Academic Language

Student has an evaluation essay back from the professor. It starts:

In this essay I am going to talk about if the elementary schools should or shouldn’t make the students wear uniforms.

  • Can you see what’s wrong with that?
  • It introduces that something is about to be said. Just say it!
  • It uses the pronoun I in a formal essay. No personal pronouns!
  • It uses a contraction.

I thought introductions are good.

uniformsOh, they are. Introductions let the reader know what is going to be discussed in a paper. But introducing the fact that there’s going to be an essay?  The instructor knows that already. A better start is:

Should schools make students wear uniforms, or not?


What are personal pronouns and what’s wrong with them?pronouns

Personal pronouns are just that – personal. They don’t relate to the general public, so they don’t belong in a formal essay.

  • Don’t use “I” or “me” –  unless you are supposed to be talking about an incident in your life.
  • Don’t use “you” unless you’re talking about your actual instructor who will be grading your essay.
  • Don’t use “we” or “us” unless
    • you’re talking about an experience shared between the student and the instructor, or
    • it is very clear that the student is part of the group being talked about.

But but but what should I write instead?

You can substitute phrases like

  • a person
  • a studentuniforms
  • the reader
  • one and one’s
  • they
  • their
  • but not ‘he’ unless you’re also using ‘she’
    • see also, sexist language.

But hey! You’re used personal pronouns in this blog post!

That’s right. This is my personal blog, and I’m talking to you-the-reader. It’s not a formal essay. (And look, I just used a contraction. I’m allowed!)

What’s a contraction and why can’t I use it?

Uh, why can’t ‘a student’ use contractions?

A contractionshoes - sneakers squeezes together two words, like should + not = shouldn’t. This is perfectly fine in a conversation, or in an informal essay. However, in a formal essay, language puts on the equivalent of  a suit and shiny shoes instead of jeans and sneakers.

One simply cannot stand in front of thousands and speak with the same casual words one uses with one’s friends. Neither can a student write an essay with the same informal tone used in a novel.


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