It’s English, Not Latin!
8 Ways to Make Academic Writing Clear and Authoritative Using Plain English
Editors—and, no doubt, thesis examiners—sometimes encounter sentences like this:
In a further report discovered to be of relevance to the present study, it was communicated by Smith et al. (2050) that the failure of a front line hospitality staff member training program to have a positive impact on front line workplace customer service delivery outcomes, which transpired due to the fact that there was (in the opinion of the front line hospitality staff member attendees) an absence of facilitator pre-curriculum-development consultation with potential front line hospitality staff member atttendees, resulted in its ineffectiveness in the mitigation of not only client satisfaction decline but also revenue reduction.
Translating this into plain English, we get:
Further, Smith et al. (2050) reported that a training program for customer-facing hospitality staff failed to improve customer service and therefore increased neither revenue nor client satisfaction. The attendees said it failed because the facilitators did not consult them before developing the curriculum.
Both sound formal, but which sounds more authoritative? Which makes its point more persuasively? Which sounds like it was written by a confident expert?
Paradoxically, the plain English version sounds more authoritative because it doesn’t try to sound authoritative. It simply states the facts using clear, precise words.
The first version is only slightly worse than how some real people write, and it illustrates most of the mistakes they make. We will discuss these in detail shortly. Why do people make them, though? Why is academic English often written so badly? To understand this, it helps to consider the history of English and academic writing.
Why is English Like Two Languages?
English can seem like two languages. We can say ‘food’ or ‘comestibles’, ‘home’ or ‘residence’, ‘alike’ or ‘similar’, ‘help’ or ‘assist’, ‘begin’ or ‘commence’, and ‘sweat’ or ‘perspire’. In each of these pairs, the meanings are the same, but the first word is the everyday one, and the second is a formal alternative. Why is English like this?
It’s complicated, but the short answer is: because of the Norman Conquest. English started as a Germanic language spoken by the Anglo-Saxon peoples who, during the early Middle Ages, took over a country they eventually named England. In 1066, invading Normans conquered the English army and became England’s ruling class. Their language, a variety of French, usurped English as the language of government, literature and high society. English, still spoken by the common people, was thought vulgar by the new elite, but it survived by adapting. It kept much of its Germanic vocabulary (words like ‘night’, ‘head’ and ‘bring’), but it borrowed numerous words from French, as well as from other languages—especially Latin, for reasons we will consider shortly. The words that come from Latin, French and other Romance languages are called Latinate words. Hence, English has two kinds of words: the common, which are often Germanic (‘often’, ‘sisterhood’, ‘fat’) and the posh, which are frequently Latinate (‘frequently’, ‘sorority’, ‘corpulent’). Toddlers learn to ‘talk about dogs and cats’; high schoolers learn to ‘discuss canines and felines’.
The new hybrid English eventually (for sociopolitical reasons too complex to discuss here) displaced French as the official language, but the prejudice against plain English—the common people’s words—survived and still persists. We can see this prejudice in public notices like ‘Consuming alcoholic beverages while aboard this conveyance will result in a penalty.’ The plain English translation, ‘If you drink alcohol on this train, we will fine you’, is apparently, even after hundreds of years, felt too low class to be authoritative enough, even when it is reinforced by security cameras and uniformed guards.
This subconscious bias may be one reason why inexperienced academic writers sometimes puff up their papers with elongated words and convoluted sentences. The other reasons are less problematic, as we will see.
Why Do Academic Writers Overdo the Formality?
Long after English became England’s official language, the universities there and throughout Europe maintained the linguistic tradition they had inherited from the previous centres of learning—the monasteries—by continuing to use the church language, Latin. For example, Isaac Newton, as late as 1687, published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, not ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy’. Unlike English or French, Latin could be understood by scholars across Europe and perhaps beyond. It also had prestige because classical texts were revered. However, most people couldn’t understand it. Therefore, so that people outside academia could discuss new technical concepts like ‘gravity’ and ‘calculus’, numerous Latin (and Greek) words were brought into English.
Today, it is English that is understood by many educated people worldwide. However, academic writers still tend to prefer Latinate words and the formal style that often accompanies them, partly because of tradition but also because Latinate words are often needed for precision and accuracy. Moreover, in most disciplines, because the researchers aim to be objective, contemporary academic writing is impersonal. This means that to avoid being subjective, we must write, for example, ‘Based on this result, it is reasonable to argue that’ instead of ‘This result makes us think that’.
Because of these historical and recent influences, inexperienced writers may believe that to sound academic, they must always use long Latinate words and complex structures. Hence, they sometimes produce sentences like the example above.
To prevent this—to write clearly and persuasively—we can apply the principles of plain English. As the example shows, this can be done without sacrificing formality or precision. Here are eight plain English guidelines for improving your academic writing.
1. Avoid Nominalisations
In the example, consider the phrases ‘of relevance to’, ‘an absence of’, ‘ineffectiveness in’, ‘the failure of’, ‘consultation with’ and ‘the mitigation of’. The adjectives ‘relevant’, ‘absent’ and ‘ineffective’ and the verbs ‘fail’, ‘consult’ and ‘mitigate’ have been distended into nouns. Nouns made from adjectives, verbs and adverbs are called nominalisations. They are often made by adding suffixes like ‘tion’, ‘ness’, ‘ence’, ‘ment’ and ‘ity’.
Nominalisations can be useful, but overusing them makes your writing not only impenetrable (because it is hard for readers to visualise the scenario or process you are describing), but also pretentious. The overinflated words suggest that the ideas lack substance.
Academic writers overuse nominalisations so often that it’s easy to do it unwittingly. To correct this mistake, read through your writing carefully and highlight any long nouns, especially those next to prepositions (‘to’, ‘of’, ‘on’, ‘with’, etc.). Then simplify as many of them as you can. For example:
· Change ‘Before the commencement of the development of the product, the designers engaged in consultation with the users’ to ‘Before they started developing the product, the designers consulted the users’. (Restore the verbs.)
· Replace ‘These findings were of importance’ with ‘These findings were important’. (Reinstate the adjective.)
· Modify ‘The likelihood of the venture’s failure seemed substantial’ to ‘The venture seemed very likely to fail’. (Reclaim the adverb and the verb.)
2. Shun Long Strings of Nouns
In English, nouns can be used as adjectives. This can be expressive and convenient (we say ‘student services’ and ‘the university tavern’ instead of ‘services for students’ and ‘the tavern at the university’), but it can lead to noun phrases like the ones in the example:
· ‘a front line hospitality staff member training program’
· ‘front line workplace customer service delivery outcomes’
· ‘facilitator pre-curriculum-development consultation’.
To understand these, the reader must visualise all the things and their relationships, just as we understand ‘the university tavern’ by visualising a tavern on a university campus. This is easy when there are only two or perhaps three nouns, but beyond that, it wrenches the brain.
Sometimes we can delete some of the nouns. Imagine we have ‘improve front line workplace customer service delivery outcomes.’ We can immediately delete ‘delivery outcomes’ (unless we’re writing about a courier service). How about ‘front line’ and ‘workplace’? Are the customers so abusive that the job feels like a war? Is customer service provided outside work? If not, we can delete both words. This leaves ‘improve customer service’, which is much clearer and just as precise.
Often, though, we must rearrange the sentence. ‘There was an absence of facilitator pre-curriculum-development consultation with prospective participants’ reads better as ‘The facilitators did not consult the prospective participants before developing the curriculum’.
Sometimes, we have to both delete and rearrange. ‘A front line hospitality staff member training program’ makes more sense as ‘a training program for customer-facing hospitality staff’.
Of course, it’s best to write clearly from the start. Here are six more plain English guidelines to help you do that.
3. Use Familiar Words
In the sitcom Big Bang Theory, the character Sheldon, talking to his girlfriend Amy, gets a laugh by saying ‘have coitus’ instead of ‘sleep with’ or ‘have sex’. Because of his self-image as an academic genius, always accurate and precise, he can’t say ‘sleep with’, but he feels that saying ‘sex’ is too undignified. Therefore, he uses a technical-sounding, obviously Latinate word that is much too formal for the situation—and he looks ridiculous. Also, because any woman but the eccentric Amy would probably run away, he risks not engaging his audience.
In our example, ‘transpired’ and ‘mitigation’ are examples of the same mistake: unnecessarily obscure, complex or formal words. ‘Transpired’, in the context of the example, just means ‘happened’. ‘Mitigation’ means ‘the action of making something less bad’ (as in ‘climate change mitigation’); it’s usually clearer and more precise to write ‘lessen’, ‘decrease’, ‘stop’, ‘reverse’, ‘improve’ or ‘increase’.
Of course, if you’re writing a thesis or scholarly article, using familiar words doesn’t mean using lay terms to replace or define the technical vocabulary of your discipline. That vocabulary is familiar to your readers, so translating it into plain English would insult them.
It’s not insulting, however, to describe nontechnical or non-discipline-specific concepts using the short words everyone knows. Short words are easier to read, so they often make your message clearer and your argument more persuasive. Write ‘help’ (not ‘assistance’), ‘need’ (not ‘requirement’), ‘also’ (not ‘additionally’) and ‘did not eat’ (not ‘refrained from ingesting’). If used with correct grammar, these words are not informal, just ordinary.
Remember, though, that academic writing must be precise. Some everyday words are too ambiguous for scholarly texts, especially for readers who didn’t grow up with English. Write ‘useful idea’ (not ‘great idea’), ‘children’ (not ‘kids’) and ‘investigate’ (not ‘look into’).
4. Eliminate Unnecessary Words
In our example, ‘In a further report discovered to be of relevance to the present study, it was communicated by Smith et al. (2050)’ is reduced to ‘Further, Smith et al. (2050) reported’. This is an extreme illustration of how unnecessary words can waste both space and the reader’s time and energy.
Worse, they can obscure the meaning. Consider ‘have a positive impact on’. This is vague as well as verbose. Write ‘improve’, ‘increase’ or ‘strengthen’.
Other phrases that can be similarly shortened include:
· ‘At this point in time’. Write ‘now’ or ‘presently’.
· ‘Considered as’. Write ‘considered’.
· ‘Due to the fact that’. Write ‘because’.
· ‘For teaching purposes’. Write ‘For teaching’.
· ‘Have an impact on’. Write ‘affect’, ‘change’ or something more precise.
· ‘In a consistent manner’. Write ‘consistently’.
· ‘In the opinion of Wang’. Write ‘Wang said’, ‘Wang argued’ or ‘Wang claimed’.
· ‘Last but not least’. Write ‘finally’.
· ‘On the other hand’. Write ‘conversely’.
The example also contains the ghastly—but sadly realistic—noun phrase ‘its ineffectiveness in the mitigation of not only client satisfaction decline but also revenue reduction’. This illustrates two further ways to use fewer words.
First, use positive language, not double negatives. Instead of ‘its ineffectiveness in the mitigation of client satisfaction decline’, write ‘its failure to improve client satisfaction’. (Add ‘which was declining’ if the decline needs to be mentioned.) Similarly, avoid expressions like ‘It is not unreasonable to assume’ and ‘not unlikely’. Write ‘It is reasonable to assume’ and ‘likely’.
Second, don’t use ‘not only … but also’ unless the second item needs strong highlighting. Just use ‘and’—or ‘both … and’ if it’s relevant that there are two items, not one. Consider: ‘The group included Raj and Howard.’ (This is neutral.) ‘The group included both Raj and Howard.’ (It’s noteworthy that both people, not just one, were included.) ‘The group included not only Raj but also Howard.’ (It’s particularly noteworthy that Howard was included.)
5. Use Back-References Correctly
Another problem in our example is unnecessary repetition. We have ‘front line hospitality staff member training program’, ‘the front line hospitality staff member attendees’ and ‘potential front line hospitality staff member atttendees’. Inexperienced authors sometimes write like this, perhaps trying to be precise. However, once we have specified that the attendees are customer-facing hospitality staff, describing them again does nothing but block the flow of meaning.
To avoid this blunder, refer back to previous nouns by using pronouns—‘it’, ‘them’, ‘they’, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘that’, ‘this’, ‘these’ and ‘those’—and short noun phrases like ‘the attendees’ and ‘this blunder’. The second sentence in the plain English version begins ‘The attendees said it failed because the facilitators did not consult them’. Here, ‘it’ clearly means the failed training program, and ‘them’ clearly means ‘The attendees’.
Short back-references simplify our sentences and show how they are linked, making our argument much easier to follow. Here’s another example:
When the researchers from Mars University arrived at the site, they could not enter it because they had forgotten to get an essential clearance. This caused a six-week delay and angered the sponsors.
A warning, though: pronouns can be tricky to use correctly. We might continue the story with:
They were extremely embarrassed.
However, ‘they’ here means the sponsors because the sponsors were the last people mentioned. If we mean the researchers, we need to write:
The researchers were extremely embarrassed.
If you’re not 100 per cent sure what a pronoun points back to, use a shortened version of the original noun phrase instead. Note, however, that it should be a shortened version. We don’t need to write ‘The Mars University researchers were extremely embarrassed’. The reader already knows which researchers we mean.
6. Use the Active Voice Appropriately
English sentences can use the active voice, as in ‘A cat chased a mouse’, or the passive voice, as in ‘A mouse was chased by a cat’. When we read the passive version, we picture the mouse first, so we imagine its fear as it scampers and hides. When we read the active version, we think about the cat stalking, running and leaping.
In academic writing, the passive voice is often overused, perhaps because it sounds more impersonal and formal. It’s handy for emphasising the research rather than the researcher: ‘Three case studies were conducted’ (not ‘I conducted three case studies’). However, it uses more words and is harder to follow. In our example, the active voice in ‘Smith et al. (2050) reported’ is much more readable than the passive original, ‘it was communicated by Smith et al. (2050)’.
Another passive section in our badly-written example is ‘there was an absence of facilitator … consultation with … staff’. Rewriting this in the active voice—‘the facilitators did not consult the staff’—makes it short and clear and emphasises that the facilitators, not the staff, caused the problem.
The active voice is also useful for discussing the implications of results. Write ‘These results clearly show that facilitators should consult prospective attendees’ (not ‘It is clearly shown by these results that prospective attendees should be consulted by facilitators’).
The active voice is more engaging, too. If we want readers to truly empathise with the mouse that was chased, it’s better to make the mouse the active party: ‘A mouse hid from a cat’. Here’s another example. In the passive voice: ‘Many people were killed when the World Trade Center was hit and destroyed by hijacked planes.’ This is clear, but it sounds distant and impersonal. The active voice encourages readers to see the planes flying and feel the people dying: ‘Many people died when hijacked planes hit and destroyed the World Trade Center.’
7. Keep Subjects and Verbs Close Together
Our badly written example sentence says that ‘the failure’ (subject) ‘resulted’ (verb) in an ‘ineffectiveness’ (object). However, there are 56 words between the subject and the verb! This makes the sentence very difficult to follow because the reader has to remember the subject for a long time before they can apply the verb to it.
In the plain English version, this difficulty has been remedied by using two sentences. Often, however, we can easily put the verb next to the noun:
COVID-19 case numbers decreased in Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan, Russia and many other countries. (Not ‘COVID-19 case numbers in Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan, Russia and many other countries decreased’.)
If there’s an object after the verb, it is sometimes best to use the passive voice to unite them:
These findings are not unique. Similar results were obtained by a study that investigated mental health in a Ukrainian refugee community in Perth, Western Australia from 2023 to 2025. (Not ‘These findings are not unique. A study that investigated mental health in a Ukrainian refugee community in Perth, Western Australia from 2023 to 2025 obtained similar results.’)
We could have retained the active voice by writing ‘One study that obtained similar results investigated …’, but putting the object, ‘similar results’, at the start of the sentence emphasises the similarity of the results and creates an immediate link between the sentences.
8. Employ a Properly Trained Academic Editor
One of the best ways to improve your writing is to employ an academic editing specialist. At Capstone Editing, all our academic editors are trained to use plain English. We are highly skilled in the methods described above and many more. If you order our Platinum (Heavy) Copyediting service or our Substantive Editing service (not available for student work), one of us will use these skills to polish every part of your document and make your writing clearer and more authoritative.
Sources and Resources
Cutts, M. (2020). Oxford guide to plain English (5th ed.). Oxford University Press.
Directorate-General for Translation & Field, Z. (2016). How to write clearly (Cat No. HC-02-15-257-EN-N). Publications Office of the European Union. https://doi.org/10.2782/022405
Peters, P. (2007). The Cambridge guide to Australian English usage. Cambridge University Press.
Plain English Campaign. (2022). How to write in plain English. http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/how-to-write-in-plain-english.html
Strunk, W., White, E. B. & Angell, R. (2013). The elements of style (4th ed.) Pearson.
British Council (n.d.). English grammar reference. In Learn English. https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/grammar/english-grammar-reference
Fogarty, M. (2006–present). Grammar girl [Audio podcast series & website]. https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl/
Grammar. (2002). In Cambridge dictionary. Cambridge University Press. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/
Tredinnick, M. (2008). The little green grammar book. University of New South Wales Press.
History of English
Crystal, D. & Bolton, W. F. (Eds.) (1993). The Penguin history of literature, Vol. 10. The English language. (Rev. ed.) Penguin.
Stroud, K. (2012–present). The history of English podcast [Audio podcast series]. https://historyofenglishpodcast.com/