English Language Foundations

Lyle Cleeland and Lisa Moody

four students sit chatting on the grass
Figure 37. Every institution and every course in Australia has its own English entry level requirements. Copyright © James Cook University. All Rights Reserved


Welcome to the English Language Foundations chapter. Here, we are going to discover some of the academic English foundational skills required for study at university.

Academic English

Academic English is the particular style of English that is used at the university level. It is important to note that every person who enters university studies for the first time will need the time to learn and develop their understanding of what Academic English is, and how they can apply it to their own writing. This cannot be rushed. You may seem to take longer than other people and that is okay. In the sections below, you will see what some of the basics of academic writing are and you will see some key rules and explanations of Academic English. Next you will learn and review some of the basic grammatical structures of academic writing.

It is normal for academic writing to seem a little daunting to new students. It can feel like you are learning a whole new language. Fortunately, there are many great support services available to support you at university as you develop your academic literacy. By following a few guidelines, you will also be well on your way to communicating effectively in the academic context. At the end of this chapter, you will find links to additional supports available to you at JCU.

All good writing is the result of a focused editing and revision process. Even the best writers start with very rough drafts. There are some general guidelines to be aware of and follow when drafting. Let’s look at some basic do’s and don’ts of academic writing:


Write clearly and concisely

  • It is important to write clearly and simply, which also helps you to stick to the word count.
  • For example: it is better to say, “the research data” rather than “the data from the research”.
  • Your first few drafts might feel like a mess, but editing will clarify your thoughts and make the sentences simpler.

Reference your research and information

  • Referencing is a way to acknowledge the expert sources you have engaged with. Referencing also lends credibility to your work because it proves you have read the work of experts in the field.
  • At JCU a common referencing style is APA 7.
  • For more information on referencing, check out the next chapter on Working with Information.

Write in third person

  • Writing in third person means not referring to yourself. For example, you avoid saying “in my opinion” or “in this essay I will”.
  • The accepted form is to name other researchers/professors/academics by their surname (in the appropriate referencing system) to support what you are saying. For example, “Smith (2020) believes that….” rather than to say “I believe that…”.
  • Please note, however, that first person is sometimes acceptable for some assignments, especially when you are asked to reflect. You can read more about reflective writing in the Writing Assignments chapter.

Plan your writing

  • Planning is an important early step before you start writing and can help you to focus and answer all parts of the assignment question.
  • For a new student, writing an essay may take up to eight weeks – 3 weeks reading and research, 2 weeks planning and reviewing, 3 weeks writing and editing.
  • Check out the Writing Assignments chapter in this book for more information.

Do Not’s

Use slang words or informal spoken terms (colloquialisms)

The use of informal spoken terms or slang indicates a degree of familiarity or a friendly relationship to a subject. Because the aim of academic writing is to demonstrate evidence-based, research-informed arguments, we work to avoid seeming too casual or familiar with our reader. We want to sound knowledgeable and rational.

Academic writing is considered formal, so slang and informal spoken terms should be avoided.

  • For example, avoid saying, “Managing climate change is easier said than done” because ‘easier said than done’ is a common speech like phrase. It would be better to write, “Managing climate change can be difficult in practice”. This example is more formal and academic, and therefore more appropriate for academic writing.

Note: formal language is not simply complex sentences with big words.

Write sentences that are too long or too short

  • Long sentences with more than one key idea are difficult for the reader to follow.
  • Sentences that are too short can sound ‘choppy’ or disjointed.
  • Try to keep your sentences roughly between 15-25 words or about 2 lines long.
  • You can also have sentences that are longer and shorter than this – a variety is something to aim for.

Use contractions

  • Contractions are when we use an apostrophe to shorten two words together as one word. For example, ‘do not’ becomes ‘don’t’. You should always use the full words.
  • For example, do not write, “It doesn’t seem accurate to label the author’s words as exceptional”.  This is too much like a spoken phrase. Instead you should write, “It does not seem accurate to label the author’s words as exceptional”.

Be overly emotive in your language

  • Academic writing is often described as being non-personal or ‘objective’, which means that it relies on evidence-based research to support arguments, not personal feeling or opinion.
  • The opposite of objective is subjective, which relies on emotions to support a position, and is therefore considered less effective. Therefore, it is important to avoid emotive ways of backing up your arguments, as they are not considered as reliable as evidence from good quality research.
  • For example, avoid using a sentence like “It is terrible that governments deny climate change, and are destroying the world our children will inherit”. Instead, it would be better to say, “Decades of research demonstrate that global warming is occurring and will have significant consequences for the environment in the future”.

Grammar for academic writing

Review of parts of speech

Parts of speech are what we call the different words that make up a full sentence. It can be useful to familiarise yourself with the parts of speech in a sentence so that you can recognise where the different parts of speech normally go in a sentence. This can also help you understand where you may need to make improvements in your own writing. Here are some of the most common parts of speech:


Table 8. Parts of speech
Part of speech Explanation/examples
Noun A noun is the name of a person/place or thing.
e.g. Australia, tree, internet, climate change
Pronoun Pronouns replace the name of a noun with something else.
e.g. It, he, she, they, that
Verb A verb is a ‘doing’ word in a sentence.
e.g. Examine, explain, write, is, suggest
Adjective An adjective is a describing word and is used to describe nouns.
e.g. vibrant, big, small, credible, extensive, limited
Adverb An adverb is a describing word used to describe verbs. They often end in ‘ly’.
e.g. confidently, quickly, smoothly, slowly, knowingly
Preposition Prepositions show the relationship between nouns or noun phrases.
e.g. on, at, in, over, into, through, from, of, with
Article Articles refer to particular nouns and/or modify the noun. There are only three articles in English:
e.g. a/an/the
Conjunction Conjunctions are important words that help to link words or phrases together in a sentence.
e.g. and, however, but, because, since, also

Word order in sentences

Active sentences are constructed with a subject, then a verb, then an object ( S-V-O).

  • The subject is the actor of the sentence.
  • The verb is the action that is done.
  • The object is the thing that the action was done to.

This is the most common word order in English. It is preferred for general academic writing.

For example John (subject) kicked (verb) the ball (object).


Passive sentences reverse this and put the object first (O-V-S).

For example The ball (object) was kicked (verb) by John (subject).

Sentence structures

There are four main types of sentence structure in English, each described below. By having a variety of sentence structures in your writing, you can assist the clear and simple expression of ideas and allow the reader to understand your argument.

Simple sentences

Simple sentences only require one subject (a noun or noun phrase), and a ‘predicate’ which is the information about the subject and contains the verb (or verb phrase).

The research is completed.

‘The research’           =         the noun

‘is completed’           =          the predicate

Compound sentences

Compound sentences are made up of at least two independent clauses. Independent clauses are parts of a sentence that have at least a subject and a verb (and are complete ideas). The independent clauses must be joined with a conjunction: for, and, or, nor, but, yet, so. For example:

The research is completed, and the assignment is finished.

‘The research is completed’            =          independent clause one

‘and’                                                       =          conjunction

‘the assignment is finished’            =          independent clause two

Complex sentences

Complex sentences are made up of at least one independent clause and one dependent clause (which does not make sense on its own). A dependent clause also contains a subject and a verb, but it relies on the other information in a sentence for it to make sense. Complex sentences can be joined together by any other conjunction not listed above for compound sentences. For example:

I completed the research which was difficult.

‘I completed the research’ =          independent clause

‘which’                                     =        conjunction

‘was difficult’                         =         dependent clause

In this example, you can see that the dependent clause relies on the information in the independent clause for it to make sense.

Compound-complex sentences

Finally, compound-complex sentences are a combination of compound and complex sentences. These sentences can be useful for conveying complex ideas and information. For example:

I completed the research which was difficult, but I still managed to submit my assignment on time.

‘I completed the research which was difficult’            =   complex sentence clause

‘but’                                                                                          =   conjunction

‘I still managed to submit my assignments on time’ =  independent clause

Activity: Independent and Dependent Clauses

Look at the three sentences below. Each sentence has been broken up into two phrases (independent and dependent clauses). Drag and drop the clauses into the correct field.

Punctuation rules

Using punctuation correctly is essential to success at university. Knowing the rules about how to use punctuation marks correctly can not only improve the logic and flow of your sentences, but also can improve the quality of your writing. Take a look at the table below which outlines the main punctuation marks used in academic writing and consider the explanation and examples.


Table 9. Punctuation rules
Punctuation mark Explanation of use Example of use
. Full stop To show the end of a sentence. Usually one or two spaces is required on the keyboard before starting a new sentence, but check your formatting and referencing requirements. I went to university today.
, comma Commas show pauses between ideas in sentences and also help to break up clauses in a sentence. 1. Today I studied chemistry, went to work, and had my dinner.
2. Harry, a good friend of mine, came over on the weekend.
: colon A colon is used before listing a series of ideas that are related to the information that was presented before the colon. There are three main parts to an essay: an introduction, body, and conclusion.
; semi-colon A semi-colon helps to join together two independent clauses within a sentence. Think of it as a longer pause than a comma, but not quite a full stop as the ideas in the sentence are related to each other. I finished my assignment on the weekend; now I can relax and watch Netflix.

Em dash
Em dashes have a variety of functions in a sentence. In academic writing, you may see them used to emphasise elements within a list, or to show a change of thought or idea within a sentence. 1. Students, admin staff, professors, researchers — these are all types of people you will meet on campus.
2. Many students believe it is a difficult assignment — I hope the professor covers it in the next class.
… ellipsis Ellipsis in academic writing usually shows the reader where there is information from a source that is taken out from the original. “One of the most significant reasons why we procrastinate…is a lack of planning.”
() parentheses Parentheses, also known commonly as ‘round brackets’, show additional information in a sentence. They are also used in many referencing systems as well to credit authors within a paper. 1. I enjoy my physics class the best (not chemistry) because the teacher is so engaging.
2. Significant research (Smith, 2020; Jones, 2014) demonstrates that…
[] brackets Brackets, also known as ‘square brackets’, are used in academic writing to show additional information within a quote that was not from the original source. “It is commonly referred to [in Australia] as the tyranny of distance.”

Correct usage of the apostrophe

Many people that are unfamiliar with Academic English misuse the apostrophe. The correct ways to use the apostrophe are:

  1. To show where letters are missing: can’t – “cannot”, don’t – “do not”.
  2. To show possession of something: Lisa’s house, Townsville’s greatest criminal, the moon’s shadow, Julia’s ideas.
  3. In irregular constructions that do not have a plural form – the 60’s – “the sixites”, if’s – “alot of if’s and but’s”, b’s – “How many b’s in bubblegum?”
  4. To show plural possession – “the jewelers’ convention is in town”.

Common mistakes:

  1. Do not use apostrophes to show pluralisation in regular words: “I will buy the coffee’s”
  2. Do not use apostrophes to show possession in pronouns: “Is this your’s?”, “What is it’s importance?”

Transition words

Transition words show when your ideas are moving to a new or slightly different point. They help link ideas together between sentences and between your paragraphs. They improve coherence and cohesion in your writing. Look at the image below to learn how different transition words are used.

Take a look at this academic phrase bank from the University of Manchester for some extra ideas of words and phrases that you could use in assignments.


Table 10.  Transition words and phrases
For continuing an idea For providing a contrast view For showing cause and effect For showing sequence For concluding For restating a point or giving an example
In addition…
Clearly, then…
In the same way…
Continuing this idea…
Pursuing this further…
In contrast to these…
Unlike the previous example…
Different from this…
Despite these findings…
Contrary to these findings…
In opposition to…
In response to…
As a result of…
For this reason…
Due to this…
The reaction…
The first [concept/aspect]…
The second [concept/aspect]…
The third [concept/aspect]…
Firstly, Secondly, Finally…
As soon as…
In the first place…
In the meantime…
In final analysis…
In conclusion…
In final consideration…
In other words…
For instance…
One such occurrence…
This is demonstrated by…
To illustrate…
To demonstrate…
This is supported by…

Verb tenses

Verb tenses show time and duration in a sentence, for example past, present, future, or continuing.  Look at the below table for how tenses are used in academic study.


Table 11. Tenses
Tense Explanation Example
Simple present tense You use the simple present tense in writing when:
• stating your main points
• giving an overview of your topic
• giving the opinion of the writer you are referring to
1. Smith (2009) states that…
2. The moon revolves around the earth.
3. It seems to be the right choice.
Simple past tense You use the simple past tense to:
• give the findings of past research
• recall something that happened in the past and the action is completed.
1. The study revealed that, in 1998, 35% of children played violent video games.
2. He was a smoker in those days.
3. She went to the gym at seven every evening.
Present perfect
You use the present perfect tense:
• to show that research in a certain area is still continuing.
• when you write a general statement about past research.
The present perfect tense is formed with have + past participle verb.
1. He has lived in Australia for two years.
2. The research has shown that…
3. Researchers have found that…

General tips for using tenses in academic writing:

  • Using the past tense or the present tense is most common when writing academically.
  • You should also use past tense to describe the results of a study, because the results are a result of past actions. For example, ‘the participants’ results increased after the intervention’.
  • However, when you wish to discuss the implications of results and the possible conclusions that can be drawn from the evidence or research, it is best to use the present tense. For example, ‘these results indicate that…’

Subject-verb agreement

Plural (more than one) verbs need plural subjects, and singular (only one) verbs need singular subjects. Such as:

  • Smith and Wesson (plural subject) argue (plural verb) that history is irrelevant.
  • Smith (singular subject) argues (singular verb) that history is irrelevant.

Doing this incorrectly sounds wrong, and is natural to native speakers of English.

Subject-verb agreement with ‘to be’

When you use the verb to be (e.g. am/is/are/was/were), remember to change the form according to the subject:

  • am / was
  • you, we, they are / were
  • she, he, it is / was 

Checklist for assessing your grammar in academic writing

  • Have you checked your sentences to ensure the subject and verb agree?
  • Check your verbs in your sentences to ensure you have used the correct tense throughout your paper.
  • Does your paper use some transition words to help your reader understand the ideas you are presenting?
  • Does your paper have a good mix of simple, compound, and complex sentences?
  • Have you checked the correct use of punctuation within your sentences?

Links to resources:

The JCU Learning Centre

The Purdue Online Writing Lab

Kahn Academy 


Overall, this chapter has explored the basic English language foundations that are required when commencing university level study.

Key points

  • Each university and each degree has its own English language requirements.
  • Academic English takes time to master and requires practice.
  • Following some basic rules for writing in academic English can help enhance your writing.
  • Reviewing key grammatical concepts – such as parts of speech, tenses, subject-verb agreement, and punctuation – can help you to improve your academic writing.


Studies in Australia. (2020). English Language requirements FAQs. https://www.studiesinaustralia.com/Blog/about-australia/english-language-requirements-faqs


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English Language Foundations Copyright © 2023 by Lyle Cleeland and Lisa Moody is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.