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Academic Writing: Common Patterns, Part Two

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The Everyday Grammar team often receives questions about academic writing. Students around the world want to improve their academic writing so that they can gain admission – and succeed – in a college or a university.

In this week's report, we are going to explore one pattern that is commonly used in academic writing.

You will learn to recognize this pattern, and you will learn how you can use it in your own writing.

In addition, you will learn about the times you might not want to use it.

Common Structure: noun+that-clause

The structure we are exploring is this: noun + a that clause. The structure is often used to evaluate, or judge, a topic or idea.

A that-clause is a group of words beginning with the word that. A clause has both a subject and a predicate. The predicate shows what is said about the subject.

The noun might come at the beginning or middle of the sentence. Consider the following examples:

'The fact that the theory of evolution has been so contentious in public debates deserves some explanation.'

'This essay is written in the belief that modern historians need to radically change the way they think.'

In the first example, the that-clause follows the noun fact at the beginning of the sentence.

In the second example, the that-clause follows the noun belief at the middle of the sentence.

In both cases, the noun plays an important part in showing how a writer evaluates an idea.

In other words, the noun helps show how the writer is taking a position and making a claim about something.

Let's study these sentences in greater detail.

#1 Showing Certainty

Think back to the first example sentence we gave you, 'The fact that the theory of evolution has been so contentious in public debates deserves some explanation.'

Academic writers often use the noun + a that clause structure to express certainty.

In the sentence, the noun fact plays an important role. When the writer uses the word fact, he or she is showing certainty. It shows that the writer does not consider the point to be a subject of debate.

The that-clause contains the idea that the writer is certain about – the theory of evolution has been a contentious topic.

Susan Conrad and Douglas Biber are grammar experts. They note that academic writers often use nouns or noun phrases such as conclusion, fact, little doubt, and no doubt to express certainty.

The that-clause can have any number of words or ideas. The important point is that it has a subject and a predicate.

#2 Showing Possibility

A second common use of noun + a that clause is to express possibility. Consider our second example, 'This essay is written in the belief that modern historians need to radically change the way they think.''

Here, the noun belief suggests possibility – it is possible for historians to change the way they think. Whether this is correct or not depends on the reader's opinion – and the persuasiveness of the author's argument.

Conrad and Biber note that other nouns commonly used to show possibility include claim and assumption. Sometimes writers will use the noun possibility itself.

What can you do?

The structures we have discussed today are common in academic writing. If you are writing for other purposes, you might want to use more direct language.

Take our example, 'The fact that the theory of evolution has been so contentious in public debates deserves some explanation.'

You might read this in an academic publication. This structure might not be the best choice for other situations – writing an opinion piece in the newspaper or an email to your supervisor, for example.

In those cases, it might be better to use more direct language. For example, you could write, 'Here are the reasons why the theory of evolution has been a contentious topic…' Or simply, 'People have long debated the theory of evolution.'

Remember: you have many choices to make when you write a sentence. Learning when to use certain structures can be a long, difficult process.

But, we bring this lesson to a close with the belief that you will succeed!

I'm John Russell.

And I'm Alice Bryant.

John Russell adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.

Words in This Story

evaluate – v. to judge the value or condition of (someone or something) in a careful and thoughtful way

predicate— n. grammar: the part of a sentence that expresses what is said about the subject

contentious –adj. likely to cause people to argue or disagree

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