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Academic Tone
Home » People » Karl Sherlock » Tone Handbook » Academic Tone » Shortcuts and Diction

Shortcuts and Diction




Contractions •

Abbreviations •

Symbols •

Textese •

"Street" Spelling •


Cliches •

Slang and Vulgarity •

Contracted and Combinative Verbs •

Hyperbole and Mitigated Hyperbole •


Have you ever met someone who was working just a little too hard to be your friend? They show up at your door with a case of beer and a mix CD, and two hours into your buzz and your laughter, they casually ask you if you'll lend them $600.00 to cover their rent. We learn to be suspicious of people's hidden agendas, especially when they move too fast to ingratiate themselves to us. Such is the case with academic writing. Since taking one's time to be precise and detailed is highly valued among academic readers, anything that seems to cut corners is distrusted. Similarly, using a language that respects the subject matter and showcases the intellectual merit of your writing pulls much more weight than bringing your friendly personality to bear in your writing style. Consequently, anything that seems to celebrate a colloquial voice instead of a refined, sophisticated voice is suspect. "Why," we ask, "would this writer need to be friends with us through this writing? What's wrong with the content that would make these ploys necessary?

For that reason, it's easy to break down the concept of shortcutting into two main categories: abridgments, such as abbreviations; and, figurative and informal diction, such as cliches.


To "abridge" means to shorten, as in an abridged or unabridged dictionary. Unnecessary abridgment of words and phrases in academic writing are considered imprecise, colloquial, and shiftless. They're like slackers among intelligentsia. This isn't to say you will never have good reason to use an abridgment in your academic writing, nor that they don't have their place in other kinds of writing. As a style of writing, however, they are not compatible with the demands of academic prose. Abridgments include the following:

Abbreviations, Initials and Acronyms

Unless your audience clearly expects them, most abbreviations and acronyms should be eschewed altogether, including some familiar ones:

etc. ("etcetera" and "et ceteras" are not preferred, either)
Jan., Feb., Mar., and so on
min., sec., hrs., and so on
dys., wks., mos., yrs.
w/o, w/

Some initials have become so standard that to spell them out would seem stranger than using their initials and acronyms. The following are examples, and there are many others, proving that this "rule" has a lot of grey area to it. You'll have to determine on a case-by-case basis whether or not it's allowed:

a.m. / p.m. (always lower case)
m.p.h., k.p.h.


Whether you're handwriting an essay in class, or you're composing it outside of the class, note-taking symbols are forbidden from all college writing, especially academic writing. Some are fairly obvious and straightforward:

plus signs or ampersands (+ or &) to substitute for the word "and" ("+" used along with numerical data is entirely different, though)

"at" symbols (@)

number signs or hashtags (#)

equal signs (=) instead of the word "means"

percent signs (%) instead of writing the word "percent" (unless, as with plus symbols, numerical data are being presented in a series or illustration)

Like some abbreviations and acronyms, other symbols are simply expected and customary, and it would be strange to spell them out instead of using their symbols. You'll have to decide this on a case-by-case basis, depending on what field you're writing about or who your readers are:

°C, °F, °K
mGs; mSv
$, £, ¢, and other money symbols

When you use uncommon symbols, however, it's protocol to spell them out in parentheses the first time, which then becomes a frame of reference for the readers thereafter:

mSv (millisieverts of radiation)


During the 1980s, the fad of the vanity license plate got people thinking about how they could reduce language to letters and numbers that phonetically implied larger phrases: "LUV2BM3" or "L-EV-8R," and such. Today, the fad has undergone a reinvention because of the technology of texting, and it has since crept into other social networking arenas, such as Facebook and Twitter, both of which are directly connected to texting these days. At least in the 1980s the language of a license plate couldn't follow you into the task of writing a research paper. Today, however, we communicate messages by text to ourselves for every reason, including while we're in the task of writing a research paper. Sitting in the middle of the library at 3:30 in the afternoon, you'll see a good many people are perambulating their thumbs across their phones to convey notes and messages. And, whether any of these actually crop up in their writing is immaterial; the practice of texting has become so entwined with their motive to write, that their writing in other contexts absentmindedly falls back on the language of texting.

Regardless of whether or not you feel Textese is a legitimate discourse style, it is, in its very origination, considered a shorthand that, like other kinds of shortcuts, should never, ever be used in academic writing. For one thing, it intentionally scuttles the rules of spelling, and for another, it intentionally avoids words of sophistication. However, more important than either of these is that it's a dumbed-down phonetically based second language that competes with your higher verbal skills for memory and neural real estate in your brain. And, when teachers say, "Bad writing corrupts good," they mean this in earnest: the phenomenon of Textese has insidious effects. Those of you who are traditionally bilingual know of what I speak: when you converse with others who are bilingual, a hybrid of two languages begins to spill out of your mouth, and nobody questions it. When you can't think of what a word is in one language, you pick it out of the lexicon of the other. When it's easier to use a foreign word or expression, your brain doesn't wait to figure it out; it just uses it. Such is the case with Textese: because there are, literally, thousands of text messaging shortcuts, learning to text has become a rudimentary second language, not unlike secretarial shorthand. And, it's simple enough to allow the bi-lingual line between Textese and formal usage to blur.

At this point, you're probably saying to yourself, "He's being overly cautious and paranoid. We already know we can't 'text' in our research papers." However, it's not so much that students can't be trusted to recognize when they're using Textese in their formal writing. Rather, it's a concern about whether or not they care that it turns up at all. Students forgive themselves of the sin of Textese quite readily, and more and more it's simply passed over in the proofreading and editing stage of revision (assuming there's a proofreading and editing stage) as something "the professor can figure out." If your instructors start grading your essays with emoticons instead of letter grades, you'd probably launch a protest—I hope, anyway. ;D

Once again, not making your readers do the work of interpreting your writing and ideas is one of the cardinal rules of academic tone. Intellect isn't something you should be trying to insinuate in your writing. That's the purview of poetry and narrative, not expository writing. Rather, intellect should be clearly and directly articulated.

"Street" Spelling 

Similar to the influence of Textese on ordinary writing is the language of hip-hop. It's ostensibly a street vernacular, but the popularity of hip-hop music has encouraged people who grew up far from the urban "street" environments to adopt it as their own, and many a young person has contrived his or her voice to sound edgy and "street."

In academic writing, however, we must divest ourselves of our vernacular identities, and hip-hop is one of those identities. Unfortunately, hip-hop, in making the translation to lyrics that end up being published, has led to some interesting, if not altogether confounding, breaks from spelling rules that later find their way into college writing. (The usage does as well, but I will not take that up here.) These spelling permutations quite often are abridgments—shortened or simplified versions of words—but they aren't all that new or original, to be honest. I remember scouring the lyrics page of Prince's Purple Rain album back in 1984 and thinking, "Somebody get this guy a pocket Spelling Dictionary!" Song titles like "I Would Die 4 U" and "Take Me With U" seemed unnecessarily altered. Okay, I was an English grad student; I didn't get it at the time. I'm more sympathetic to it now, but not in academic writing. The argument is fairly plain: if you can contrive a "street" voice in the way you intentionally misspell words on the page, then you can also contrive an academic voice in the way you don't misspell words on the page. You know the type of words I mean, too. Some are very familiar:

musta, must of

Others, though, are a little more forced:

dawg, or dogg
playa (meaning "player")
fa real
contracted form using an apostrophe: bustin'; mackin'; hatin'; what ev'; etc.
off da hook
ya hurrd

You may think hip-hop language is "phresh" but, in college, me and my peeps do it old school. Yes, you're allowed to roll your eyes at that last statement, since it proves my point: when I try to sound hip-hop, it sounds corny and false, because of the context. When your college writing (not you, but your writing) sounds hip-hop, it comes across just as false and out of place. I don't discourage the playfulness with language that has lead to some of these intentional "street" misspellings. In academic writing, however, playfulness with language should be a matter of wit and sophisticated use of vocabulary, not spelling. That's simply one of the expectations of your academic audience, and it's no more elitist or stuck-up than demanding that you change the spellings of words in the manner shown above. You wouldn't ordinarily speak to your grandparents, your minister, or your college professor in the language of hip-hop, so you can assume the same demands are made on you in the language of academic writing: one changes vocabulary and voice according to the situation, and this is one of those situations.


"Figurative" is a word used to describe anything that is a "figure of speech," such as idioms, expressions, cliches, slang, and certain language conventions. "Diction" is specifically about the words one chooses. (That's why a book of words with definitions is called a "dictionary.") "Informal diction," then, refers to language choices that are typical of informal relationships or situations.

Because academic prose is largely expository writing, not creative writing, figurative diction has a limited role in how intellectual ideas are put across. In the last sentence I just wrote, the phrase "put across" suggests a figure of speech, but at the same time it uses an informal convention, known as a "phrasal verb." In essence, this is what makes figurative and informal diction inconsistent with the expository and precise language of academic tone. Let's look at this usage more carefully:


A cliche is a turn of phrase, an idiom, or an expression that at one time was creative and original but which has since come to be used as a shorthand. When people use cliches, they no longer cognize the figurative aspects of it. It's like that beautiful plate or bowl you throw your keys into when you come home at night: you initially chose it because it was attractive, but over time you recognize it only for its utilitarian purpose. So it is with cliches: they start out beautiful but gradually become just a shorthand with ordinary meanings. Take the expression, "blue in the face": "I tried telling him not to take the job until I was blue in the face." Originally, "blue in the face" was an analogy to apoplexy and suffocation: expending so much breath that, like a choking victim, one begins to turn blue. Now, however, no one really considers the analogy; it's there as a subtext, of course, but when you hear the phrase you think only "futility": "I tried to convince him not to take the job until it was clear that it would be futile to continue." The appeal of holding onto "blue in the face" instead of "until it was clear that it would be futile to continue" is the cliche's brevity: it lets you communicate a complex and abstract emotion using a simple root metaphor. Academic writing, however, is not the place to do that sort of figurative writing. The complex, abstract and intellectual ideas of academic writing deserve the careful, literal, and precise language that expository writing delivers.

Understanding cliches and avoiding cliches, however, are very different endeavors. Our everyday use of the English language is positively steeped in cliches. If anything, our "folk" language—our dialect, if you like—depends on us learning these root metaphors in order to communicate with the masses as quickly and efficiently as possible, which is, once again, incongruous to the goals of academic writing. By no means do I suggest here that academic writing should be wordy and highfalutin, either. "Precise" and "concise" are closely related concepts, and academic readers appreciate economy of language as much as good style. Furthermore, the aptly placed cliche can be rhetorically effective in formal discourse.

However, dependency on cliches is altogether a different matter, and college writers struggle just as much as professional writers to translate their colloquial lexicon of cliches into a formal vocabulary tailored to their academic writing. One of the obvious reasons for this is that the original contexts for many cliches have since become obsolete, just as the derivation of ordinary words have long since become irrelevant. Consider the phrase "a pig in a poke." Firstly, do you know what it means? If you don't, then you're an excellent reason not to use cliches in your own writing: a fair number of your readers won't know what they mean, because many cliches are culturally or regionally determined. "Pig in a poke" means, "taking a chance"; "a risk or gamble." It's a quaint and bucolic reference to giving away a prize pig in a county fair contest or carnival game. A "poke" here doesn't mean "to jab with a finger," but rather is a kind of fabric container, such as a burlap sac— the very thing that a piglet would be put into. We don't use the word "poke" in this sense anymore, but we do commonly use the word that means a "little poke": a poke-ette, or "pocket." Okay, so that was a long explanation needed to reeducate you on the derivation of a dodgy cliche, but it illustrates why it's so darned difficult to extract our formal vocabulary from our common one: we've allowed cliches to insinuate themselves into our lexicon and become like real words, rather than stand in for them the way pronouns stand in for nouns.

Cliches are too numerous to list comprehensively, but a useful list is available in “Cliches” and will give you some idea of just how much they populate our daily speech in English. In the meantime, consider the following cliches students specifically use in academic writing because they think these formalize their tone:

all in all
in conclusion,
in society today
needless to say,
since time immemorial,
so to speak,
to an end
with all due respect
without further ado

Again, not every cliche is forbidden or inappropriate, but a pattern of cliches stands out in academic writing as an abrogation of your responsibility to use language with precision and transparency.

Slang and Vulgarity 

The origin of the word "slang" isn't definitively known, but it's probably a combination of "secret" and "language," suggesting a sort of folk jargon permitting furtive discussions in public places. Little of modern slang, however, seems bent on secrecy. If anything, it’s all about the ostentation. I’m fascinated by a businessman who can confidently shout “Booyah!” or a woman in a skort who can say “Yeah, baby!” like she means it. I’d love to know where these people get their swagger, and why others who use slang in public end up sounding as insincere as a third grader reciting Latin. I knew from an early age there were public places where language like this could impress ordinary folk.  My best friend, Greg, earned money smashing beer bottles in the basement of his brother Norb’s pub (short for "publica house" or "publican's house") right up the street, so I used to poke in to say hi quite a lot. Customers seemed right at home there coarse language and a lot of Schlitz beer, something my mother described as “very common.” This rather goes to the heart of the matter: the customs and speech of pub-goers are permitted, and even expected, to be “vulgar” at times because the local tavern celebrates the "commonness" of ordinary folks like you and me. 

I don't intend here for the word "vulgar" to sound judgmental, either.  The word "vulgarity" is derived from the Latin vulgaris, meaning "common"—as in "the common people." If you're familiar with biblical exegesis, you've probably run across a related word, "Vulgate," which refers to a book translated into the "common tongue." In fact, the noun "vulgate" means "common or informal speech." What constitutes slang and vulgarity, then, is a matter of what’s commonly acceptable from one group to the next and from one public arena to the next, because all depends on what's commonly acceptable and what isn't. For example, is it vulgar to say, "The room was hotter than hell"? Would sensitive readers blush at "The waiter was a bitchy man with a fake tan"? Is it slang to say, "Most movie-goers are not down with people talking out loud during a film"? It's difficult sometimes to draw the line between regular speech and slang, or between regular cliches and vulgarities. However, if you give some thought to whether or not you’re trying to fit in with “the common folk” instead of more erudite readers, you can be pretty sure your language has taken a turn for the vulgar. Here’s some “common” usage typical of that voice; notice how many of these don’t have to be coarse language in order to be vulgar in tone:

chill out

In the context of academic tone, the problem with this next group of phrases is not only that they’re considered vulgar, but also that they’re informal cliches. And, while it may be acceptable from time to time to include ordinary cliches in your writing for rhetorical effect, you should treat informal cliches as lingua non grata at all times in academic writing.

a lot alike
act like an assh*le
bring the kiddies
call the cops
get a handle on things
deal with his sh*t
folks at home
be sucked into doing it
going solo
okay by me
piss-poor quality
tap that ass
Contracted and Combinative Verbs 

Any speechwriter will tell you, contractions are the simplest way to relax your tone and make people comfortable with you. Contractions are the shortened and combined form of two or more words (often involving a verb): can't, won't, isn't, wasn't, didn't, don't, couldn't, wouldn't, shouldn't, would've, could've, should've, mustn't, they'll, I'm, it's, she's, he's, you'll, and so on. Some contractions have since become accepted spellings, such as o' clock (no one anymore tells time by saying "of the clock" or "on the clock"), but most contractions can be reconstituted into their full forms quite easily: cannot; will not; is not; would have; they will; I am; it is; and so on.

Contractions offer the simplest rule to remember in all of academic tone: do not use them! When you're finished drafting your academic essay, simply perform a search for the apostrophic endings of typical contractions: 't; 'd; 'll; 've; 'm; 's* (an apostrophe + an "s" is also possessive, so you'll have to handle that one more carefully than the others).

Combinative verbs are also called "phrasal verbs," and these are more difficult to resolve than contractions. Phrasal verbs are single verbs worded as combinations of verb + prepositions: going down; phoning up; going out; looking up; starting out; finishing up; hooking up; stressing out; bearing down; opening up; checking in; following through; slipping under; run across; rush on out; and so on.

There's a bad joke we used to tell when I was in high school that reminds me about the rules of phrasal verbs:

An arrogant and classist well-to-do couple (a woman and her companion) are traveling by car from their home in The Hamptons to a resort in Florida. They stop in a small coastal town in South Carolina to have a bite to eat. Their young waitress, like the other town folk, is a salt-of-the-earth type who is friendly and eager to meet out-of-towners. She dreams of hobnobbing with the upper class, and she notices their elegant accent and says, "Welcome. I noticed you ain't from around here. If you don't mind me asking, where're y'all from?"
The woman snobbishly refuses to raise her gaze from her menu and replies, "Young lady, I do mind, but if you must know, I shall at least tell you that where we live, people are educated enough not to put prepositions at the end of a sentence."
The restaurant falls into a hush, and the waitress is embarrassed by her own lack of education and social graces. She thinks for a moment, then says, "I beg your pardon. I am so very pleased to meet you. Where are y'all from, bitch?"

It's a silly joke, but it serves to remind us that different environments let us be more relaxed about our grammar (and our cuss words!), while others pressure us to be more stringent. Academic writing definitely falls into the latter.

Not all phrasal verbs are simple to resolve without torturing a sentence into a correct style of complex subordinate clauses, nouns clauses and relative clauses. For example, which of the following is actually clearer:

Instructors should never put up with vulgarity in the classroom.
Vulgarity in the classroom is up that with which instructors should never put.
Vulgarity in the classroom is that with which instructors should never put up.

Obviously, the second version makes no sense because the phrasal verb "put up with" cannot be divided so easily. Does that make the third version, therefore, the right choice for formal writing? No. The verb "put up with" is, itself, inappropriate for the tone. An academic writer will choose one single verb of greater precision to replace a phrasal verb of imprecision:

Instructors should never tolerate vulgarity in the classroom.

And so it should go for every phrasal verb in academic writing.

Hyperbole and Mitigated Hyperboles (See "USAGE: HYPERBOLES")
Last Updated: 11/04/2016
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