Adverbs in academic writing

My mind wandered to the question of frequent adverbs in academic writing today, especially for hedging and boosting (that is, making your claim stronger or weaker). A quick search of the Corpus of Contemporary American English reveals that some adverbs are considerably more frequent in academic writing that spoken English. For example:

  • perhaps (255 instances per million words vs 189)
  • clearly (177 vs 144)
  • presumably (27 vs 13)
  • significantly (203 vs 12) — probably because of the technical meaning of statistical significance
  • somewhat (76 vs 46)
  • theoretically (14 vs 4)

On the other hand, some adverbs are rather less frequent than in spoken English:

  • of course (143 instances per million in academic writing vs 414 in speaking)
  • obviously (42 vs 199)
  • maybe (31 vs 400)

That last word was more surprising: my guess is that writers use the modal verb  form (may + be) rather than the adverbial (maybe). It’s not surprising that academic writers use more tentative adverbs and fewer definitive ones, although it is interesting that words like of course, obviously, always, and never do occur with some frequency in the corpus. In Eli Hinkel’s study of undergraduate students’ texts, she found relatively little use of always, never, and ever in native-speakers’ writing, suggesting perhaps that these words are reserved for published experts who can more confidently assert that something always or never happens, or that it is obvious.

I’ll be posting more tricks of the academic writing trade like this in the coming months as I work on my forthcoming grammar textbook for graduate students. Stay tuned (but don’t hold your breath)!

Author: Nigel Caplan

Nigel Caplan, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Delaware English Language Institution, as well as a textbook author, consultant, and speaker. Nigel holds a PhD from the University of Delaware, a master's in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania, and a bachelor's degree from Cambridge University. He is currently director of Project DELITE, a federal grant providing ESL certification to Delaware teachers. He also brews beer.

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