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Of the millions of people in the world who study English as a second language, quite a few of them would be able to order food at a restaurant or have a conversation about the weather. But what if they were asked to write a literary analysis, a scientific report, or a researched policy document? The number of English students capable of this second sort of task would drop dramatically.
There are many factors which explain the difference between these two kinds of communication, but a lot of it comes down to register. A register is a type of language used in a particular context. Academic writing calls for a more formal register than conversational speaking, which results in certain differences in tone, syntax, and word choice.
Of course, English is not the only language possessing multiple registers. Most languages operate under different expectations and norms depending on the social situation. For the purposes of this blog, I’d like to cover some of the most common words in English vernacular and how they are usually translated into academic writing.
1. about vs. approximately
I’d venture to say that there is no meaningful semantic difference between the words “about” and “approximately.” Connotatively, though, “about” somehow seems less precise or even less confident than “approximately.”
Less formal: Out of the 900 participants, about 32% reported feelings of discomfort.
Slightly more formal: Out of the 900 participants, roughly 32% reported feelings of discomfort.
More formal yet: Out of the 900 participants, approximately 32% reported feelings of discomfort.
2. done vs. conducted, complete, completed
Leave it to English academic style to reject a simple, single-syllable word in favor of a longer, more technical one. Even if you are carrying out top-notch experimental work, fellow scholars may not take you very seriously if you say “After the test was done.”
Less formal: After the first analysis was done, the second experiment began.
More formal: After the first analysis was conducted, the second experiment began.
3. get vs. receive
“Get” belongs almost exclusively to the vernacular register. People use it all the time when they’re talking among themselves, but in writing it usually becomes “receive” or another appropriate synonym.
Less formal: After the participants got the survey in the mail, they had 14 days to complete the questions.
More formal: After the participants received the survey in the mail, they had 14 days to complete the questions.
4. get vs. become
It’s quite possible that “get” is unpopular among academic writers because it has so many different uses. When the same word can mean “receive” in one sentence and “become” in the next, it’s no wonder that scholars try to steer clear.
Less formal: From an economic perspective, the country was getting less and less independent.
More formal: From an economic perspective, the country was becoming less and less independent.
5. big vs. large, significant, substantial
As with many English words, the connotative difference between “big” and “large” has something to do with their etymology. Generally, words with Latin or Old French origins are perceived as more elevated than those with Old English or Germanic origins. (That’s why, for example, the animal is called “chicken” [Old English roots] while the meat is called “poultry” [Old French roots].)
Less formal: Figure 5 shows a big increase in exported goods in 2005.
Slightly more formal: Figure 5 shows a large increase in exported goods in 2005.
More formal yet: Figure 5 shows a considerable increase in exported goods in 2005. (Other acceptable substitutions at this register include “significant” and “substantial.”)
6. huge vs. enormous, immense, massive
This one has nothing to do with etymology (as far as I am aware); it’s just that there are a lot of words related to size that do not fit within the formal academic register.
Less formal: The late 1980s saw a huge proliferation of personal computers. (“Gigantic” also resides at this lower register.)
More formal: The late 1980s saw an enormous proliferation of personal computers. (“Massive” and “immense” are similar in meaning and register to “enormous.”)
7. pretty vs. fairly, somewhat, generally
Some speakers use the word “pretty” to denote “fairly” or “somewhat.” In the academic register, stick to these alternatives rather than use “pretty.”
Less formal: The boiling temperature remained pretty consistent.
More formal: The boiling temperature remained fairly consistent.
8. really, very vs. extremely, greatly, dramatically
Cranky English teachers (in whose ranks I consider myself) are almost singlehandedly responsible for making anathema of the words “really” and “very.” The basic argument is that “really” and “very” do not actually add any meaning to a sentence. In fact, the best recommendation when revising those words is probably to remove them altogether. If, however, you feel compelled to keep some kind of adverb in your sentence, consider these alternatives:
Less formal: The chemical compounds in this type of plastic were found to have very negative health effects.
More formal: The chemical compounds in this type of plastic were found to have extremely negative health effects.
(Again, many writers would say that removing the adverb altogether is the best option here: “The chemical compounds in this type of plastic were found to have negative health effects.”)