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Vocabulary and density

The technical, the academic and the everyday.

Whatever your field of study, there will be a lot of new vocabulary to master when you’re reading and writing for a literature review. Some of it is only used in a particular discipline (or used in a way that is specific to that discipline). Some of it is only used in academic contexts, and not in everyday life.

Software such as Tom Cobb’s Vocab Profiler helps us quickly categorise vocabulary in a text. Paste some text into it, and instantly you can see how much of the vocabulary of a text is made up of common everyday words, how much is academic, and how much is very rare (specific to a very particular context).

In the academic literature you’re reading, you will probably find that there is a much higher proportion of academic and technical words than occurs in normal everyday talk. Research suggests that we can only read quickly and comfortably when we immediately recognise almost all the words in a text.

Once there is more than about 5% new words, reading speed slows down and we start wanting to look up a dictionary (or fall asleep!). But academic discourse typically has over 10% of words that are not in common usage (sometimes as high as 40%). This is one of the features that makes academic discourse hard to read (and write), when you’re not used to it.

It’s interesting to look at the discourse in terms of vocabulary, but many other features too. Another characteristic of academic writing that can make it hard to process is the very thing that makes it concise - lexical density. This is the the number of topic words in each sentence. Unlike casual talking, academic writing is generally aiming to say a lot in a short space. Related to this is the feature of abstraction, which we can generally find a lot of in academic writing.


In the next post on the blog, I’ve used Cobb’s website to analyse a paper I’m including in my literature review. You might like to have a play with the Vocab Profiler yourself (or similar software you might find online for doing lexical analysis of a text), and let us know what interesting things you find. I’ve also pointed out the amount of abstraction in academic papers, compared to other communications on the same topic. It’s interesting to compare how a topic is presented in academic and non-academic contexts, in terms of “who’s doing what to whom, when, where and why?”

Conversation starter

  • Are you finding much new vocabulary as you read for your literature review?
  • How much of it seems technical, and how much is academic?
  • Do you see many examples of abstraction in your readings?

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This article is from the free online course:

Research Writing: How to Do a Literature Review

University of Wollongong