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Academic Tone
Home » People » Karl Sherlock » Tone Handbook » Academic Tone » Academic Voice

Academic Voice









Self-Doubt •

A Didactic Attitude •

Bombast and Padding •

Passive Voice •


Just as "collegiality," "colleague" and "college" are all related concepts with roots in the Latin word collegium, the word "academic" is related to the original academy, an ancient Athenian gymnasium, Akadmia, where Plato, himself, taught in the 4th century B.C.E.: our modern academy is a place where one engages in mental gymnastics. Academic tone, then, is a voice that honors the original spirit of Plato's academy, and learning to use it is almost as important as learning how to adapt to the college experience, itself.

Academic tone is the "professional voice" of the arena of education. We call instructors at a college and university "professors" because they profess an expertise in a specific field of study. College students learn academic tone as part of their "professional" growth—that is, they learn to profess an expertise by adapting specialized vocabulary that "professional" discourse should require. Learning to adopt it is no different from learning any other set of rules and manners that permit one to "belong" to a group. Understanding how it works as a rhetorical strategy begins with understanding the group and its priorities.

Say, for instance, you need $500.00 to buy your textbooks this semester. [1] You write four letters requesting the money from four different people:

  1. a parent (or someone you look to as you would a parent)
  2. a best friend (someone not related to you who's your own age)
  3. a celebrity you've never met (a sports figure; an actor; etc.)
  4. the U.S. Secretary of State

What do you think will make these four letters stand apart from one another?

The answer is, voice. Each of them will use a different set of vocabulary, different support, different sentence structure, even different greetings, because each requires a different degree of formality. The degree of formality you establish in each is also a relationship of power you acknowledge, between you and the recipient. You do this because, if you want to be taken seriously, you have to appeal to whatever power that individual has to help you:

  1. A parent is thought to have ultimate power over a you, but at the same time has an intimate relationship with you; they expect you to acknowledge their authority over you, and you expect them to protect and help you unconditionally, but these roles must be acknowledged, complimented, reinforced. This is how parents define "respect." (These are stereotypes, of course, and don't apply to every parent-child relationship, so don't feel bad if this isn't how you feel about your parents.)

  2. A best friend does not have absolute power over you; in fact, the power dynamic in close friendships lies in their loyalty, trust, and support. This is how friends define "respect." Friends keep one another's secrets, whereas a parent and a child often work hard to keep secrets from each other. Friends work hard to keep the power dynamic balanced. When they fall out of balance, friends have a "falling out." (Debts are a good example of something that throws a friendship out of balance and even ends it.)

  3. Celebrities are people you think you'd like to know, but have only a knowledge of their public personae. Maybe you envision a more intimate relationship with them, and you let your imagination cross over into fantasy from time to time, but this is not permitted to be reality. The respectful distance you acknowledge and reinforce with celebrities would be considered odd if you attempt it with friends and family. Knowing your place, and not crossing "the velvet rope," shows a celebrity your deference.

  4. Political and diplomatic figures hold trusted positions of authority and power to manage aspects of our lives that we don't always think of in a personal way. Rather, we relate to them as citizens, constituents, and voters. They relate to their public in a manner far more formal than pop culture celebrities and friends and loved ones. While celebrities expect a loving measure of deference from their fans, the concept of a "fan" is foreign to the political and diplomatic arenas. Instead, ideological and philosophical allegiances tend to determine the relationships formed between people like the Secretary of State and his or her public supporters. Should you attempt to approach the Secretary of State as you would an athlete hero, it becomes an issue of national security, not just personal safety. Respect, then, is shown by continually maintaining the distance expected of you and by acknowledging the professional and expert authority the individual has.

Using the above, then, as a template, think about how you would write that same letter to the academic community: what is the power dynamic in the relationship between academic writer and reader; how is "respect" defined by an academic reader; what criteria are used to judge you; what protocols are you expected to honor.

When you step back from it all and survey it, the one factor that most distinguishes you to your academic colleagues is your educated character, your ethos. Words like "ethos" and "ethics" are transparently related to each other, and in writing academically you have to take into account what makes you an ethical writer to readers who are judging you as intellectual colleagues. The persuasive appeal of "ethos" assures readers of three major "ethical" qualities:

  1. that you know what you're talking about;
  2. that you're well-intentioned in writing about it;
  3. that you're honest and trustworthy in the scholarly way you write about anything.

General facility with language, including precision and knowledge of specialized terminology, speaks to the first criterion and identifies you as a legitimate member of your audience. The second criterion has more to do with the implicit understanding that you're not wasting the reader's investment of energies in your writing. And the third criterion is answered by your ability to use the scholarly method—research, support, and critical thinking—in a reliable and sincere way. Establishing all three criteria engages you in the entire academic process, but at least some of it can be managed by the kind of personality you bring to the process—the personality that an academic voice can create.


Making the transition from high school to college poses challenges in a variety of ways, but one of the main differences is that you're in college as a self-motivated choice. That entails a modicum of self-sufficiency you may not be used to: instructors will assign readings but then never open the book the next day to the pages they assigned. Or, they'll give out writing assignments but never tell you exactly what they want you to write. They'll demand research from you, but not tell you which sources to use. You turn up at their office door the next week with a small stack of Gregg rule loose-leaf paper blemished only by your nervous tears, but not your ballpoint ink; you make a pouty face at him and say, "I don't understand what you want."

In most cases, the real assignment is, to find the question inside the question: to discover for yourself what you want to say. Once you can make that leap, the next step is to write what you want to say in a voice that others expect to hear. And there's the rub. After all, what's wrong with your own voice? Your grandmother says you have a lovely way of expressing yourself, and all your high school English teachers gave you an A+ for your writing assignments.

Think back to when you were ten years old, and you pretended a hairbrush was a microphone, and you were a reporter on the scene of some "action news" story in progress. Did you intentionally try to sound like a kid while you were pretending to be Peter Jennings? No, of course not. You used every serious-sounding and sophisticated word you could remember from your last vocabulary quiz in order to present the material in the way people are accustomed to hearing serious news stories. You adopted a formal tone, because you knew what your audience expected.

In college, it's not play-acting anymore, but the principle is exactly the same. Learning to use a formal tone in your writing means learning to invent a character for yourself that gives your academic audience what its expects in the way of voice, language, and attitude—all of which add up to the ethos of a scholar. Where that ethos lies, however, is not in your sparkling personality and your well-meaning narratives about what writing the essay means to you. Rather, it's the essay, itself, that contains the ethos by virtue of how it showcases ideas using language and reasoning. Your content, not you personally, makes the difference. You may have some opportunities to journal about yourself, and occasionally an instructor will specifically request that you write a personal narrative essay: a story about yourself written in an expository style. However, this is rare, and the hardest part for students trying to adopt an academic voice is breaking themselves of the habit of writing about themselves.

This explains why pronouns like "I" are discouraged (but not forbidden), while pronouns like "you" are virtually expunged from formal tone. Making references to yourself and your readers with pronouns like these helps to bridge the impersonal distance with a personal expression of feeling and connection, but academic readers are not interested in bridging that distance. They're not interested in why you wrote the essay or how you overcame the challenge of writing it; they just want to engage in the professional topic at hand. This isn't to say that you won't be called upon many times over to express a personal position in your academic writing, or that you won't want to rely upon a personal set of values in your interpretative analysis and your persuasive appeals. However, a personal voice in these matters makes the writing about you, not your academic topic. And this, if nothing more, is a compelling reason to learn how to write in a more objective, neutral and professional voice than the one you use to write personal letters or banter with your loved ones.


Hand in hand with the issue of language use is the complexity of sentence structure used to express ideas in academic tone. As writers hone their skills, they learn to harness the power of complex and compound-complex sentence structure in a way that matches the complex and compound-complex facets of their ideas. For the same reason that a limited vocabulary holds you back from expressing your sophisticated ideas more effectively, a simplistic sentence structure turns a complex argument into a plodding, simplistic and dull prose style. Sentence structure and the many complex things you can do with it are a way to inject a more creative intellectual voice that will eventually express just as much personality as your informal voice. With practice, your impersonal academic voice will become as authentic and diverse as the personal voice you've spent decades refining. Many accomplished writers of academic prose are as identifiable as celebrated novelists because of the individual literary style they develop in their writing. It's not an informal style, but it still ends up bearing their personal imprimatur.

Have faith that, in time, you will not only be comfortable writing in this new persona that makes your intellect shine, but that it can become as creative and as enjoyable to read as a work of literary nonfiction. However, get used to the idea of relying on more complex sentence structure in order to reach that objective.


Writers who are not yet confident in their own verbal skills will sometimes force their writing to "sound" the way they think their readers expect it, without making the content live up to those expectations. Words have the power to fool people into leaving a credible impression of people, things, and ideas not always worthy of it. Advertising provides ready examples of this: whenever the copy of an ad invokes the language of technology, or chemistry, or molecular biology, it's because ad writers know that the jargon of science and technology makes people think you know what you're talking about:

Patented CoreGel technology
a scientifically tested formula offering breakthrough protection against wetness and odor
exciting news from the Maybelline Institute for the Advancement of Beauty
the revolutionary comfort technology sleep system

Jargonistic prose is not automatically academic prose. True, academic prose can use specialized vocabulary that some readers might label "jargon," but the qualities of any prose lie in the clarity and perspective that writers bring to the topic while using that jargon. When jargon is used to complicate the topic needlessly, or, worse, hide the fact that you don't really know what you're talking about, it doesn't actually fool your readers. It's like that dream you have, in which you're speaking a new language fluently, but you're not really dreaming in another language: it's just an illusion of speaking fluently from which you have to awaken eventually.

Jargon can be taken to an uncomfortable extreme, referred to as "gobbledygook"; yes, it's is an officially used term that describes wordiness which devolves into nonsense. While the average wordy prose still demonstrates a writer in control of the excessive language, gobbledygook occurs when writers lose control—when they're thinking process breaks down and the sentence structure and word choices become grasping, random, and inaccurate. The same symptoms you feel when you have very low blood sugar—unfocused and unintelligible—afflict the prose we call "gobbledygook." Educators sometimes have different names for this phenomenon; "Word Salad" is probably the most familiar. In jargon, "gobbledygook" is largely a matter of circumlocution: surrounding a simple idea with lots of big, official-sounding words. The assumption is made that, if the words sound important and authoritative, then the content must also be credible.

It is important to effect the verbalization of concepts through the utilization of unsophisticated terminology. (Translation: Speak plainly.)

Pulchritude is not evinced below the dermal surface. (Translation: Beauty is only skin-deep.)

Exclusive dedication to necessitous chores without interlude of hedonist diversion renders John an unresponsive fellow. (Translation: All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.)

Writers who are uncomfortable with the more sophisticated vocabulary they are told to use (or feel pressured to use) in academic tone can compound the problem by choosing words inaccurately or, worse, manufacturing words that sound "big"—called a "Malapropism."

In the confisticated verbage of the elitist classes, one expectorates to hear in the antidotes of polite conversation a certain degree of false wetness to be born against one's neighbors. (Translation: In the gossip of the upper classes, you expect to hear a lie now and again.)


In this example, words like "verbage" and "confisticated" are made up. They sound like other allegedly sophisticated words, but they don't really exist. Other usage—"elitist" instead of "elite"; "expectorates" instead of "expects"; "antidotes" instead of "anecdotes"; and, finally, "wetness" instead of "witness"—just misses the mark; these are real words but not the words the writer means. When using "big words" is more about sounding "big" than about being precise, egregious mistakes of vocabulary like malapropisms can easily occur.

There's no stigmata in trying new words. However, we can all be in agreeance that being more prudentious about the habitualistic utilization of embiggened vocabulary is a superlative point of embarkation for resignation to this problem. Or, can we?


Wordy prose isn't the same as "rambling" prose, the latter of which is a coherency issue. Wordiness is about how much more attention the writing draws to its words, instead of to its ideas: how many words or how hifalutin the language is. The problem caused by wordiness can be compounded by rambling prose, though, and merits careful proofreading and revision. Actual wordy prose occurs as a result of either repetition, redundancy (which isn't the same as repetition), or excessive passive voice.


Also known as "Choppiness" (particularly at a sentence-level), repetition in prose writing occurs when writers reiterate the same idea in different places, pretending that the development in their prose is a more complex system of ideas when, really, it's just a simplistic topic dressed up to look like a sophisticated one. Mind you, this isn't the same as repeating key ideas from your thesis statement or topic assertion, as bridges of coherency. Rather, it means spinning the same point or observation again and again.

There is a rhetorical technique, called "Anaphora," that repeats an idea with gathering emotional force; the best known example of it is the refrain "I have a dream" in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous oratory. Wordy repetition isn't that. Repetitive prose happens because writers haven't chosen a sufficiently complex idea to break down into constituent points; they haven't envisioned a system of assertions to expand or support a main one. If a central assertion is the driving engine of their prose, then sometimes the culprit is committing to an essay about a topic barely worthy of a paragraph, while at other times it's the result of a straightforward claim of fact given the same development as a claim of value. The effect is like a stripped motor: you can hear something's turning, but the mechanism still isn't moving.

Repetitive prose is ill-conceived and carelessly composed. A better developed outline of points from the get-go could remedy the problem. It falls within the realm of Academic Tone insofar as academic readers expect their investment of their intellectual energies to be worth their time, and the argument of a repetitive essay promises more in its structure but delivers far less in its content.


Redundant prose happens, not because an essay revisits the same idea over and again, but because the language a writer uses goes too far in its explanation of simple concepts. Think about how appositive phrases work, those Noun Phrases that "rename" another noun in a more specific way:

That man, your instructor, is trying to get your attention.

What happens when the impulse to particularize the detail of such a phrase goes too far?

That man, your instructor, an English teacher, that person who instructs you in the concept of grammar and composition, a means to organizing your ideas into a written form, an essay, a rhetorical construct with a thesis, is trying to get your attention.

When ideas have been adequately explained, or satisfactorily articulated, or successfully expressed, or effectively developed, it's time to move on. This sort of redundant writing occurs for several reasons.

The writer is not confident that she has expressed herself accurately or precisely, so she uses additional language to explain the context. This is especially true of students learning new vocabulary:

Good students are, both, assiduous and hardworking, rigorously applying themselves to their studies and immersing themselves in their homework with gusto.

A Didactic Attitude
A didactic person offers a lesson or advice whether or not it's wanted, and for no other reason than to brag about what he knows. This is different from a fussy and pedantic person, preoccupied with the correctness of rules and protocols. However, a didactic writer will often redundantly explain simple concepts in order to be pedantic—to convince readers that he knows what he's talking about:

My parental figures, those paragons of child-rearing virtue who pass along their wisdom and values in steadfast hope of cheating death and achieving immortality, raised me to become the kind of adult who would live in the world as they once did, for I, their child, am their immortality project.

As with an attitude of self-doubt, a didactic attitude is more about the writer than anything else, who needs to prove to himself he knows what he's talking about. However, when you encounter didactic people like this at parties, you flee in the direction of the self-doubters.

Bombast and Padding:
Bombast is verbosity that really sounds like contrived, even pretentious, paraphrase:

To exist or not to exist—that is the cardinal conundrum:
Whether it is intellectually less pusillanimous to endure
the foibles and vicissitudes of daily life, or implacably
endeavor to overcome them, and, in adversarial fashion,
dispatch them utterly?

If the purpose of paraphrase is to restate concisely, then bombast is egotistical and unnecessary. A bombastic writer never leaves well enough alone. Most students are well familiar with the time-honored practice of using bombast to “B.S.” their way through assignments with minimum word count or page requirement. They “pad” their sentences with extra “stuff” to create the illusion they are saying more than they really are, or they intentionally articulate simple ideas with undue complexity. The instructor immediately recognizes the technique by virtue of its irrelevant content, its tendency to stall, and its needless repetition. The irony of padding is that, quite often, it takes almost as much effort to conceal one's intellectual laziness as it does to express oneself thoughtfully and in concisely worded, relevant sentences.

Amateur astronomers observing Mars, the fourth planet in our solar system whose once-thought-to-be canals were drawn and mapped out by an Italian astronomer who was a man by the family name of Giovanni Schiaparelli, can use their very own telescopes on a clear night and, if they so desire, find the Red Planet in the night sky by looking for a celestial heavenly body with a rusty, reddish color of hue on its planetary surface.

Most of the content of this example is padded, not because the history of Mars's "canals" isn't of interest, but because it is irrelevant to the point of this sentence, which is to explain how amateurs can identify Mars. When you take this into consideration only, the redaction of the sentence leads to the following:

Amateur skywatchers can find Mars by its red color.

The next example is a padding found typically in an introductory paragraph. Its complicated language belies a simplistic topic. When writers confuse "complication" with "complexity" in order to hide a simplistic topic, an insufferable degree of wordiness usually ensues. Read on:

In modern day society, in the year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twelve, human beings all across this wide world of ours express many different interests in many different types of activities, such as working, watching TV, playing video games, brain surgery, cooking, or dancing, and one of these activities that is also quite particularly interesting to consider is traveling, which can take them to a variety of destinations to sightsee and interestingly experience so many different forms of cultures and societies that differ from their own personal forms of culture and societal civilization.
Passive Voice 

"Passive Voice" isn't the same as a "passive verb" or a "passive construction," but it is the result of them when writers intentionally use a pattern of passive sentence constructions and verbs to avoid naming subject nouns. When action in the sentence occurs passively, without a subject, you have to use more past participial phrases and inverted sentence structure, which requires many more words.

Some resort to passive voice in an effort to make the academic tone of their writing sound loftier and more intellectual than its content merits. This is not recommended. It should come as no surprise that, where passive voice occurs, so too does a prodigious amount of padding:

Unable to comply with these company policies, fifteen employees were reprimanded by Human Resources last month, which became a recognized problem. In order to have developed a solution so that an end to this problem will be reached, various procedures would have to be altered.

This example contains a litany of past participle phrases and verbs: "unable to comply"; "employees . . . were reprimanded"; "recognized problem"; "solution . . . to have developed"; "procedures . . . will be reached"; "procedures would . . . be altered." In almost all of these cases, the verb's object is placed before the past participle to create a false effect of a subject. Not only, then, does this require more language, but it also weakens the tone rhetorically. A more active use of verbs allows more economy of language in the sentence:

Human Resources, who, last month, reprimanded fifteen employees unable to comply with company policies, recognized it needed to alter procedures to solve this problem.

Passive voice coupled with "business language" often gives writing an uncomfortable jargonistic tone. In the following example, what strikes you as jargon, or at least as a stuffy "business style" of writing?

Further investigation of the individual student necessities must be studied in order to avoid inappropriate placement of students.

To avoid placing students inappropriately, we must further investigate their needs.
Individual needs deserve closer investigation, if we wish to place students appropriately.

[1] My gratitude to Roxana Dapper for introducing me to this exercise.

[2] Thanks to the following on-line source for some of the examples of gobbledygook appearing on this page:
Student Development and Services Department. "Wordiness and Gobbledygook." Academic Skills Pages. Nipissing University. <>

Last Updated: 11/04/2016
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