Is academic writing becoming more informal?

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Informality has become something of a contemporary mantra as, from the denim-clad offices of internet startups to the pages of business reports, we are encouraged to shed old constraints and relax conventions. This paper explores the perception that since informality has now invaded a large range of written and spoken domains of discourse, academic writing has also followed this trend. It asks the question whether academics are now freer to construct less rigidly objective texts and craft a more inclusive relationship with their readers. Taking a corpus of 2.2 million words from the same leading journals in four disciplines at three periods over the past years, we explore changes in the use of ten key features regarded by applied linguists and style guide authors as representing informality. Our results show only a small increase in the use of these features, and that this is mainly accounted for by increases in the hard sciences rather than the social sciences. It is also largely restricted to increases in first person pronouns, unattended reference and sentences beginning with conjunctions. We discuss these results and argue they represent changes in rhetorical conventions which accommodate more obvious interpersonal interactions in the sciences.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)40-51
Number of pages12
JournalEnglish for Specific Purposes
Early online date7 Oct 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017


    Research areas

  • Academic writing, Diachronic change, EAP, Formality, Rhetorical practices

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