The Development of Academic Writing


In today’s world, English is the language of academic writing. Yet a few hundred years ago, the language for doing science was Latin. When Newton wrote his laws of motion (Principia – or in full, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica [Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy] – published in 1687), he still used Latin, but he was at the end of a tradition which would be replaced by a tradition that used English. When he wrote Opticks (published in 1704), the language used was English. (If you are interested in Newton, go to: Latin of course reached a wider European audience, but isolated the ordinary people. Of course, there were also those who were concerned about intellectual property rights and didn’t want others to capitalise on their research! And of course, the English of the time was not as fully developed to cope with scientific writing.


The new rationalist, empirical perspective required a number of things because things were no longer to be accepted by faith – all claims had to be backed by objective evidence. This meant that the new scientific language had to be distant to show that the individual was not personally involved in the matter. In addition the logical development of an argument also had to be clear, and loosely joined clauses or ideas would not be acceptable. (Compare this to the paratactic clauses in the AV Bible again: ‘In the beginning was the Word, & the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’)



There was a need for technical terms – which would refer to things in a precise and unambiguous fashion. This means that even if an ordinary English word was already available, it might still be useful to have another one for scientific purposes. For example, in addition to backbone (a word of Anglo-Saxon origin), scientists had vertebra (a latinate word). When talking about the lung, those in the medical profession might prefer terms like pulmonary (Latin pulmonem, ‘lung’).


In order to have the reference clear and objective-sounding, a great number of terms were borrowed from other languages (particularly from Latin and Greek – but not exclusively so, as there were also borrowings from Arabic). We can see this already in Chaucer’s Astrolabe – a kind of instruction manual written for a young boy, probably his own son, where he takes care to introduce some latinate terms with care, such as altitude:


Thyn astrolabie hath a ring to putten on the thombe of the right hond in taking the height of thinges. And tak kep, for from henes forthward I wol clepen [call] the heighte of any thing that is taken by the rewle [rule] ‘the altitude’, withoute moo wordes. (Chaucer, Astrolabe, I.1)


Borrowings from Greek were mainly in the domain of geometry – such as diagonal, hypotenuse, hexagon and polynomial. Astronomy, maths and alchemy were also fairly developed in the Muslim world, so that Arabic terms were also borrowed – such as azimuth, zenith, nadir, algebra, cipher, alcohol and alkali.


When new words or coinages (neologisms) are required, Latin and Greek still remain important resources by providing the appropriate morphemes. We can use photo- to coin photolysis, photo-kinesis, etc.; tele- to coin telephony, etc. Other Greek elements include bio ‘life’, crypto ‘secret’, graph ‘writing, drawing’, hydro ‘water’, hyper ‘over’, hypo ‘under’, macro ‘large’, mega ‘a million’, micro ‘a millionth’, mono ‘single’, morph ‘shape, form’, phono ‘sound’, pyro ‘fire’, tele ‘distant’ and thermo ‘heat’.


The willingness to borrow words has been something that now characterises the English language. This didn’t use to be the case. In OE, the method of loan translation was preferred (ie when each element of the term was translated – a calque) – and to a certain extent this still characterises other Germanic languages today. For example, in German, a television (Gk tele ‘far’ + Fr vision) is Fernseher (fern ‘far’ + sehen ‘see’). And in OE, the translation for the grammatical term praepositio was foresetnys (and of course, we use the loan-word and say ‘preposition’ today).



Look at Shakespeare’s representation of Cleopatra’s complaint:


                                    I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I’ the posture of a whore. (Antony & Cleopatra 5.2)


Her complaint is of how a boy actor will play herself on stage in the future. Linguistically, what has happened is also very interesting because boy has been used as a verb rather than a noun. English, since it has lost many of the earlier inflections, has had the ability for conversion of word classes without much difficulty. From the point of view of academic writing, the opposite conversion was the one that is useful. Typically, verbs represent actions and nouns represent things. To be able to describe and characterise things, the ideal in science is to have lots of objects, rather than actions. One way of making actions or attributes thing-like is to turn them into nouns. We will see how below.


Look at the following sentence: ‘Those people ate some raw eggs and they soon had terrible tummy aches and they had to spend a couple of days in hospital.’ The language is fairly typical of informal speech, and the structure is describing phenomena is in the form of a series of happenings: a happened, then b happened, then c happened. This description, of course, does not look very learned. You will notice the very core lexical items used there. However, even if we substituted some items with less core items (eg ‘consumed’ instead of ‘ate’) the description will still seem to be full of happenings, rather than objects.


The preferred way of describing phenomena in academic writing, however, is happening a is the cause of happening b and so on (and other similar structures like event a is event b; attribute a signals entity b; state b is proof of attribute b). The verbs used here don’t seem to refer to actions and happenings – they focus on logical relations instead.


So, instead, we might say ‘The consumption of uncooked eggs can lead to serious health problems’. You will notice that instead of a verb ate or consumed, we used consumption, a noun. The conversion of a word into a noun (or a nominal) is called nominalisation. It is not only verbs that can be nominalised (develop à development; accept à acceptance); adjectives, notably, can also be nominalised (intelligent à intelligence); or even nouns (pigment à pigmentation). Nominalisation allows the natural world to appear to be full of things and objects; the world is packaged and objectified and it allows the scientist now to talk about it in a focused fashion. Notice that in the sentence about, we have omitted reference to the consumers (‘Those people’) because, in a sense, this would be distracting as we want to focus on the consumption itself. Notice how in typical scientific descriptions, people are left out of the picture or if they are, they are represented in a more distant fashion – this is not surprising as objectivity is seen to be desirable in scientific writing.


Another way of removing reference to actors is to use the passive structure – to employ the device of passivisation. So the first clause could have been recast as ‘Uncooked eggs have been consumed’. Once again, ‘those people’ do not appear in the clause.


All of this was being developed in the 17th century, so that Robert Boyle, in Electricity and Magnetism (1675) could write the following:


it has been observ’d, that Amber, &c. warm’d by the fire, does not attract so vigorously, as if it acquire an equal degree of heat by being chaf’d or rub’d: So that the modification of motion in the internal parts, and in the Emanations of the Amber, may, as well as the degree of it, contribute to the Attraction.


Clearly, this is different from today’s scientific writing, but we can already observe the use of passive constructions:

  • it has been observ’d … (instead of ‘I have observ’d that …’
  • Amber, &c. warm’d by the fire (instead of ‘when the fire warms Amber, &c.)
  • by being chaf’d or rub’d (instead of ‘when someone chafes or rubs it’)


And importantly, we can see noun phrases in the second sentence:

  • the modification of motion in the internal parts (instead of ‘something modifies the motion …’)
  • the Emanations of the Amber (instead of ‘some things emanate from the Amber …’)
  • the degree of it (instead of ‘how far this happens’)
  • the Attraction (instead of ‘Amber attracts things to it’)


The verb phrase in the second sentence ‘may contribute’ does not denote a happening, but the logical relationship between ‘modification …’, ‘Emanations …’ (on the one hand) and ‘Attraction’ (on the other hand), almost like a mathematical symbol (like = or >).


Now see if you can see similar features in this modern medical abstract.


When you’re ready to take the quiz based on this topic, go to the IVLE page and click on ‘Assessment’ on the left, and then on ‘Standardisation’.


A. Definitions

B. Processes of standardisation

C. The development of Standard English