Monthly Archives: April 2013

Coronation vs Inauguration

Dutch coronation

With all the hoopla surrounding the Dutch coronation song, I have been prompted to read a bit more about the upcoming festivities when Nederland will get a new king.

But, oops, it’s not actually a coronation, it’s a “coronation.” Apparently, the Dutch monarchy is more of a hereditary governmental job than an actual kingship. The king and queen will not be crowned, so we can’t use the word “coronation.” Instead, we have to use “inauguration” –which is what we use in the US for democratically-elected presidents!

Inaugurate just means to induct into office by a formal ceremony. There’s nothing “ruling” associated with the word. However, coronation comes from “crown” as in the act of crowning a monarch. Apparently there will be a crown, but it will be placed on the table.

Beware though: No crown doesn’t mean no tiara. Maxima has an extensive collection of tiara’s for the inauguration.


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Writing in English: active/passive voice

Writing clearly in English, even though it might be a foreign language for you, is a vital skill that can earn you the respect of your colleagues and superiors. Because not everyone has time to read more in English (the best way to become a better writer), you can learn some easy techniques to improve your writing. Here is one:

Write in the active voice

English Writing course UtrechtThe active voice. It’s the way we normally think–it’s like chronological order for reading. Subject…verb…object. This is the information we want to find in the sentence, and we want to find it as quickly as possible, in the order that we are expecting it. It’s so natural, so normal to write in the active voice that I am surprised when I read writing that is almost entirely in the passive voice. At some point, my Dutch students (and some foreign students as well) were taught that you have to write in the passive voice to be formal.

Passive voice is exactly the opposite of the active voice in terms of structure: Object…verb…(subject). Passive voice is frequently used as a way to remove the subject from the sentence. While much can be said about the passive voice, I will limit myself here to discussing why non-native speakers (namely Dutch) should avoid using it as much as they do and try to return to a simpler sentence structure.

Many Dutch professionals who are highly-educated and otherwise very capable in English insist on writing in the passive voice, thinking this is what makes their writing formal.

Passive Voice Misconceptions

Students have told me that they remember their high school English teacher instructing them that passive voice is formal in English, so if they want to write formally, they have to write in the passive voice. Whether or not this oversimplified message was the intended one or not, many Dutch professionals who are highly-educated and otherwise very capable in English insist on writing in the passive voice, thinking this is what makes their writing formal. As a result of this misconception, they do linguistic acrobatics to make as many sentences as possible passive. Then, when these professionals get the difficult-to-swallow feedback that their writing is unreadable from a colleague or even a boss, they have to try to unlearn this bad habit.

To avoid this embarrassment, we need to bring a lot more nuance into this message.

The most formal writing is usually also the most unreadable.

It’s true that the more formal the writing is, the more passive voice you will find. However, the most formal writing is usually also the most unreadable– have you ever tried to read a legal contract? Unless you are a lawyer educated at an English-speaking university who must write legal contracts in English, your goal is to create writing that is readable and clear, with an appropriate level of formality (or register).American English registerAppropriate means using the passive voice when necessary — not all the time. I will not tell you that you won’t write in the passive voice ever–that’s not possible. I will tell you that you should change your default way of writing from passive to active. Generally, writing is easier to read when there is more active voice.

What about formality?

Just because you see passive voice more frequently in more formal writing doesn’t necessarily mean that this structure is what causes a piece of writing to be formal or informal. Rather, passive voice can be used to put emphasis on different parts of the sentence, to follow the information principle, or to avoid taking responsibility, among other things. There are reasons to use the passive voice, but that’s just it: you should have a reason for using it. It should not be your default.

passive voice English

You can make your writing more formal by looking at a number of factors: the kinds/amount of verbs you use, the register of the nouns you use, the concreteness of your subject, the structure of your quotations, etc. I teach students in my writing course that an appropriate level of formality is a balance between formality and readability, where clarity trumps everything else. Because of the confusing structure of the passive voice, it is generally less readable than the simple, natural structure of the active voice.

Why passive voice is harder to read and write

Passive voice is also more difficult to use than the active voice. In order to create a sentence in the passive voice, you have to first make sure that you don’t have a (grammatical) subject. Since many people can’t identify the subject in their sentences in the first place, this goes wrong from the very beginning. Then you have to make sure you have the correct verb tense translation from Dutch to English, which can be tricky. Because the structure is more complicated, passive voice sentences created by non-native speakers tend to be grammatically incorrect, which makes the message even more obscure.

There are reasons to use the passive voice, briefly mentioned above. Being able to use the passive voice correctly as a non-native speaker is a skill that you can learn. For now, look closely at your passive voice sentences and decide if you have a reason for using the passive–if not, ask yourself if an active structure wouldn’t be clearer. I will detail the reasons for using the passive in another post.

Things to Remember:

Writing in the active voice is not news–it’s not innovative or challenging. It’s just normal.

Passive voice does not necessarily equal better or more formal, and it’s not used as frequently in English as you might think.

Q. I used the following passive voice constructions in this post. Can you figure out why? Answers coming in the post on why we use the passive voice.

1. At some point, my Dutch students were taught that you have to write in the passive voice to be formal.

2. Passive voice is frequently used as a way to remove the subject from the sentence.

3. While much can be said about the passive voice,…

4. Rather, passive voice can be used to put emphasis on different parts of the sentence,…

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Birthdays in the Netherlands

Today is my birthday, hoera! How we talk about and celebrate birthdays can differ quite widely it seems.  What do you say to a birthday boy or girl?

Don’t say “Congratulations!” when your English-speaking friend has a birthday, say “Happy Birthday!” Reserve “Congratulations” for when someone gets a promotion or graduates. Congratulations implies achieving some success, and for some strange reason we English speakers don’t consider getting older an achievement. I don’t know why!

Happy Birthday English

In the Netherlands it is traditional to throw your own party/bring your own cake. This goes by the name of “traktatie” which is when you make or buy your own cake and bring it to work/school. “Ik trakteer!” means you treat the rest of the office to your birthday, they don’t treat you because it’s your birthday. Today, I am looking forward to treating my students in true Dutch fashion. I made these and they are delicious!  In the US, however, friends and family usually throw you a party and provide you with cake.

The jury is still out on which I like better! At least when you make the cake yourself, you always get what you want!


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Open House

Today marks an “Open huizen dag” in Utrecht, organized twice yearly across the country. It means “Open House Day”- one of the (many) times that a word for word translation serves you reasonably well. Participating sellers open up their homes to everyone on this day, no appointment needed, in the hopes of finding a buyer. Likewise, those looking to buy a house get on their bicycles and pedal around the city knocking on doors of participating houses.

This is what their flyer looks like:  English Utrecht

Interestingly, while the Netherlands organizes national open house days, I have never seen this on such a large scale in the US. Usually individuals decide when to have an open house entirely of their own accord, not in cooperation with any other homes in their area. This might differ from city to city. Personally, I think a national open house day is a fabulous phenomenon: you can look at a lot of houses in four hours!

You might talk about Open House Day like this:

“We’re having an open house this Saturday.”

“We’re visiting a lot of open houses this Saturday.”

“Sorry, we can’t go away that weekend, it’s Open House weekend! We have to go see houses!”

Open House is also used in another very common context, at least in the US. The evening that parents are invited to the children’s school to see what pictures the kid has made, have a chat with the teachers, and find out what the kid is learning– “Ouderavond” — is also called Open House. During an open house, the (elementary) school opens up its doors to parents.

“I have to leave work on time tonight because my kid’s school is having an open house.”

Notice that in both contexts we say having an open house if you are the one giving it.

Enjoy all the open houses today!

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Your Professional Reputation: that tricky ing

The Dutch have both a good rep and and a bad rep when it comes to English.

The good: They all speak it reasonably well.

The bad: They only speak it reasonably well.

This only really matters when it’s your professional reputation on the line: when you need to speak English more than reasonably well in order to get the respect of your international partner, to seal the deal, the impress the client, etc.

When starting a new project, I usually have some email contact with my future clients before I’ve met them. They usually end their emails with “I am looking forward to meet you on Monday.” If you see nothing wrong with this sentence, read on.

“I am looking forward to” is always followed by “something”
I am looking forward to the party on Saturday night.
I am looking forward to Spring.
I am looking forward to the launch of our new product line.

english course training utrecht

The party, Spring, and the launch are all nouns. Whenever you want to put a verb (work, think, see) where a noun belongs, you have to use the -ing form of the verb, called a gerund (working, thinking, seeing).

I am looking forward to celebrating Queen’s Day.
I am looking forward to meeting you on Monday.
I am looking forward to travelling this summer.

This is also commonly seen in the expression “I am used to…”

I am used to Dutch weather. (noun)
I am used to having cheese sandwiches every day for lunch. (gerund)

It’s really that easy. If you can put a noun there, use a gerund. When in doubt, do a quick google search of the verb you are using and “gerund or infinitive”–by avoiding these small errors, you project competence.

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