I notice that a lot of beautiful literature contains sentences that are not grammatically correct. Here are some examples:

“Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept." [This lacks an "and" at the end of a list.]

“And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” ["We" is probably referring to people so there should be a "like" before boats.]

“There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship's, smooths and contains the rocker. It's an inside kind — wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one's own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.” [There are incomplete sentences.]

In the examples, if the authors had added the grammatically required words and commas, it probably wouldn't have sounded as beautiful. So, what is allowed in academic papers such as research papers and essays? For example, in high school essays, are you allowed to write incomplete sentences that make the sentences and words flow smoother?

  • 22
    Personally, I would say that the second one is metaphor (where "like boats" would be simile), and the first is asyndeton, which is less well known but I wouldn't say grammatically incorrect. – DM_with_secrets Apr 29 at 8:53
  • 19
    First, this question belongs on academia.stackexchange.com. Second, academic papers are not (generally) "literature", so your comparison examples should come from other academic papers, not great works of literature. Finally, high school essays are a bit different than what we normally think of as "academic papers", which are normally masters (graduate)-level and higher, and are mostly published in academic or professional journals. What exactly are you asking about? Consider narrowing the focus of your question. Try asking primarily about a specific scenario. – David Apr 29 at 18:58
  • 5
    @David I think this question wouldn't belong on Academia SE, for precisely the reason you mention in your third sentence: that site is for questions about academia, not high school essays. To your second sentence, it seems the OP's very point is to compare literature against papers/essays: to point out grammatical patterns that do appear in literature, and ask if these can also appear in essays or papers. – Rand al'Thor Apr 30 at 6:32
  • 5
    None of your examples are ungrammatical. There is no rule that says a list must be ended with an "and"; there is no "rule" that states you must use "like" on a metaphor or simile; there is no rule that states that everything you write must be a complete sentence. Yes, those are missing verbs, so they aren't full sentences, but that does not make them grammatically wrong. – terdon Apr 30 at 12:31
  • 2
    There's nothing wrong with any of those examples. They're simply poetic language rather than academic language. It makes no sense to judge one based on the standards of the other. – barbecue May 1 at 0:34

An important purpose of writing is to organize thoughts and communicate them to an audience. You would not write in French if the audience was fluent in only English. If the goal is to communicate, then all aspects of the writing should be tailored to the intended/expected audience.

The answer to your question must come more from the style guides governing publication than from some absolute rules of grammar. Most publications have some published style guide that provides insight into what is and is not acceptable for submitted works. Reading recent published works adds to the effective set of rules. Readers use these rules to understand how the material is organized and presented. Abstracts have this size and shape and appear at this point in the paper. Conclusions come here. Appendices go there. And so on.

In any case, the overriding rule is to communicate. If you write it and the reader understands it, then you are done. If you comply with every style guidance but the reader misses the point, then you are not done.

| improve this answer | |
  • 2
    "Reading recent published works adds to the effective set of rules." This is key for all levels of writing. Find examples of the kind of paper you want to write and follow that style. This is valuable in high school and beyond. When I was in grad school, I'd devour entire issues of a journal where we were trying to get published to learn the hidden style rules that the editors expected. – Andrew Brēza Apr 30 at 16:45
  • Andrew, you raise an off-topic question but I wanted to comment. You probably know this but there is a huge push to make all formal papers (eg. research papers, academic papers, etc.) to be less esoteric. This push has been going on for decades! But, authors, in the desperate hopes of getting published, write using obscure jargon and a style that even experts in their field have difficulty reading. The reason? It's hard to get published and it really does make the paper appear more authoritative to write this way. Is it any wonder that the median research paper is read by only 4 people? – QuietInMontana May 1 at 19:57
  • This prevents the flow of information so everyone agrees that this should stop. It does make it sound impressive but it's unnecessary and very harmful to the ultimate goals of our society. Journal editors know this but quietly pick papers that sound dense because it looks more scholarly so it will increase their reputation which in turn leads to more subscribers. – QuietInMontana May 1 at 19:57

The primary criterion for academic writing is that the meaning must be clear and unambiguous. You seek to avoid misinterpretation of your message by all your readers, irrespective of their familiarity with the languare.

Generally speaking, that does require grammatical accuracy as inaccuracy can lead to ambiguity.

However, grammar can be a flexible thing. As long as your meaning is clear, even if that leads to extra verbosity, your paper is valid.

| improve this answer | |

Academic writing intends to be clear and authoritative. You are writing to convince others that some particular claim is valid, and while most of the work of convincing will be carried by your evidence and reasoning, you can't overlook more subjective, psychological effects. 'Artistic' prose will tend to put academics off, making them think you are not serious about the work; poor grammar (if it's not obviously connected to English-as-a-Second-Language issues) will make them skeptical of your intelligence, and frame your research in a light you do not want it framed in.

I mean, consider what your own attitude would be if I had started this answer with either of the following:

  • "Academic prose captivates its audience with a luxuriance of clarity and authority"
  • "Academic write to be clear authority"

To my ear, the first sounds flowery and the second dull and plodding, and either way I would be bracing to slog through a mess written by an amateur. Prose like that set the research up for failure. It's hard enough to convince people on analytical grounds, so there's no sense creating skepticism about your personal attributes.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    I'm not sure about the second example. – S. Mitchell Apr 29 at 16:30
  • @S.Mitchell. That's actually good compared to some of the stuff I've seen over the years... – Ted Wrigley Apr 29 at 23:28
  • Ted, it's ironic but your view is exactly what critics are pushing hard to change about academic papers. Critics complain pros use esoteric vocabulary that only the pros in their field use and can understand. And, even for them, it can still be difficult. eg. Legal scholars push for language in statutes and complaints that use common words so it's easy to understand so anyone can read it. But, change is slow. Writers are resisting for the exact reason you cite. People want to impress so write using obscure words that are harder for all-professional and laymen alike- to read and understand. – QuietInMontana Apr 30 at 15:46
  • 1
    @JohnGreer: I wasn't talking about jargon (which is irritating); I was talking about presenting yourself in clear and authoritative tones. A writer can be clear and authoritative without using specialized words, but grammatically incorrect phrases undercuts both clarity and perceived authority. UC what I mean? – Ted Wrigley Apr 30 at 16:12

I don't think the question really makes sense. Grammar is defined among other things "as the study of the way the sentences of a language are constructed" and as "an account of these features; a set of rules accounting for these constructions".

In that sense it's a description of the rules that naturally exist in a language, rather than a prescriptive set of rules for people to follow. No description will be 100% accurate.

Since academic papers are usually carefully edited, often by multiple highly educated and prestigious authors and editors, we'd expect them to have relatively few mistakes. Any constructions that they do systematically contain are therefore pretty much grammatical by definition - as is any usage in other language forms when it's systematic enough to be clearly not accidental. Any grammarian writing a general grammar of a language would need to include the way the language is used in academic papers.

Questions about whether specific grammar rules are apply in academic writing would be answerable for specific academic communities, but there is no theoretical 'perfect form of English' against which we can compare academic writing to see if it follows all the same rules.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    I actually understand and agree with your main message. It's a very good point. I just wanted to point out a small technical error. Academic papers are not usually carefully edited, often by multiple highly educated and prestigious authors and editors. This is currently a major issue in the scientific community and has led to the conclusion that the scientific method is inherently flawed. The findings of previous papers are now all questionable. Experts are currently debating what they are going to do because they don't know what to replace the scientific method with. – QuietInMontana Apr 30 at 16:14
  • Thanks John. I suppose I was looking at academia from an outsider perspective and mostly thinking about the most famous journals and papers. – bdsl May 2 at 14:40

While this belongs on academica.SE, I'd like to say this: most thesis writers are not linguistics, and don't have dedicated editors to revise their texts. You can't expect a computer engineer, or a chemist to speak perfect English.

As mentioned above, as long as they communicate their message, with the appropriate structure and coherent arguments, they have done their job.

Some additional notes

And while you are strictly asking about grammar, I would also like to mention jokes and unprofessionalism is also welcome, to a certain degree. You are allowed to make your readers enjoy your thesis, too. Some people might not like this, though, and you might get critique for it.

I can't find the source, but I remember reading that thesis papers strictly did not include images/graphs/illustrations back in the day, but this changed some decades ago, and was very well welcomed. Innovation won!

Who makes the rules, anyway? It's your thesis, and as long as you get people to read it, and your university to publish it, you've won!

| improve this answer | |
  • I think the no-image-rule was caused by very expensive methods how to add illustration on the page (inscribed sketch and hot typeset), while the plain texts were printed using typewriters. Adding SEM image, for example, would mean whole page to be actual developped photograph. Note that 3 copies of a thesis is acceptable output. When the reasonable-quality digital prints were of acceptable price, the rule slowly vanished. It was "no-image", then "black-white schemes/graphs only", then "greyscale only" and finally dissolved for good. – Crowley Apr 30 at 13:04
  • I would like to agree with you, but thesis paper used to be written by hand, so the addition of illustrations shouldn't be much harder than paper even then... Though I think I've seen some graphics in Euler's papers. Maybe those were just notes, though. – mazunki May 1 at 13:02

This topic may overlap with academia and writing.

The idea of scientific publication is to comunicate your results so the other researchers may:

a) use your work as inspiration for their work, b) use your work not to do same mistakes and dead routes as you did.

The reality is that researchers are paid according to their article cadence...

Grammar is actually standard of printed/spoken comunication. It is something like IEEE to electronics. Some languages have simple grammar and subtle nuances are distinguished by different words etc. Some languages have rather complicated grammar and the nuances are sometimes hidden in word orders, word mutations etc.

Even though English is The Language of Science, very few researchers are native English speakers. All the others had to learn English as their second, third, whateverth language. Reviewers, Editors and publishers also doesn't need to be native speakers as well.

There is no hard rule that Grammar must be obeyed inscribed in heavy stone. On the other hand proper and simple grammar is mandatory to minimize risks of miscomunication caused by different understandings. For many people, whrong grammar is challenging for their attention because they slip to focusing on the grammar scratching their heads mumbling "What the heck they were trying to say?"

Recently I was helping my brother with translation of user guide for a pump from american english to czech. One sentence took one hour discussion what they tried to mean, because we had to decompose all the adjectives, many could be used as verbs as well, to realize, that the word following the sequence doesnt match, so we had to decompose it again differently...

Please, if you are to write thesis, paper or anything academical or technical, do check the grammar and ask few non-natives to check it as well. The language does not need to be smooth or nice, it shall be exact. The paper does not need to be written in Shakesperean English, Goethe's German, Voltaire's French...

Obviously, this does not apply for popularisation works like Hawking's Brief History of Time. Here, nice language is beneficial and it is, unlike scientific articles, piece of art. When properly referenced, any misunderstanding caused by nice but complicated words, is dissolved by the article with exact and simple language.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Although I upvoted your comment because I think that formal papers should foremost be clear, I think they also need to be readable. If it's too stiff and unenjoyable, it's actually difficult to get through the paper. You end up reading the same sentence over and over again as you try to stay awake. Why do you think that among the 2 million papers published a year, almost all of them are read by only about 3 people? Professionals don't even read most of the papers in their own respective fields because the writing is so dense. Don't you think? – QuietInMontana Apr 30 at 16:30
  • @JohnGreer True. One need to ballance the readability and understanadability. Maybe I've written it as true/false, black/white opinion, but both extremes are useless, either almost legalese on one side and "The nice and marvelous stories of an electron in bound states"... – Crowley May 4 at 9:31

Just a note. The person reading the paper might well be an experienced professional in the area, who reads the pertinent style and jargon very fast. Such a reader might well be annoyed by having to mentally change track in order to “understand” something in a different writing style.

[Reaction to comment. I sometimes grind my teeth and make a grammatical error for the sake of clarity. A professional style manual will tell you to violate the rules on commas (for instance) as necessary. Question 0 is, “Who is the audience?”; always write for the target audience. Grammar is not an end in itself.]

| improve this answer | |
  • I'm sorry if my question didn't make it clear. I didn't mean that the writing style would be completely altered and make it unintelligible. I was just asking if you thought that grammar rules should be strictly observed in formal papers. Or, would an incomplete sentence here or there would be ok if it actually makes the message clearer and the writing flow smoother. – QuietInMontana Apr 30 at 16:24
  • The idea I meant was, for example, if you have a paper on engineering, with lots of equations and talk about some esoteric mathematical transformation… and if you insert a short poem about the sadness of discovering that you are alone in the house. This is really going to hurt the concentration of the reader. – Carsogrin May 1 at 11:31
  • … I do not mean to pick on poetry; this is about anything that interrupts the reader’s thinking. – Carsogrin May 1 at 11:47

The works you reference all take poetic license with the grammar.

As JonStonecash mentioned, the purpose of an academic paper is to communicate information. Bad grammar and spelling will hinder the quality of a paper.

For example, "It R gramr bad and nogud spel make ppr hrd read"

| improve this answer | |

For an academic paper, the real criteria is, What does the instructor require?

This is closely related to, What sort of "academic paper"?

If you're writing a term paper for chemistry class, I think flights of poetic oratory would be frowned on, no matter how beautifully they are worded.

If you're writing a poem for a creative writing class, I would be surprised if the instructor insisted on strict grammatical correctness.

In real life, we expect poetry to often deviate from strict grammar. Poetry often puts rhyme and rhythm and "style" (for want of a better word) above strict grammar.

But for a scientific paper, the purpose is to clearly convey facts. If I was grading a paper for a programming class, I don't want to read flights of oratory about how you were overcome by the pristine beauty of the C programming language. I want to see that you understand how to manipulate a hash table or whatever the assignment was.

| improve this answer | |
  • I think you misunderstood the degree of the question. I was asking if simple incomplete sentences were ok in a formal paper, not major writing changes. I wanted to know everyone's opinion on it was. Poems would obviously not fit in a chemistry paper. Thanks for the help though. – QuietInMontana May 1 at 21:42

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.