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The freely available online Academic Phrasebank contains hundreds of sentence templates for the rhetorical moves typically used in academic dissertations and research papers. (A ‘rhetorical move’ is realized in a section of text serving a specific communicative function, such as convincing the reader of the importance of the ideas being propounded, indicating caution, explaining causality etc.) Originating in a corpus of some hundred postgraduate dissertations completed at the University of Manchester, Academic Phrasebank continues to enlarge its stock of generic language, expanding its corpus to include academic articles from a range of disciplines. The social sciences figure prominently among them [Davis & Morley, Fig. 3, p.4].

Another factor inspiring the creation of Academic Phrasebank by John Morley, Director of University-wide Language Programmes at Manchester University, is the finding of psycholinguistics that much language is learnt in phrases, being ‘acquired, stored and retrieved as pre-formulated constructions.’

The functional approach to academic writing and the phraseological approach to language learning of Academic Phrasebank is shared by Graff and Birkenstein’s book “They say/ I say”, written primarily for US high school and college students, aiming to “demystify academic writing” and equip students with the “moves that matter” in engaging in the dialogue and debate that take place in academic texts. Academic Phrasebank is used by university graduates and researchers – both native and non-native speakers of English – for familiarizing oneself with and exercising the various communicative functions typical of academic texts in Anglo-Saxon style, given in the form of generic English language templates. When writing one’s own text (as communicative act in the “academic conversation” going on in your field) the relevant rhetorical and language tools are more likely to be found at hand by having internalized the moves schematized and instantiated in Academic Phrasebank. As stated on the homepage, “The items in the Academic Phrasebank are mostly content-neutral and generic in nature; in using them, therefore, you are not stealing other people’s ideas and this does not constitute plagiarism.”

The sentence templates of Academic Phrasebank may be navigated according to functions specific to academic research articles:

Or they may be navigated according to general language functions typical in academic writing:

Swales’ pioneering CaRS model has been influential in codifying the rhetorical moves made in introductions to academic research articles:

  • Establishing the territory (establishing importance of the topic, reviewing previous work)
  • Identifying a niche (indicating a gap in knowledge)
  • Occupying the niche (listing purpose of new research, listing questions, stating the value the work, indicating the structure of the writing)

The section Introducing Work of Academic Phrasebank devoted to introductions accordingly gives phrases useful for the primary functions of

  • establishing the context, background and/or importance of the topic
  • presenting an issue, problem, or controversy in the field of study
  • defining the topic and/or key terms used in the paper
  • stating the purpose of the paper
  • providing an overview of the coverage and/or structure of the writing.

For each of these functions numerous examples of generic language are listed. Users need only to “fill in the gaps” with the content of their work.

Five exercises using Academic Phrasebank are offered by Davis and Morley (2018). The first is as follows and may be used to construct a “toy example” of an introduction (try it!):

Choose one of the following sentence stems for the function indicated and continue the sentence for your own introduction (you may find it useful to substitute some elements):

Establishing the importance of the topic:
One of the most significant current discussions in X is…
It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the …

Highlighting a knowledge gap in the field of study:
However, far too little attention has been paid to …
A search of the literature revealed few studies which …

Focus and aim:
This report seeks to address the following questions …
The aim of this study is to determine/examine …

Outline of structure:
This paper has been divided into four parts. The first part deals with … The first section of this paper will examine …

Explaining keywords:
While a variety of definitions of the term X have been suggested, this paper will use the definition proposed by Y who saw it as …
Throughout this paper the term X will be used to refer to …

The other exercises are (Activity 2) to identify generic language in a text extract in the form of “reusable academic phrases”; (Activity 3) to describe the purpose or function of a given set of phrases, for example in signalling transition; (Activity 4) recognizing what counts as generic language – and hence reusable as a template, and what counts as a particular turn of phrase – copying of which would therefore constitute plagiarism; (Activity 5) slotting in evaluative adjectives into generic phrases in order to comment critically.

While Academic Phrasebank may serve as a phrasebook of generic language to draw on when writing a paper in anger, it is perhaps more profitably used for becoming more conscious of the communicative functions involved in writing academic texts for English-speaking audiences, and for learning the associated English language used to realize these functions. The activities offered by Davis and Morley may be found helpful in make active use of Academic Phrasebank as a language-learning tool.

A freely downloadable print version of Academic Phrasebank contains at the end a supplement to the online material, with notes on (1) academic style, (2) commonly confused words, (3) British and US spelling, (4) punctuation, (5) article use, (6) sentence structure, (7) paragraph structure, and (8) the writing process. While the brevity of these notes has the advantage of giving overviews that are digestible in a single reading, occasionally they simplify to the point of being misleading. For example, in the notes on commonly confused words it is stated that affect (meaning to make a difference or to touch emotionally) is a verb and effect (meaning a change resulting from some cause) is a noun, skating over the fact that affect also sees use as a noun (in psychology meaning emotion in its subjective, behavioural aspect, or a manifestation of the same) and that effect is often used as a verb (meaning to cause or bring about).

An expanded version of the Academic Phrasebank is available as a navigable pdf for a modest fee.


Davis, M. and Morley J. (2018) Facilitating learning about academic phraseology: teaching activities for student writers, Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education, Special Edition: October 2018 ALDinHE Conference

Swales, J. and Feak, C. (2012) Academic writing for graduate students. 3rd ed. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Michigan University Press

Graff, G. and Birkenstein, C. (2014), “They say / I say”: the Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, 3rd ed., New York: W.W. Norton & Co. Ltd.


Andrew Goodall

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