Writing Features Complexity Noun-based

Academic Writing

Features of academic writing


Nominal groups

Formal written English uses nouns and nominal group (noun-based phrases) more than verbs.

One simple example is:

Like all other forms of life, we human beings are the product of evolution.

Like all other forms of life, we human beings are the product of how we have evolved.

The noun “evolution” is preferred to the verb “evolve” and the “wh” clause.

Another example is:

Premack used a set of plastic chips to teach a chimpanzee named Sarah the meaning of a set of symbols.

Premack used a set of plastic chips to teach a chimpanzee named Sarah what a set of symbols mean.

“The meaning of the symbols” is preferred to “what the symbols mean”

Try this exercise: Exercise 4

Structure of nominal groups

Written English is lexically dense – there is a higher proportion of content words per clause. This can be done by modification of nouns to form nominal groups.

A typical nominal group is structured in the following way:

determiner premodifier head postmodifier
a complicated solution to the problem

Nouns (which themselves can be nominalisations) can be premodified or postmodified (qualified):

premodifier + noun

adjective – the constitutional aspects

ed-participle – a balanced budget, from the confused events of 19-24 August, the emitted light

ing-participle – growing problem, one striking feature of the years 1929-31, existing structures

noun – market forces, cabinet appointments

noun + postmodifier

relative clause – students who have no previous experience

to-clauses – the solution to the problem of inflation, the question to be debated

ing-clauses – a brake consisting of a drum divided into twelve compartments

ed-clauses – canoes preserved by a hard plaster, a brake consisting of a drum divided into twelve compartments, the curve shown

prepositional phrase (preposition + nominal group)- we need to bring to the box a special tool with a ready-compressed spring

adverb (or adverbial group) – the road back, the people outside

adjective (or adjectival group) – varieties common in India, the festival proper, something different

Nominal groups can function as subjects, complements or objects of prepositions.


A more detailed life of Lord Reading, Liberal leader in the House of Lords and an important actor in the events of 1931,would be of great value.


There are plans to extract a much greater harvest from the timber resource.

Object of preposition:

The information very properly reached the files of the survey for antimalarial compounds under the Survey Number SN-183.

A nominal group can also be qualified by another nominal group in apposition.

Dr. Maurice Aumont, the Director of the Berlitz School at Bordeaux, looked after him in an efficient and kindly way.

The first National Government, the government which forms the focal point of most historical writing on the crisis, followed the collapse of the Labour government in August 1931.

Sir Shridath Ramphal,former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth,addressed the close connection between environmental protection and economic-development issues of critical importance for developing countries.

A more complex description (Halliday, 1985, pp. 159-175) is:

Premodifier Head Postmodifier
Deictic Numerative Epithet Classifier Thing Qualifier
these three methods
these three rather different environments
these two old volume controls
these three forms of co-ownership
this discussion of the primacy of communal property
the two domestic products available
the many large oil companies in operation
the complete reorganisation of the company
the several active substances which were activated
the keyboard designs
the resistance shown by structures such as the rate of recruitment
the important contributions made to production by different groups in society
several dirty ones
several possible explanations for the effect
two large gaps to be filled
a careful discussion of this issue
an important test phase consisting of reinforced training
an effective promotion scheme

Or even:

Premodifier Head Postmodifier
Pre-Deictic Decictic Numerative Epithet Classifier Thing Qualifier
some of the   important research methods that are used in the laboratory
one of the many large oil companies in operation
some of the compounds being manufactured in New York

Deictics can also be possessive nous (e.g. his, my, IBM’s) or quantifiers (e.g. some, each, every, both, all).


The exception is David Marquand’s splendid biography of Ramsay MacDonald.

Meanwhile, in 1942 another committee was working onBritain’s postwar civil aviation policy.

More Examples

Many of the suggested benefits of group livinghave been concerned with avoiding being eaten by predators.

French is also spoken bya large number of the African immigrants in the UK.

This chapter is a brief distillation ofa few of the themes in that book.

In the United States, most of the outstanding men who first made their name in the amateur gameturned professional.

While the ozone hole has been considered a solved problem, we are now finding it has caused a great deal of the climate change that has been observed.


Read the following text. Notice how the word “need” is used. Notice how it is modified (premodified and postmodified) and how the nominal group it is the head of functions in the clause.

The fundamental human need to belong comes from the desire to associate with others, to cooperate, to accept group norms. However, the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) shows that the need to belong can also be perverted into excessive conformity, compliance, and in-group versus out-group hostility. The need for autonomy and control, the central forces toward self-direction and planning, can be perverted into an excessive exercise of power to dominate others or into learned helplessness.

Consider three more such needs that can cut both ways. First, needs for consistency and rationality give meaningful and wise direction to our lives. Yet dissonant commitments force us to honor and rationalize wrong-headed decisions, such as prisoners remaining when they should have quit and guards justifying their abuse. Second, needs to know and to understand our environment and our relationship to it lead to curiosity, scientific discovery, philosophy, the humanities, and art. But a capricious, arbitrary environment that does not make sense can pervert those basic needs and lead to frustration and self-isolation (as it did in our prisoners). And finally, our need for stimulation triggers explorations and adventurous risk taking, but it can also make us vulnerable to boredom when we are placed in a static setting. Boredom, in turn, can become a powerful motivator of actions as we saw with the SPE night shift guards to have fun with their “playthings.”

(The Lucifer Effect, by Philip Zimbardo, 2007, Rider Books)

Press this button to check your answers:  An Answer

Print Friendly, PDF & Email