Using the Right Style in College Composition


Experts have identified three different main styles of English composition.  These are:


High (or Grand);


Middle (or Medium); and





High style can be characterized by fancy, old-fashioned or specialized vocabulary, high-flying phrases and grand-sounding sentences.  An example might be the King James Bible, e.g. “And the LORD called unto Moses, and spake unto him out of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man of you bring an offering unto the LORD, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd, and of the flock.”  (Leviticus 1: 1-2)   


Some experts also include highly technical writing under “high style,” e.g. “In this paper we discuss a new approach to the quasinormal-mode problem in general relativity. By combining a characteristic formulation of the perturbation equations with the integration of a suitable phase-function for a complex valued radial coordinate, we reformulate the standard outgoing-wave boundary condition as a zero Dirichlet condition” (


Normally, undergraduate students will never be called upon to write in a high style.  Never attempt this style in college composition! 


Middle (or Medium) style is the normal style used for serious purposes by educated English-speakers. Middle style writing may use contractions, but does not include vulgarity or slang.  Most serious newspapers are written in middle style, e.g. “El Paso the Beautiful’ opens this week. More than 50 artists will be represented in the show, gallery co-owner Laura Zelenak said. ‘We've done El Paso shows before, featuring city landmarks, and they've always been very popular. The audience likes them because it's something they can identify with,’ Zelenak said. The gallery put out a call-to-artists in March, and almost immediately began receiving submissions….” (


Low style is very informal and may include contractions, slang, vulgarity, jargon and childish language.  A good example of today’s low style is text messaging or blogging: e.g. ”Coffee? Way ahead of you. :P (n/t).   *points and laughs at Corvus_One* No coffee eh? :P (n/t) . Why you little.. *Strangles Scirocco* (n/t) by Corvus_One  *chokes and gurgles* (n/t) by Scirocco  *giggles inanely* by hieraco … Gnome? KDE? Nah! I'll CLI!” (

Normally, low style has no place in academic writing, except perhaps in quotes.



College writing is normally high-middle style, meaning that it does not use a grand style, but still avoids use of contractions, slang or informal language.


 ? Did you know?

For college writers whose first language is English, the majority of college writing errors (other than spelling and punctuation) are usually style problems, not true grammar errors. For example, even the average English-speaking seven-year-old would never say “I saw driving by a truck big red” (a true grammar error), instead of “I saw a big red truck drive by.”  If a student writes “I ain’t got no money,” this is not a grammar error (the sentence is perfect low-style English!), but rather a style error (too low for college writing). In this same way, if a student, while mistakenly trying to look “academic,” writes “I viewed a canine quadruped promenading down the broad avenue” instead of “I saw a dog walking down the street,” this, too is a serious style error: too high a style for college writing. 

If you are not familiar with the academic style of writing, find a couple of real-world academic articles in the same subject area, things that were published in journals or  textbooks, and then carefully imitate the style, level of language, grammar and vocabulary-level that the authors used. This is also extremely useful if your strongest language is not English.

To avoid style problems it usually helps if you read your own writing out loud before turning it in.  Ask yourself, “Is this really what I want to say to the professor?” 


O.W. 6/07 rev 5/09


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