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Using impersonal language

In this article find out more about the correct language used for academic writing.
© British Council

In the previous Step Dr Parvaneh Tavakoli mentioned that the type of language used in academic writing and its level of complexity vary from one discipline to another. Despite this variation, there are a number of characteristics of academic writing that apply in most contexts.

One of the common characteristics is the use of impersonal language. In some types of academic writing, the use of “I”, “my”, “you”, “your”, “we” and “our” is acceptable, but in most cases, and particularly in scientific writing, these forms tend to be avoided. There are a number of ways this can be done.

Using passive structures

One way to avoid these forms is to use passive structures. Research (Biber et al, 2002) has shown that passive structures are proportionately more common in scientific texts than in other types of academic writing. You’ll find that passive structures are particularly common in scientific writing when procedures are discussed, eg;

Estimates of pasture grass yield at the first cut were made over Tochigi prefecture in central Japan, using LANDSAT/MSS data collected on May 22, 1979. The analysis was conducted by attempting first land-use classification to identify pasture and meadows. Secondly, multiple regression analysis was performed to estimate the yield of the first cutting in each pasture plot. To design the regression model, 26 plots with known yield data were prepared in advance.”
Akiyama, T., Inoue, Y., Shibayama, M., Awaya, Y., & Tanaka, N. (1996). Monitoring and predicting crop growth and analysing agricultural ecosystems by remote sensing. Agricultural and Food Science, 5(3), 367-376.
The passive can also be used to present other people’s perspectives, eg
It is claimed that…
It is widely acknowledged that ….

Using adjectives and adverbs to reveal your own perspective

In some types of academic writing you’re often expected to express your own opinion – so how can this be done without using “I” or “my?
One way to express your own opinion is through the choice of adjectives and adverbs which have a subjective dimension eg.
There is compelling evidence for …..
Interestingly, this change in attitude has….
In the text below, some examples have been highlighted. Where the writer states, for example, “The present system … is difficult to defend…” he is expressing his own opinion indirectly.
However, there are several important issues which need to be addressed in the current review of the history curriculum in English schools. Perhaps the most important of these is pupil entitlement to a historical education. The present system, whereby pupils can stop studying history at the age of 13, and where pupils from more affluent backgrounds receive a much more extensive historical education than those from poorer backgrounds is difficult to defend in a political system where all young people will have the right to vote and to exercise their choices and preferences as citizens [36].
Haydn, T. (2012). History in Schools and the Problem of “The Nation” Education Sciences 2:4 276–289.

Use of noun phrases

Writers often have choices to express an idea in different ways, by using different forms of words from the same word family. In the two sentences below the idea of “selling” is expressed firstly through a verb and a noun, and secondly through a noun phrase.
They sold more cars last year. (verb + noun)
Sales of cars increased last year. (noun phrase)
You can see that in the second sentence, the agent (the person or people doing the selling) is not mentioned. Noun phrases therefore allow you to express ideas in an impersonal way and are commonly used in academic writing. Here’s an example from the same source as the previous example.
There is a danger that curriculum reform driven by politicians, government selected academic historians and right-wing think-tanks, combined with the exclusion or marginalisation of history education professionals (history teachers and history teacher educators) may be overly influenced by ideological concerns, and …..
(Haydn, ibid.)
Notice that noun phrases can be very complex. In the example above you have one very long noun phrase (curriculum reform … history education professionals) which includes two reduced relative clauses (…, driven by… , combined with …) and a lot of other smaller noun phrases within it (eg government selected academic historians). Understanding the relationships between ideas in complex noun phrases can be challenging for students.
When you’re learning vocabulary it’s a good idea to learn forms in the same word family (eg exclude, exclusion, exclusive), and the Academic Word List (which you learned about in Week 1) is a useful reference for academic word families. The UEfAP website lists all the word families in the AWL on one page.

Using it is + adjective and there is/are + noun

You can use it is and there is/are as “empty subjects” and this is another way to express ideas impersonally, eg
It is clear that ….
It is interesting to note that…
There is little evidence that…
There are a number of issues….

Now it’s your turn

Here is another extract from the Haydn text.
The fragmentary, disjointed and unbalanced nature of the current subject content within the history curriculum, which leaves pupils without a coherent ‘mental map’ of the past [40, 73] also needs to be addressed. The sometimes inchoate and vague approach to the development of pupils’ ‘historical skills’ also needs to be considered.


• two examples of passive structures

• a very long noun phrase

• six examples of adjectives that reveal the author’s viewpoint.

Post your answers to the comments below.

Once you’ve posted your suggestions in the comment area, have a look at this PDF with our answer. In the next Step, you’ll look at another characteristic of academic writing; cautious language.


Biber, D., Conrad, S., & Leech, G. N. (2002). Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow, Essex: Longman.

© British Council
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