Words Matter - Alignment

By now, you have probably noticed that the writing you do for academia is not the same as you do in a blog, at work, or in an email. For many years, your writing style has been casual, and you may have given thought from time-to-time about certain words you use. To write a dissertation, thesis, or doctoral study, all the words matter. Today, we will cover the first key area of academic writing - alignment. There are three main points to address in alignment, (a) aligning with your study focus, (b) aligning your grammatical tense, and (c) aligning your subjects with verbs.

Align Your Study Words

Your entire document needs to consistently circle back to your study focus - research question, business problem, or hypothesis. The words you use in those statements must be used throughout your study. If your study is about improving productivity, then the data you collect will be about improving productivity, the supporting research will be about improving productivity, your research results will be about improving productivity, etc. Are you seeing a pattern here?

Align Your Grammatical Tense

The second issue we need to address in alignment is the use of grammatical tense. If we are writing about something that happened in the past, such as previously conducted research or something someone else had already written, we need to use past tense in our document when we are citing it. Example: “Researchers discovered…” When writing in past tense, watch for the “ed”s and make sure the action words you use reflect the past. However, when writing your proposal, the document seeking permission to conduct your research, you need to write what YOU are going to do in present or future tense. Example: “I will…” In this case, you should not have verbs ending in “ed”, except when you are citing something someone else already did. After you have conducted your research and you are reporting on your results, the entire study then gets rewritten in past tense, because you have now done what you said you were going to do. Once your document is published, people will write about your study in the past tense.

Align Your Subject with Verbs

The rule here is, if we are writing about a single subject, then we use a plural verb, and vice versa. Example: A researcher conducts studies. In this sentence, we are talking about one researcher (single subject) and use a plural verb (conducts). Here is a vice versa example: Researchers conduct studies. In this sentence, we are talking about more than one researcher (plural subject) and use a singular verb (conduct). The main area where I see this get really messed up is when people are writing about study participants or using possessives (‘s). An apostrophe s does not make a word plural, it only shows who or what possesses the object. When dealing with an apostrophe, pretend it does not exist and then look at the word to determine if it is singular or plural, then follow it up with the proper verb.

Alignment matters throughout your entire document. I suggest that as you write, have your study focus in front of you, so you use the exact terms. Reread your document frequently to assure your verbs align with the proper tense and the subject of the sentence. Aligning your document is critical to the success of your academic writing.

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