Vocabulary is the body of words used in a particular language, and each academic subject at university has its own specialist language and technical terms.

Using the correct vocabulary for your subject is important to convey your understanding. You will learn these terms as you read more and become more familiar with the way ideas are expressed in your subject. There is also an impression that academic writing uses ‘posh’ or ‘fancy’ words, but this is a misconception, as the best academic writing is clear and accurate. 

Scroll down for our recommended strategies and resources.

Core vocabulary and discipline-specific vocabulary

There are some core words that are common in most forms of academic study, such as words like ‘analyse’ or ‘discuss’, and there are other words that are specific to the subject you are studying, for example ‘acute’ or ‘clinical’ in Nursing. You may be familiar with some of the core vocabulary terms from language courses or previous study, but you will need to keep developing your discipline-specific vocabulary as you progress through your course. See this resource for a comprehensive guide to learning both core and specific vocabulary:

Beware of general dictionaries for discipline-specific terms

A discipline-specific word or phrase often conveys complex concepts behind it (just try defining ‘critical thinking’!) Looking up specialist words in a general dictionary might not fully explain these nuances. Instead, try reading something simple, but in context, like a text book or brief guide to your subject to get a basic understanding first, or look up the term in a subject-specific dictionary.

Write to express, not to impress

You don’t need to find fancier sounding synonyms, as the replacement words might not mean exactly the same. You also don’t need to vary your language; if it is the right term, use it, because changing it could be inaccurate. Many journal articles are written for very narrow audiences and are written by academics showing off; your work doesn’t need to sound like this. 

Academic Word List

Linguists have developed a list of 570 English word families which frequently appear in academic texts but are not often taught as part of general language learning. These words are not connected with any specific subject but are useful for all students studying at university:

Vocabulary for linking and introducing ideas

As well as common words used in academic writing, there are also common phrases and linking words for creating coherence and transitioning between ideas. Look at these pages for words to start and link sentences: 

Learn common collocations

Collocations are words that frequently appear together in English and sound right when used together. Readers tend not to notice expected word combinations like ‘greatly improve’, but unexpected combinations like ‘highly improve’ sound slightly wrong and make the text seem less fluent. Unfortunately, collocations do not follow set rules, so they have to be learned. When you encounter a new vocabulary word, write down the whole sentence, not just the individual word. Then see if you can find two or three other sentences in which the word appears; notice if there are any words that often appear alongside it, as these are likely to be collocations. Recording vocabulary as part of a sentence, rather than as isolated words, builds up a context that makes it easier to remember the words and to see which other words go alongside them. You can also search for appropriate collocations by using the Academic Collocation List or the Flax corpus tool below.     

Read widely

We learn vocabulary by immersion and through regular repetition and usage. If you would like to develop your general vocabulary try reading widely, like a good quality newspaper or magazine in your field.

Language learner dictionaries

These are a type of dictionary especially designed for the needs of language learners. You can find many language learner dictionaries in the Library, such as The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary - try searching for ‘advanced learner’s English dictionary’ in the Brookes Library catalogue.