academic tone

One of the most important elements in academic writing is maintaining consistent academic tone. This article focuses on how to craft an appropriate academic tone by fine-tuning formal voice and using a range of academic expressions, sentence structures, and subject-specific vocabulary to fit the task at hand.

What is academic tone?

The word tone refers to the writing style you choose to present your ideas to the reader. In writing, tone can be delivered in three ways: formal, informal, and personal. Naturally, the choice of language we use denotes the tone, and hence, the way we speak to specific people in specific positions changes in accordance to our relationship with them and the setting in which we interact. To illustrate, a high-school student would speak to their teachers in a more formal voice, whereas they would interact with their peers on a more informal, and occasionally personal level.

In addition to the three main tones (academic, formal, and informal), tones can be further grouped into narrower categories, such as friendly, humorous, respectful, assertive on the one hand, and rude, condescending, aggressive, and cold on the other.

What does academic tone depend on?

When writing a thesis or research article, it is best to strike a balance between formal and informal. It goes without saying that many consider writing in the Queen’s English too formal, and perhaps archaic, whereas you would neither aim to write your thesis as if it were a message to a friend. Mastering academic tone in writing requires the development of skills inherent to the use of English, such as word choice, structures and tenses, and correct use of pronouns and conjunctions, etc.

One focal point to consider is how to present information factually, without adding too much information about the author’s own opinions. As the general aim in academic writing is to answer hypotheses and research questions, authors should place a greater emphasis on interpreting their results and drawing logical conclusions. However, this does not mean authors need to present their writing without a human touch!

Many criteria determine an appropriate tone. Hence, honing your academic writing by gaining proficiency in the right expressions, structures, and words is paramount.

Here are a few areas that can significantly boost the quality of an academic paper:

  • Using advanced vocabulary, rather than the most basic/commonplace options (e.g., superior, outstanding, or high-quality instead of good). How many words can you think of that can replace the adjective nice?
  • Maintain formal language throughout. Among the finer aspects of formal writing, refer to people by their professional titles, and avoid referring to yourself in the first person “I,” Instead, refer to yourself in third-person (i.e., the author or the researcher).
  • Use technical terminology as and when appropriate, and when referring to certain processes, objects, institutions, you may use an abbreviated form after the first mention of the word.
  • Always favor the active tense over the passive, where possible (e.g., “The researcher interviewed the participants individually,” not “The participants were interviewed individually by the researcher.”

The four points above are just a few areas you can develop to improve your formal writing. Generally speaking, you’ll want to avoid using the casual language typically used in an informal setting, in preference of the clinical, formal language you might here in a conference room or lecture. Further, you should aim to be gender neutral when referring to people; hence, researcher, participant, interviewer, professor, etc. are all commonly used, gender-neutral terms found in academic research papers.

Types of tone: formal, informal, personal


The formal tone avoids shortening words through contractions (e.g., I’ll) and the use of colloquial and casual language. Above all, the author should refrain from giving their opinion and instead favor factual statements.

Example: “This extended essay intends to investigate whether there is a causal relationship between music listened to and the mood of individuals. Additionally, it will seek to explore whether this relationship is used in advertising to encourage people to spend money.” [Source]


The polar opposite of a formal voice, the informal is most often used in personal communication between friends and family. Rarely is it used in an academic context, unless when quoting a participant’s statement, for instance. Likewise, as authors tend to use an informal voice to convey opinions and emotions, it is more commonly found in fiction and non-fiction books than research articles.

Example: “My extended essay is trying to research why people rely on certain types of music to influence their mood and how music is used in this way for advertising. I am not sure if there is a connection and whether the music does affect, for example, people’s shopping habits, but it will be interesting to try to find out…” [Source]

(As demonstrated in the above example, the author has given a long-winded and wordy explanation of their research aims).


Authors adopt a personal tone to communicate with their readers directly. This style is more common in non-fiction books, particularly those giving advice, anecdotes, and talking about personal experiences, such as self-help books. The author will address themselves in the first-person “I” or “We,” and the audience with “You” directly.

Example: “You don’t just go out and pick a style off a tree one day. The tree is already inside you—it is growing naturally inside you.” [Source]

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