AWAL: Sentence


The sentence is a core building block of academic writing, enabling writers to make observations and assert propositions, or claims that construct arguments. A basic definition of a sentence is an arrangement of words that includes a subject (often the person or thing that performs an action), and a verb that describes the action (Caplan, 2019). An incomplete sentence, or sentence fragment, may be missing a subject or the standard form of a verb. For example, the sentence “In this context, evidence is defined as a synthesis of best quality scientific studies on a specific topic or research question” (Kitchenham et al., 2009, p. 8) would be incomplete if “is” were dropped because it is a component of the passive verb (“is defined”).

Academic sentences often use formal and specialized academic language (Biber & Gray, 2010) and tend to be longer and more complex than sentences used in other domains. Their structure often ranges beyond from the “subject + verb + object” syntax common in spoken language. Sentence structures can include compound sentences, which are linked by coordinating conjunctions such as “and” “or” “but,” as well as complex sentences, which have subordinateclauses that are introduced by conjunctions, such as “after,” “although,” “even if,” or relative pronouns, such as “who,” “which,” or “where.” For example, in this complex sentence from a study in software engineering, italics identify the subordinate clauses: “Mapping studies can highlight areas where there is a large amount of research that would benefit from more detailed [systematic literature reviews] and areas where there is little research that require more theoretical and empirical research” (Kitchenham et al., 2009, p. 12). The first two subordinate clauses are introduced with “where” and refer to “areas.” The last clause begins with “that” and refers to “research.”

Academic texts also tend to use the passive voice more than do sentences in other domains, as in this extract from Gosselin et al.’s (2016) article on 3D printing, with the passive forms italicized: “The paper is organized as follows. First, the design and processing chain is described. The material considered for validating this new process route is presented and tested in Section 3” (p. 103). The use of the passive voice removes the agent, or actor, and shifts the focus to the process (see voice).

To show the relationship between items in a sentence that have the same grammatical function and similar structures, the organizing technique of parallelism can be used, as in these italicized examples: “The building path should be adapted and optimized based on simulation results in order to take into account constraints and to exhibit more robustness for complex geometries” (Gosselin et al., 2016, p. 103). In this sentence, “adapted” is parallel to “optimized” and “to take into account” is parallel to “to exhibit.”

Variations and Tensions

Sentence structures vary across disciplines for specific reasons. For example, the passive voice is used more in sciences than in the humanities because scientific writing often emphasizes what has been done instead of who has done it (Ahmad, 2012).

Long and complex sentences can increase the difficulty of texts for readers. However, short sentences may notenable writers to express complex thoughts (Klimova, 2012). Therefore, many writers vary the length and complexity of their sentences.

Graduate Student Voice

The sentences I write in academic papers are not always long and complicated. My top concern is that they are grammatically correct and that the information flows smoothly. -Fangzhi He

Reflection Questions

  1. How do the sentences in your discipline’s texts use subordinate clauses, parallelism, and active and passive voice?
  2. Have you received feedback on how you construct sentences? If so, what areas do you want to work on?

For Further Reading

Belcher, W. L. (2019). Writing your journal article in twelve weeks: A guide to academic publishing success (2nd ed.). University of Chicago Press. The section, “Editing Your Sentences” (pp. 308-328), discusses using verbs, pronouns, and prepositions to express ideas clearly.

University of Leicester. (n.d.) Sentence structure. This webpage explains types of sentences and how to choose sentence types to express your ideas.


Ahmad, J. (2012). Stylistic features of scientific English: A study of scientific research articles. English Language and Literature Studies, 2(1), 47–55.

Biber, D., & Gray, B. (2010). Challenging stereotypes about academic writing: Complexity, elaboration, explicitness. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 9(1), 2–20.

Caplan, N. A. (2019). Grammar choices for graduate and professional writers. University of Michigan Press.

Gosselin, C., Duballet, R., Roux, P., Gaudillière, N., Dirrenberger, J., & Morel, P. (2016). Large-scale 3D printing of ultra-high performance concrete – A new processing route for architects and builders. Materials and Design, 100, 102–109.

Kitchenham, B., Pearl Brereton, O., Budgen, D., Turner, M., Bailey, J., & Linkman, S. (2009). Systematic literature reviews in software engineering – A systematic literature review. Information and Software Technology, 51(1), 7–15.

Klimova, B. F. (2012). Changes in the notion of academic writing. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 47, 311–315.

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