About Academic Phrasebank

Theoretical Influences

The Academic Phrasebank largely draws on an approach to analysing academic texts originally pioneered by John Swales in the 1980s. Utilising a genre analysis approach to identify rhetorical patterns in the introductions to research articles, Swales defined a ‘move’ as a section of text that serves a specific communicative function (Swales, 1981,1990). This unit of rhetorical analysis is used as one of the main organising sub-categories of the Academic Phrasebank. Swales not only identified commonly-used moves in article introductions, but he was interested in showing the kind of language which was used to achieve the communicative purpose of each move. Much of this language was phraseological in nature.

The resource also draws upon psycholinguistic insights into how language is learnt and produced. It is now accepted that much of the language we use is phraseological in nature; that it is acquired, stored and retrieved as pre-formulated constructions (Bolinger, 1976; Pawley and Syder, 1983). These insights began to be supported empirically as computer technology permitted the identification of recurrent phraseological patterns in very large corpora of spoken and written English using specialised software (e.g. Sinclair, 1991).  Phrasebank recognises that there is an important phraseological dimension to academic language and attempts to make examples of this explicit.

Sources of the phrases

The phrases in this resource have been taken from authentic academic sources. The original corpus from which the phrases were ‘harvested’ consisted of 100 postgraduate dissertations completed at the University of Manchester. However, phrases from academic articles drawn from a broad spectrum of disciplines have also been, and continue to be,  incorporated.

In most cases, the phrases have been simplified and where necessary they have been ‘sifted’ from their particularised academic content. Where content words have been included for exemplificatory purposes, these are substitutions of the original words. In selecting a phrase for inclusion into the Academic Phrasebank, the following questions are asked:

  • does it serve a useful communicative purpose in academic text?
  • does it contain collocational and/or formulaic elements?
  • are the content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives) generic in nature?
  • does the combination ‘sound natural’ to a native speaker or writer of English?

When is it acceptable to reuse phrases in academic writing?

In a recent study (Davis and Morley, 2013), 45 academics from two British universities were surveyed to determine whether reusing phrases was a legitimate activity for academic writers, and if so, what kind of phrases could be reused. From the survey and later from in-depth interviews, the following characteristics for acceptability emerged. A reused phrase:

  • should not have a unique or original construction;
  • should not express a clear point of view of another writer;
  • may be up to nine words in length; beyond this ‘acceptability’ declines;
  • may contain up to four generic content words (nouns, verbs or adjectives which are not bound to a specific disciplinary domain).

Some of the entries in the Academic Phrasebank contain specific content words which have been included for illustrative purposes. These words should be substituted when the phrases are used. In the phrases below, for example, the content words in bold should be replaced:

  • X is a major public health problem, and the cause of ….
  • X is the leading cause of death in western-industrialised countries.

The many thousands of disciplinary-specific phrases which can be found in academic communication comprise a separate category of phrases. These tend to be shorter than the generic phrases listed in Academic Phrasebank, and typically consist of noun phrases or combinations of these. Acceptability for reusing these is determined by the extent to which they are used and understood by members of a particular academic community.

Further work

One current project is to make the whole of the Academic Phrasebank downloadable as a PDF file. This will also include sections of academic style, punctuation and common errors. Research is currently being carried out on how experienced and less-experienced writers make use of the Academic Phrasebank.


  • Bolinger, D. (1976) ‘Meaning and memory’. Forum Linguisticum, 1, pp. 1–14.
  • Davis, M., and Morley, J. (2018) ‘Writing with sources: how much can be copied?’. In Student Plagiarism in Higher Education, edited by Diane Pecorari and Philip Shaw. Oxford: Routledge, 2018
  • Davis, M., and Morley, J. (2015) ‘Phrasal intertextuality: The responses of academics from different disciplines to students’ re-use of phrases’. Journal of Second Language Writing 28 (2) pp. 20-35.
  • Davis, M. and Morley, J. (2013) ‘Use your own words: Exploring the boundaries of plagiarism’. In EAP within the higher education garden: Cross-pollination between disciplines, departments and research, John Wrigglesworth (Ed.). Proceedings of the BALEAP Conference, Portsmouth 2011. Reading: Garnet Education.
  • Hopkins, A. & Dudley-Evans, A. (1988). ‘A genre-based investigations of the discussions
    sections in articles and dissertation’. English for Specific Purposes, 7(2), 113-122.
  • Pawley, A. and Syder, F.H. (1983). ‘Two puzzles for linguistic theory: nativelike selection and nativelike fluency’. In: Richards, J.C. and Schmidt, R.W. (Eds.), Language and Communication, pp. 191-226. Longman: New York.
  • Sinclair, J. (1991) Corpus, concordance, collocation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Swales, J. (1981). Aspects of article introductions (Aston ESP Research Report No. 1). Birmingham: Language Studies Unit: University of Aston.
  • Swales, J. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.