What Makes Academic Texts Complex?

Continuing my think-aloud process, in this post I am talking about the first point of interest based on the five items I explore (Complexity, Logic, Organisation, Voice, Evaluation): Complexity, that is. Aside from talking about what the language components are contributing to complexity, I will also illustrate how it is relevant to “punch”, and where we are expecting complexity in a text — there are some parts that are more complex than others.

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

The common expectation on the complexity of academic texts is usually the use of technical terms that define the discipline. These terms are often used to label tools and instruments, identify phenomena, name events and happenings, and so on, in the forms of nouns. We can thus safely say that the language of academia favours nouns in different forms, aside from single-word nouns.

That’s why I keep emphasising to my students reciting vocabulary and gulping down set phrases don’t work. This is because they have to learn how to create nouns, or more precisely, how to form noun phrases by compressing sentences. Forming noun phrases includes (1) making a noun specific by adding more elements and (2) nominalisation.

I don’t seek to substantially elaborate on the two strategies, but will keep the essential bits for our consideration, in that we have better ideas about how to explain to students what it means by “academic language” in terms of complexity.

Expanded noun phrases

No joke: one day after class, a student approached me and asked: what is a noun phrase? In secondary school, my teacher only taught us about single-word nouns. This was jaw-dropping — so no one told them the Subject in a sentence can be longer than one word?! At least before nouns you can add a lot of other grammatical components, especially adjectives.

It is common to see noun phrases in scientific or technical writing, especially when writers have the consciousness to keep things concise. From a random medical research paper (McClellen et al., 2004), all noun phrases longer than three words are highlighted:

Anemia is a complication of chronic kidney disease and may contribute to adverse clinical outcomes... No large-scale population data are available… This study was undertaken to address these questions in patients with chronic kidney disease, and investigate the relationship between anemia and glomerular filtration rate.

When one expands a noun phrase, s/he adds more meaning to it. The usual effect is the noun phrase describes an object or a phenomenon more specifically, for example, from “outcomes” towards “clinical outcomes” (what kind of outcomes?) and “adverse clinical outcomes” (good or bad clinical outcomes?). This means, when a noun is added with more elements, the noun phrase puts things into classes (classification) or adds values (evaluation). These are essential in science writing, because scientists’ main jobs are to classify their observations, and to evaluate them.


Another kind of long noun phrases we have in technical texts is those with nominalisation. From the excerpt again:

Early identification and treatment of anemia may improve cardiovascular morbidity and mortality.

Of the particular focus is the Subject with the nominalisation “identification” and “treatment”. If we “unpack” this noun phrase into a clause, we can arrive at a new sentence:

If anemia is identified and treated early, cardiovascular morbidity and mortality may be improved.

Here we can see that nominalisation is not simply a change of verbs or adjectives into nouns. Other grammatical components get pushed around and converted into other elements for forming a complete clause.

If you “reverse engineer” the process again, you package two clauses into a single clause with nominalisation. This is one of the important processes in academic writing, as reported in many research works. This process shortens sentences and condense meaning for conciseness — one main strategy for summarisation in the concluding sentence and conclusion.

How complexity is related to “punch”

It is not difficult to understand that complex noun groups and condensed meaning through nominalisation contribute to the technicality of the academic text — again, scientific writing favours the noun for naming objects and phenomena.

In terms of “punch”, we can consider how much meaning is “committed” in noun phrases, that are

This US-based, multi-centre, cross-sectional survey evaluated the prevalence of anaemia in patients with chronic kidney disease.

The noun phrase is not only complex with the jargon, but also with the components surrounding it and forming a nominalisation (expanded: it is prevalent for patients with chronic kidney diseases to have anaemia). Importantly, the head noun “prevalence” has evaluative meaning as the medical condition being “common” or “significant”.

This also means, if one is committed to forming nouns to represent the technicality of the field, the evaluation coming along primarily focuses on the field, instead of making judgements on people or expressing personal emotions.

Having said so much about complexity, does it mean throughout my essay I have to pack as many elaborate noun phrases as possible? You know I’d say “no”.

Starting & finishing the “wave” with complexity

We might want to note that “complexity” doesn’t necessarily mean that a noun phrase is only structurally complex. It can also refer to an abstract or generalised idea, like the topic sentence previewing the content of the paragraph. Note the complexity of the highlighted noun phrase:

[The key reason [ in support [ of legalising same-sex marriage]]] is that it guarantees A and B.

The head noun “reason” is a shell noun, which does not hold any specific meaning until two prepositional phrases are there to expand the noun phrase. The added meanings are the stance (“support”) and the topic (“legalising same-sex marriage”); that is to say, the structurally complex noun phrase only serves to “compress” a few ideas into the main component of the topic sentence, i.e. the Subject.

The complexity of noun phrases in the concluding sentence may be higher than those in the topic sentence, for the concluding sentence summarises ideas across the paragraph in more concise terms. For example:

[Safeguarding gay couples’ legal rights [ through the legalisation [ of same-sex marriage]]] is the fundamental principle…

You’ll let the rest of the paragraph “breathe” a little by laying out examples, explanation of the topic in simpler terms, breaking down the topic into smaller points and so on. You let the meaning of the paragraph flow like a wave, with the topic and concluding sentences being the crests of the wave.

Wrapping up

So far I’ve covered nouns, packing nouns and condensing clauses into nominalisation, the language choices contributing to complexity of the field. Of course, that’s not it. We also have to consider how they are applied in disciplinary writing — not all disciplines require a high degree of complexity; not all parts of an essay need such density.

And of course, we can also consider complexity from the perspective of lexical density and the structure of clauses — we can discuss them some other time; but in the coming post, I want to talk about clauses and how they are related logically.

Especially, the notion of “cause in the clause” will be our focus: how effective writers adjust cause-and-effect relations with different expression forms in order to form a line of reasoning across the paragraph. See you next time. =)

Sources of Extracted Examples
McClellan, W., Aronoff, S. L., Bolton, W. K., Hood, S., Lorber, D. L., Tang, K. L., … & Leiserowitz, M. (2004). The prevalence of anemia in patients with chronic kidney disease. Current medical research and opinion20(9), 1501-1510.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s