The ability to write well at university and research level is a valuable skill: good writing lends credibility to a text, just as poor writing can detract from it. The PhraseBook therefore includes Writing Help sections with advice on grammar, style and punctuation in university and research writing. These sections help you avoid many common errors in English before submitting your text, for instance for examination or publication.



English, as all languages, has variations of style, from the most colloquial to the most formal. Informally you may have a hunch, but in a paper, thesis or research report you put forward a hypothesis. While colloquial forms can sometimes be used for stylistic effect, in university and research writing more formal style is the norm, and this helps your writing to be taken seriously. The PhraseBook includes a number of Writing Help sections on university and research style, for example:

  • How to refer to yourself in writing
  • Avoiding bias and prejudice
  • Avoiding slang
  • Avoiding contracted forms
  • Avoiding clichés
  • Avoiding tautology


Colloquial style versus research style

Colloquial or slang Research style
all right satisfactory
brainy intelligent
ditto ibid.
figure out calculate or solve
hunch hypothesis
info information
kids children
lab laboratory
a lot of many or a great deal of
maths GB or math US mathematics
OK satisfactory


Avoiding bias

An important part of university and research writing is avoiding bias and prejudice, including gender bias. The use of he as a general reference to both sexes is now dated. In the example below, using the plural surgeons allows his to be replaced by the gender-neutral their.


A surgeon must be aware of his limitations.


Surgeons must be aware of their limitations.


Avoiding clichés

Clichés should generally be avoided in university and research writing, as they can devalue your work in the eyes of the reader.

you know
you name it
the bottom line
at the end of the day
in this day and age
the name of the game
get your act together
a legend in his or her own lifetime
a whole new ball game
bet your bottom dollar
better late than never
over the moon
the be-all and end-all
it’s not over till it’s over


Avoiding tautology

In your writing beware of tautology, which means unnecessarily repeating the same meaning in different words. For example:

adequate enough
advance warning
at this moment in time
blue in colour GB or color US
in close proximity
a consensus of opinion
divide up
few in number
in actual fact
join together
past history
a positive benefit
previous experience
revert back


Spoken forms versus formal written forms

Contracted forms, though normal in speech, are usually avoided in university and research writing. Again, this is a guideline rather than a fixed rule: for example, you might use spoken forms when citing interview responses. A number of spoken forms and their formal written equivalents are given below:

Spoken form Formal written form
I’m I am
it’s it is
who’s who is
we’re we are
you’re you are
they’re they are
I’ll I will or shall
he’ll he will or shall
gonna going to
I’d I had or would
you’d you had or would
isn’t is not
ain’t am, is, are not or has, have not
aren’t are not
don’t do not
can’t cannot (see note)
didn’t did not
won’t will not


Referring to Yourself


Subjectivity and objectivity

Referring to yourself in university and research writing is a conflict between modesty, which tends to avoid calling attention to the author, a desire to be and be seen to be objective, which tends to avoid using the subjective pronoun I, and the importance of clearly identifying the author of a written text. Although by convention I is avoided in writing in many subjects, this in itself does not make writing more objective.

A further point is that printed work, though written by someone, is produced by machine and given the appearance of impersonality. The permanence and status of the written word and in particular of print adds credence to a text, indeed, the printed word is often ‘taken as read’.

In referring to yourself, the alternatives vary in how directly they point to you as the author, with I the most direct, and passive phrases such as It may be argued not actively referring to the author at all. These ways of referring to yourself mirror ways of addressing others in many languages, for example by using a plural as in French vous or a title as in Spanish usted.

How you refer to yourself depends on normal usage in your subject, and how visible you personally wish to be in your text. In university and research writing, some fields and publications prefer the author to be present in the text by using more direct forms, while others prefer a more impersonal style.


Ways of referring to yourself

I do not wish to suggest that…
I would like to thank my supervisor, X, who encouraged me to…
My own view is that…
One could argue that…
One may question whether…
This becomes clear when one examines…
We can say that…
What we are mainly concerned with here…
Our view is that…

Note: in some subjects, using we to refer to a single author is regarded as old-fashioned, though some writers use we to include the audience in the discussion. Using we in a co-authored paper is neutral.


the author

The view of the author is that…
The authors would like to acknowledge the financial support of…

Note: when writing about other authors’ work, do not refer to yourself as the author or the writer, which can be confused with the author or writer you are reviewing.


Impersonal phrases

It is clear that…
This study argues…
This paper will show…
One possible explanation is that…

Note: beware of using impersonal forms that are unclear about the person or people expressing an opinion or finding, such as It is believed or It was found that which do not make clear who believes or made the finding.


Passive phrases

…can be explained by…
It may be argued that…
It has been shown in this chapter how…


Do not use you

Although common in speech, do not use you to mean ‘one’ in university and research writing:

First you boil the liquid, then you change the filter.


Commonly confused words

English spelling is notoriously inconsistent. Today, writing on a computer means that many of the problems of English spelling are avoided, as a word processor automatically checks your spelling and can also offer basic grammar advice. However, many specialized terms may be marked as incorrect by your computer – Microsoft Word for example suggests pesto for postdoc, Tactics for Tacitus, karaoke for keratose, Yeast for Yeats and milkman for myeloma.

Furthermore, spelling and grammar checkers may not detect words written correctly but used in the wrong context – principle and principal or causal and casual for example. Misspellings and malapropisms such as Jane Austen’s heroin, currant research or the human gnome project may amuse your readers but would detract from your credibility.

The PhraseBook therefore includes a number of sections on commonly confused words in university and research writing:


principle – principal

A principle is a rule or law

first principles
In principle, the two types are…


Principal means the main or most important

the principal cause…
the principal investigator…

A simple way to remember the difference between principle and principal is that principle ends in the same letters as rule.


effect – affect

Effect means result

The effect of…was immediate.
…proved to be very effective


Affect means to influence, especially negatively

Normal life in parts of Africa is greatly affected by AIDS.


discrete – discreet

Discrete means separate or distinct

The process consists of a number of discrete stages.



Discreet means tactful or secretive

The reviewers’ comments are always discreet.


Singular and plural forms

Many Greek and Latin loan words in university and research writing have irregular plural forms, and a number of commonly confused singular and plural forms are given below.



Although data is the plural of Latin datum, it is commonly used in English as singular. In formal academic language, however, data is still often plural:

The data are inconclusive.


criterion – criteria

Criteria is the plural of criterion.

The sole criterion in the selection process was…
Many criteria were used in the selection process.


phenomenon – phenomena

Phenomena is the plural of phenomenon

This phenomenon can be seen in…
Several different phenomena…


medium – media

Media is the plural of medium

The Internet is a new and exciting medium.
The media are often blamed for…


bacterium – bacteria

Bacteria is the plural of bacterium

A single bacterium is too small to be seen with the naked eye.
While some bacteria are beneficial, others are harmful.


Irregular plurals

analysis, appendix, basis, continuum, corpus, formula, hypothesis, matrix, maximum, synopsis etc.



Punctuation is governed by rules, but these rules are in some cases arbitrary and inconsistent. A number of Writing Help sections in the PhraseBook give advice on punctuation in university and research writing, including differences between British and American English:

  • Full stop or period
  • Comma
  • Semicolon
  • Colon
  • Dash
  • Hyphenation
  • Exclamation mark or point
  • The possessive
  • Punctuating quotations
  • Single or double quotation marks
  • Capitalization
  • Abbreviations
  • Parenthesis and ellipsis


Full stop (GB) or period (US)

The dot at the end of a sentence is called a full stop in British English and a period in the United States.



A simple rule of thumb for where to use a comma in a sentence is where you would pause to breathe when reading your text aloud to an audience.


Commas in series

In a series of three or more items, choose whether to use a comma before the last item:

With a final comma
New York, Washington, and San Francisco
New York, Washington, or San Francisco



Or not:

Without a final comma
England, Scotland and Wales
England, Scotland or Wales



As always be consistent throughout your text. However, in cases of ambiguity, use a comma to make a clear distinction between items:

The wide-ranging discussion covered not only human rights, but also corruption and the United Nations.
The wide-ranging discussion covered not only human rights, but also corruption, and the United Nations.



The term semicolon is misleading; it is not half a colon, but rather half a full stop or period. A semicolon is stronger than a comma and weaker than a full stop or period, for example:

I’ve run out of funding; I don’t know what to do.
Up to a point this may be true; however,…


A semicolon is also sometimes used to divide a complex list, for example of references, which could be confusing with a comma. However, as a semicolon is stronger than a comma, it also breaks up the flow for a reader, so it should be used sparingly in this way.

Smith (2007:218); Jones (2010), see especially pp. 34-45; Brown (1965:281, 296-300); Green (2011:33; 2001:57)



A colon is a pause like a semicolon, but it is used to introduce something that follows:

Several American writers spring to mind: Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Tennessee Williams and Ernest Hemingway for example.
The conferences will be held in:

  • Sydney 2015
  • Cape Town 2016
  • Auckland 2017
  • Dublin 2018
  • Edinburgh 2019
  • Vancouver 2020



The use of the hyphen can be problematic, not least in words such as nonconformist, co-operation, self-regulatory etc. To be as consistent as possible, follow the spelling checker on your computer or a single dictionary, as usage and guidelines vary. The following examples illustrate common prefixes:

Prefix Without hyphen With hyphen
anti- antibiotic anti-Establishment
co- cooperative co-operative
neo- neoclassical neo-Nazism
non- nonconformist non-nuclear
post- postwar post-Keynesian
pre- prerequisite Pre-Raphaelite
pro- proceed pro-American
re- reclaim re-evaluate
self- selfish self-absorbed
semi- semicircle semi-independent
sub- subterranean sub-Saharan


A hyphen can be used

To make a word easier to read, for example where the prefix and root have the same letter:

With hyphen Without hyphen
non-nuclear nonnuclear
re-examine reexamine


Or a confusing combination of letters:

With hyphen Without hyphen
micro-organism microorganism


Before a capital letter:

With hyphen


To distinguish different meanings:

With hyphen Without hyphen
to re-form the United Nations to reform the United Nations
ten year-old children ten-year-old children



A dash can be used to insert a phrase in your sentence:

Several British cities — Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Newcastle and Glasgow for example — were important in the Industrial Revolution.



Or as a pause for thought in your text:

The consequences were clear—war.

A dash can be written either with or without spaces before and after, but as always be consistent throughout your text.


Exclamation mark GB or exclamation point US

Apart from subject-specific uses such as n! in mathematics, the exclamation mark (GB) or exclamation point US is rarely used in university and research writing.


The Possessive


Singular possessive

The singular possessive is normally formed by adding ‘s

the author’s work
the patient’s reaction
Smith’s paper
Newton’s laws



Names that end in s, z or x

For singular names that end in s, z or x, you can use an apostrophe either with s or without s. In many cases both are correct:

Bayes’ theorem Bayes’s theorem
Pepys’ diary Pepys’s diary
Yeats’ poetry Yeats’s poetry


However, use an apostrophe plus s if the possessive sounds unclear without s

Tallis’s music
Lenz’s law
Gauss’s law
Erasmus’s work
Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood


And use the apostrophe without s if the possessive sounds or looks awkward with s

Archimedes’ principle
Achilles’ heel
Cervantes’ Don Quixote


Alternatively, you can paraphrase:

the reign of King James
the works of Tacitus
Marxist theory
pre-Columbian art



The plural possessive

Most plural words simply add an apostrophe to form the possessive:

the authors’ work
patients’ reactions
the participants’ experience


Nouns whose plural does not end in s

Plural nouns like men, women and children add ‘s

men’s room
women’s rights
children’s hospital


The compound possessive

For the possessive of compounds such as the Security Council, William the Conqueror or Watson and Crick, add ‘s to the last word of the compound:

the Security Council’s decision
William the Conqueror’s victory
Watson and Crick’s breakthrough


Possessive pronouns

The possessive pronouns do not have an apostrophe:

his ours whose
hers yours
its theirs



But: one’s
One’s immediate reaction is…

Note: it’s with an apostrophe is short for it is, who’s is short for who is. Neither is used in formal writing.




Plural abbreviations can normally be written without an apostrophe:

Various NGOs were represented at the meeting.
Several MPs were forced to resign.



But with an apostrophe for the possessive:

The UN’s problems have been well documented.
The BBC’s coverage of the election was widely praised.



The PhraseBook also includes help sections on writing numbers:

  • When to write figures or words
  • Avoiding beginning a sentence with a figure
  • Avoiding mixing words and figures

As well as Roman numerals and Greek and Latin numerical affixes:

Roman numerals and Greek alphabet

  • I, II, III, IV, L, C, M etc.

Greek and Latin numerical affixes

  • mono-, di-, tri-, quadr-, penta-, hexa-, sept-, oct-, nona-, dec-, semi-, proto-, poly- etc.


Words or figures?

A common rule for writing numbers is to write one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine and ten as words, but larger numbers as figures. As always, you should follow any guidelines for your field or publication.

Numbers as words



Compare also the examples below where words are used for approximate amounts, and figures for exact values:

Approximate and exact
There have been over fifty new cases this year.
There have been 54 new cases this year.
There are around five thousand new students every year.
Last year there were 5023 new students.


Use figures with abbreviations

Figures with abbreviations
6 mm
80 kg
100 km


Avoid beginning a sentence with a figure

Try to avoid beginning a sentence with a figure, for example:

1 in 10 pregnancies…
Better: One in ten pregnancies…
55% of the population…
Better: Fifty-five per cent GB or percent US of the population…


Avoid mixing words and figures

Avoid mixing words and figures in the same sentence, for example:

Figures and words
Compulsory education in Britain is from five to 16, though some children begin already at age four.
Better: Compulsory education in Britain is from 5 to 16, though some children begin already at age 4.


Values over a million

However, some values over a million, for example currencies, are written as figures and words:

GBP 3 million
$10 billion
350 million people



Beware of ambiguity when reading or writing billion, which though now normally used in British English to mean a thousand million (109) as in American English, also has an earlier meaning of a million million (1012).


Multiples of a thousand

Multiples of a thousand are often indicated by a comma. However, a space is less ambiguous as the comma is used as the decimal symbol in some countries:

Multiples of a thousand



A common rule in university and research writing is to write three or four figures without commas or spacing, and four or five and more figures with commas or spacing, for example:

Spacing Commas
3987 3,987
29 483 29,483
6 728 349 6,728,349


As always, be consistent throughout your text and follow any guidelines for your subject or publication.



The usual British spelling is per cent, the normal US spelling is percent. Again, be consistent in your use of %, per cent and percent:

10% not ten %
10 per cent GB or percent US
ten per cent GB or percent US