Monthly Archives: June 2013

Stylish Writing in English: albeit

English vocabularyEveryone is looking to impress colleagues and journal editors with their proper academic writing skills. Using advanced vocabulary words seems like the easiest way to accomplish this, but using them correctly is harder than it looks.

Most people want to use advanced or uncommon vocabulary, but end up using them awkwardly, thus defeating the purpose. Non-native English speakers naturally find this more difficult as they haven’t had as much opportunity to hear advanced English vocabulary used correctly.

If you want to get away with using fancy words, then you have to do two things:

1. use them only when it serves a purpose

2. pay attention to both structure and meaning

Any advanced word won’t do: you’re looking for one that contributes a particular nuance or structural element to your text without sounding out of date or pompous. You can’t use your chosen word all the time either–try using it only once (only in the most appropriate place) in a given document for maximum impact.

Here’s an idea:English academic writing albeit



meaning: even though, though, although, even if

Middle English: “even if it be”

Be careful: albeit doesn’t have the same exact structure as even though. Albeit is more concise: it has both the subject and verb included in its meaning, so it can be used to avoid repeating “it is”.

In this way, albeit packs a punch–you’re not just using it to sound smart, you are using it because you want to introduce a contrasting idea with no unnecessary words.

Be careful! Albeit is used around the internet in ways that are neither useful nor intelligent. Every example you find is not necessarily a good one. Use the below examples as a reference.

1. Fusion power plants would also be boilers, albeit exceedingly complex ones.
2. However, the bus does have some basis in reality, albeit a more mundane and less glamorous reality.
3. Halpern believes he has benefited from his peyote sessions, albeit in ways difficult to quantify or even describe.
4. It has been expanding ever since, albeit at a more leisurely pace.
5. Such sounds have been linked, albeit tenuously, to some alleged hauntings.
6. Other observers eventually concluded that Piazzi’s discovery was indeed a planet, albeit a small one.
7. Yet those movies invoke scientific wonders and horrors largely through jolting, albeit crude, images.

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artsy fartsy

english expressions

artsy-fartsy (arty-farty in British English)

So popular it’s even on a t-shirt–if you aren’t using this expression you’re missing out! Just pronouncing it makes me smile, so naturally I think it’s high time that artsy fartsy makes its way to our little froggy land.

Caution: Don’t use this around your true artist friends if you don’t want to offend them.

1. A person who talks about high art or cultural things in a pretentious way. The rest of us think he’s silly or boring.
Rob’s friends were a couple of artsy-fartsy types who talked endlessly about the decline of the modern American novel.
2. A thing that is supposedly highly cultural, but to the regular sane person merely pretentious.
ABSTRACT ARTIST: This old boot stuck to a canvas represents fading life and lost integrity…. 
TEENAGER: Uh, yeah, dude, it’s just an artsy fartsy old boot.
If someone is artsy, they are interested in art or maybe even a budding artist. It’s not necessarily negative.
However, artsy-fartsy is a derogative term to describe art or people who are connected to art. It’s not a nice thing to say to a real artist.
Find more definitions of informal language and expressions at

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dark and stormy

It was a dark and stormy night…

This is the cliché beginning to all scary stories in English–the “Once upon a time” equivalent for scary stories, usually those with no happy ending.

English Writing Expressions

I started using this expression in my writing courses when we talk about reader expectations. Why this expression? Because some words are used together so commonly in English that you automatically fill them in, even before you read them. “Dark and stormy night” is a widely recognized example of this phenomenon.

Google uses this same concept when it tries to guess what you are searching for and fills in the end of your phrase in the search box.

If you’re interested in language learning, then you have probably heard that learning how words are commonly used together is a more effective technique for advanced learners than learning individual words. These are called collocations and they can be useful in writing as well.

For example “dark” frequently goes with “night”, so we frequently hear “a dark night”. This collocation seems pretty self-evident.

Or so I thought…

Because this is such a common expression, I expected the students to be able to guess the ending quickly and easily.

It was a dark and stormy _______________.

However, I was in for a surprise. Usually, at least one student in a group answers “day! It was a dark and stormy day!” in all seriousness.

What I hadn’t considered is that some of the collocations we have in English aren’t necessarily as strong when you live in a place with an unusual climate. Where I’m from, dark goes with night and light/bright goes with day. During the day, the sun shines.

Here in the Netherlands, however, days are more frequently dark and stormy. For a Dutch student, a dark and stormy day makes perfect sense. For me, well, it is starting to make sense too!

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Why scientists CAN be fabulous writers

Science. Writing.

Does seeing those words together make you cringe? It doesn’t have to.

science writing

Here’s why scientists may have a leg up on the rest of us when it comes to writing well. Don’t miss the writing tips at the end!

I see a lot of clever PhD students coming in thinking they are “bad” writers, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. They just need to learn to tap into a skill that they’ve already honed.

Here’s why I think scientists and academics already have the upper hand on writing:

Many scientists are left-brain dominant. The left side of the brain controls logic, analytical thinking AND language. So, believe it or not, it may actually be easier for scientists to become better writers than non-scientists. Scientists have already developed their ability to think things through logically, to tell a story sequentially, and to show relationships.

Think of writing as a puzzle. Don’t you love filling in the missing pieces? Fitting everything together so that it fits perfectly? In writing, you do just that.

As a scientist, you have already trained your brain to fit together pieces of a puzzle by showing relationships between facts or ideas. You may not have all the information, but your thinking strategy is developed. You can and should apply the same “puzzle solving” strategy to your writing.

You choose the most appropriate word and place it in the most simple sentence that portrays the essence of what you want to say. Still sound hard? You may just need some help finding your groove.

When you’re struggling with your writing, try these tips:

  • Delete what you’ve written. Sometimes trying to edit a clumsy, disorganized paragraph feels more like being up against a brick wall than starting the paragraph over and going back to the basics: “What do I want to tell in this paragraph?” Starting over rather than trying to salvage a mess can save you time and agony in the long run.
  • Move away from the computer and talk it out with a co-worker or friend. Explain to them what you want to write. Ask if they understand. Record yourself doing this and play it back when you’re sitting in front of the blank computer screen.
  • Focus on the verbs in your sentences. You always did something, found something, analyzed something. When you’re telling a story, we want to know what happened.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist. Getting the words down on paper is step one. Checking your structure and logic is step two. Making them elegant is step three, so don’t get ahead of yourself!

Like these tips? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think or better yet, stop by and have a chat with me at PhD Day at Utrecht University on June 14th. Hope to see you there!

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