

Our decisions reveal our understanding of who our audience is, what is expected in the context, and whether we want to go along with expectations or against them. “Yo, dawg, wassup?” won’t always go over well, but maybe that's part of the plan.

Academic registers are the language conventions for writing and speaking in professional academic contexts. Being aware of these conventions makes it easier to follow such content—we understand why it's written the way it is. Knowing the expectations also gives us the option of joining the conversation.

Different fields of study can have different expectations, which is why we say registers with an "s" rather than a single academic register.

There are some general rules of thumb that characterize academic registers:

  1. They strive to inform fully.
  2. They stress precision.
  3. They are more formal.
  4. They are not playful or entertaining.
  5. They do not try to connect with the reader.
  6. They try to appear objective and minimize bias.

“All work, no play” can help us remember the general tone.

Sandra Gollin Kies and Daniel Kies examined several news, magazine and journal articles that reported on the same research studies. They did this to show how different registers affect language and content choices made by authors and editors. Their main focus was the academic register. The studies were on how cats and dogs drink water.

Most of the examples and observations in the table below come from Kies and Kies's article on what they found. The table compares everyday registers and academic registers.

Note that for everyday registers, the more educated the audience is expected to be, the more the author tends to use characteristics of academic registers.

Academic Register Characteristics

(all readers)
(specialized readers with advanced knowledge of the subject)
Expository writingyesyes
“Liquid appears literally to be scooped into the mouth between the ventral surface of the tongue and the floor of the mouth as the tongue is rapidly withdrawn.” 1
Examples, frequencyfeweras many as needed to inform and support fully
Specialized, technical vocabulary
without explanations
e.g., fluid dynamics, isometry, marginally positive allometry, liquid column dynamics, viscous and capillary forces, Froude mechanisms 1, 2, 3
Illustrations and captionsmay be used to entertainused to inform only, with explanations in the text itself
“Figure 1a, arbitrarily designated the beginning of the cycle, therefore labelled as time 0 ms, shows the liquid filling the spoon-shaped ventral surface of the tongue tip as the tongue begins to withdraw from the liquid surface.” 1
Full references to other written sourcesnoextensively
“Reis, P. M., Jung, S., Aristoff, J. M. & Stocker, R. 2010. How cats lap: water uptake by Felis catus. Science 330, 1231 –1234. (doi:10.1126/science.1195421)” 1
Argumentative writingin texts expressing author’s view, e.g., editorialsyes
“Our high-speed video of cat lapping demonstrated that on many occasions the backwardly curled tongue tip briefly penetrated the liquid surface and picked up liquid in its spoon-shaped ventral surface.” 1
Hedging, frequencyvariableextensively
"The fact that the dog’s tongue tip penetrates more deeply into the liquid than in cats, and consequently sprays more liquid around as the tongue rapidly withdraws, may give the impression that dogs drink by spooning liquids into their mouths." 1
Semicolons ;less likelymore likely
Colons :less likelymore likely
“We conclude that cats and dogs share the same basic mechanism for lifting liquid from a bowl into the oral cavity and transporting it through the oral cavity: liquid adheres to the dorsal surface of the backwardly curled tongue tip.” 1
Longer complex sentences with noun clauses, frequencyless likelyhigh
Longer paragraphs, frequencyless likelyhigh
Words seen as more formal, frequencyless likelyhigh
Passive voice, frequencyvariabletraditionally favoured; now changing
It has recently been suggested that the mechanism for lifting liquid from a bowl into the oral cavity during lapping is fundamentally different in cats and dogs: cats use adhesion of liquid to the tongue tip while dogs ‘scoop’ with their backwardly curled tongue.” 1
Calls attention to author using I, me, my, we, us or ourmore likelyno traditionally; now sometimes, to describe a procedure followed or express a position using active voice
“‘The cat is still quite happy,’ Stocker told me over the telephone.” 4We conclude that cats and dogs share the same basic mechanism for lifting liquid from a bowl into the oral cavity and transporting it through the oral cavity: liquid adheres to the dorsal surface of the backwardly curled tongue tip.” 1
Summarizing, frequencymore likelyin literature review section
“They demonstrate that when a cat lifts the tongue, liquid adhering to the dorsal side of the tip is drawn upward, forming a column part of which is captured within the oral cavity as the jaw closes.” 1
Narrative writingmore likelyno
"One morning a few years back Roman Stocker was watching his cat, Cutta Cutta, drink …" 5
Clichés and colloquialismsmore likelyno
"And in this case curiosity did not kill the cat." 5
Emotive languagemore likelyno
"A little pool of water is brought into the mouth every time Fido takes a gulp from the toilet bowl." 4
Exclamation points !more likelyno
Chatty stylemore likelyno
It turns out that trying to capture cat-drinking on film is a bit harder than you might expect.” 6
Includes reader with you, your, we or ourmore likelyno
"Even if you don't own a cat you've probably seen one lap up a bowl of milk." 6
Informal syntax
(no grammatical subject or verb)
more likelyno
“The bigger the cat, the slower the lapping.” 6
Contractionsmore likelyno
“What's more, when the researchers crunched the numbers, they found the cats had it down.” 6

Word Choice

Academic registers tend to be more formal. The table below provides a few examples of words and word phrases that are viewed as less and more formal. Words that come from French or Latin generally fall on the more formal side, as do longer words. Two-word and three-word verbs generally fall on the less formal side.

let gorelease
turn downrefuse
cellcellular phone
lots of / a lot ofa considerable number of
make upfabricate
think aboutconsider
in the meantimein the interim
put up withtolerate
get in touch withcontact
rack upaccumulate
go upaugment
pull offaccomplish

Here’s a longer list of such words from There are hundreds if not thousands of such words and phrases.

To Sound More Objective: Avoidance of I, you and we

In academic registers, the pronouns I, you and we were traditionally avoided.

Instead, the passive voice and the pronoun one were used.

Everyday register:

    • We gave the mouse a shot of rabies.

Traditional academic register:

    • The mouse was injected with Rabies lyssavirus.

Everyday register:

    • You can't expect learners to know this already.

Traditional academic register:

    • One cannot expect learners to know this in advance.

Today, it's easier to find academic articles that don't follow this tradition. Nature is a highly respected journal for publishing research studies in the sciences and technologies and is also the parent of more specialized science and technology journals. It has this as its editorial policy:

Nature journals prefer authors to write in the active voice ("we performed the experiment...") as experience has shown that readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly.

The convention to use one rather than the indefinite you is also weakening.

Hedging (also called Qualifying)

Academic writing tries to be precise so that readers are less likely to misunderstand what the authors mean. If the facts indicate that something is certain beyond all doubt, the authors say things like "X causes Y."

Often, however, the facts only point toward something being probable or possible rather than 100% certain. In this case, the authors hedge what they say. This means that they find a way of saying that something is probable or possible rather than certain.

For example, instead of saying "X causes Y," they can say "It appears that X causes Y" or "The results suggest that X causes Y."

In a way, these kinds of statements are vague and precise at the same time. The authors are precise about being uncertain but vague about just how uncertain they are.

There are many words and phrases that allow authors to show how sure they are that one thing causes another to happen or is proof of something else. Here are a few more examples:

  • It is likely/unlikely that ...
  • It is highly probable/improbable that ...
  • It could/may/might be that ...
  • X tends to ...
  • X often ...
  • X rarely ...

For more about hedging and the words that allow us to qualify (i.e., hedge) our statements, visit these helpful pages:

Useful links:

Photo credit: "Eduardo" by Todd Robert Petersen is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0