Category Archives: Business English

Your Professional Reputation: will

English lessons Utrecht

In the Netherlands, you don’t hear will frequently enough among non-native speakers of English. Maybe this is because we actually contract it to make I’ll and you’ll (and those are terrible to pronounce!) or maybe because in Dutch you frequently use the present tense to talk about the future.

Whatever the reason, adding will back into your vocabulary is an easy way to sound more fluent quickly.

 Instead of…       Use…
 I see you tomorrow  I’ll see you tomorrow
 You join us later?  You’ll join us later?
 He goes to Amsterdam this Friday.  He’ll go to Amsterdam this Friday.
 They are late tonight.  They’ll be late tonight.

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Top 10 English mistakes among Dutch speakers and how to correct them

Dear Dutch compatriots,english utrecht

Maybe this year you resolved to improve your English on a professional level. In order to get you started on the right foot, please find below 10 small changes that you can make today that will greatly improve your fluency.

10. I live in Utrecht for two years.

Dutch tenses are used differently than English ones, even if they look similar. Beware! Whenever you have “for 3 months” or “since December” use the form “I have lived” and not “I live”

✔I have lived in Utrecht for two years and I’ve worked here for three months now.

9.  Maybe I do it soon.

English uses the future tense more than Dutch does. Start pronouncing the ‘ll and your English will noticeably improve: I’ll, you’ll, he’ll, she’ll, it’ll, we’ll, they’ll. Read more about when to use will in English.

✔Maybe I’ll do it soon. Don’t worry, I’ll get it done before the end of the week.

8. Yes. No.

You know this: English is less direct and more polite than Dutch. Answering with just one word sounds rude (I know you don’t mean to be!) Remember the rule of three to be more polite:

✔Yes I do. / No I don’t. / Yes I have. / No I haven’t.

Have you finished that presentation yet?

No I haven’t.

7. Hereby

You only use this word in English if you’re writing a contract. Since you probably aren’t doing that, throw this word away. When attaching a document to an email, use

✔Please find the revised version of my article attached.

6. on school

Many prepositions are used similarly, so it’s hard to tell which prepositions are different. On is an easy one though: Are you sitting on the roof of your school? If not, then you are

✔at school

5. Greetings

There are innumerable ways to translate groetjes or groeten, none of which are greetingsRead the blog post about how (not) to use greetings.

✔Cheers/Take care/Kind regards

4. The report is published.

Is published is the past tense in Dutch but the present tense in English, so it usually does not translate exactly. Read more about how to get the passive right in English.

✔The report was published (yesterday). / The report has (already) been published.

3. I am having an idea.

Certain verbs cannot be used in the ing form, even when you’re talking about right now. The most commonly misused one is have because have also appears in many expressions where it means something else, like

We’re having dinner (have = eat)

He’s having a great time (have a great time = enjoy oneself)

When have only means have, it can only appear one way:

✔I have an idea. He has a plan. We have our own company.

2. When I would do that, you wouldn’t like it.

There are actually two issues here: when and would do. Read the post about if/when and conditional sentences.

✔If I did that, you wouldn’t like it.

1. I have seen that yesterday.

I have seen/I saw sounds a lot like ik heb gezien/ik zag. However, you use each form in a completely different way than you do in Dutch. When an action is finished (last week, on Tuesday, yesterday), you have to use I saw even though you would make the sentence with ik heb gezien in Dutch:

✔I saw that yesterday.

If you learned something from this post, please share it with your friends or colleagues!

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Punctual, prompt, and on time

Punctuality is valued differently everywhere it seems, but here in the Netherlands, it is valued! Time is money, right? Maybe you’re turning over a new leaf this year and trying to be on time more often. How do you talk about it?

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Punctual and prompt are used in slightly different ways.

Punctual means arriving exactly at the appointed time.

We expect guests to be punctual at meals.

He is not a particularly punctual person.

You can use on time in almost the same way, but you can’t use it just before a noun.

We expect guests to be on time at meals.

He is not a particularly on time person. He is usually not on time.

Prompt means punctual, but it also means doing something quickly, without delay.

He answered the phone promptly.

She responded promptly to my inquiry.

Thanks for your prompt reply!

Now, if you’re going to start being on time, there are a few more words you need: sharp and on the dot. They both mean “exactly, precisely” and are used with time.

english lessons utrecht

This is what 6:00 on the dot looks like.

The meeting starts at 9 o’clock sharp.

We’ll see you at 6 o’clock on the dot. Please don’t be late.

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The secret structure of great talks | TED.com

Nancy Duarte has discovered a structure for your presentations that can keep your audience engaged and actively listening to your idea. This 18 minute talk gave one piece of advice: describe the status quo and describe what could be. Move back and forth between the two worlds. In this way, we can persuade our audience of the truth or value of our ideas. Watch the talk below to get more details!

 

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December 23, 2013 · 12:00 pm

Real English: Let’s simplify legal jargon!

This TED video makes the case for intelligible writing in the legal industry AND in business. He addresses “how to mandate simplicity” “how to make it a national priority” and states, “there’s no way we should do business with companies that have agreements with stealth provisions and that are unintelligible.”

Tax forms, credit agreements, healthcare legislation: They’re crammed with gobbledygook, says Alan Siegel, and incomprehensibly long. He calls for a simple, sensible redesign — and plain English — to make legal paperwork intelligible to the rest of us.

A branding expert and one of the leading authorities on business communication, Alan Siegel wants to put plain English into legal documents for government and business.

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October 14, 2013 · 12:00 pm

Real English: The Right to Understand

Medical, legal, and financial documents should be easy to read, but too often they aren’t. With spot-on (and funny) examples, Sandra Fisher Martins shows how overly complex language separates us from the information we need — and three steps to change that.

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September 23, 2013 · 12:00 pm

Best free online dictionaries

learn english dictionaryToo many people depend on google translate to help them with their language learning.

I hate to break it to you, but Google Translate isn’t intended to provide the depth of meaning and nuance typically necessary in an academic or professional environment.

Try these options instead:

1. Wordreference.com

especially useful for the forums

2. thefreedictionary.com

offers a medical and financial dictionary as well as acronyms and idioms

3. thesaurus.com

a dictionary of synonyms–use with care and preferably in combination with number 4

4. Oxford Collocations Dictionary online

This is not the most comprehensive dictionary ever, but helpful with putting appropriate words together

5. Google search

Not technically a dictionary, but will help you find the meaning of lots of idioms and phrases. If people are using the construction you are looking for, it will come up in google search. Use + or ” ” and don’t underestimate the auto complete feature!

6. Linguee.com

This dictionary uses a language corpus to show you examples of the phrase you are looking for and its translation in another language, so you can easily see the different translations of a word or phrase depending on the context. A delightful discovery!

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Academic Writing: the author’s we

Writing actively

In academic writing, we talk about how we should try to write actively rather than passively. To craft clear, active sentences, many writers will have to use we at one point or another. Some writers try to avoid this completely, citing a misconstrued notion that avoiding we lends objectivity to your paper. Actually, we can be used in almost any academic paper to great effect.Academic Writing English Utrecht

Have you ever thought that we doesn’t always mean you and me?

You’ve probably heard of The Royal We (“We are not amused”), but there are a number of other non-traditional uses of we, one of which defends our use in academic writing.

The author’s we

The practice common in scientific literature of referring to a generic third person by we (instead of one or the informal you)

Ex: By adding three and five, we obtain eight.

Ex: We are thus led also to a definition of “time” in physics. — Albert Einstein

Here, “we” can refer to “the reader and the author”, since the author often assumes that the reader knows certain principles or previous theorems for the sake of brevity. This saves the author from needing to explicitly write out every step of a method or mathematical proof.

One of the purposes of the author’s we, according to the OED, is “to secure an impersonal style and tone, or to avoid the obtrusive repetition of I.”

To make this sound even more academic, use its latin name: pluralis modestiae.

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Writing in English: Why we use the passive voice

In a previous post about why we should make active voice writing the default, I gave some passive voice sentences and asked you to think about why I used them. Here are my answers:

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

Here, I don’t actually know the subject of my active voice sentence. I could make a guess: “Their high school teachers/Society/The national education system/Someone taught my Dutch students that you have to write in the passive voice to be formal.” I also wanted to put emphasis on the Dutch students and not who taught them.

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

Who uses passive voice as a way to remove the subject from the sentence? Well, we all do. I could add a subject: “We/Everyone/People use passive voice as a way to remove the subject…” but because that is such a general subject, I felt that it didn’t add anything to my sentence. In placing “Passive Voice” at the beginning of the sentence, I could emphasize it, which is logical since that’s what my blog post was about.

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

Here again I don’t have a subject. Who is saying much about the passive voice? No idea–maybe you, maybe me, maybe your English teacher? Not only do I remove an unimportant or unknown subject, I also put emphasis on the verb.

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

This is obvious now, right? Who can use passive voice to put emphasis on different parts of the sentence? I don’t know–I’ve left that purposefully vague by using the passive voice. I’ve also emphasized “passive voice” by placing it in the beginning of the sentence.

To summarize, we frequently use passive voice when

  • We don’t have a subject or our subject is very general or unimportant to the context
  • We want to put emphasis on another part of the sentence (the object or verb usually) by placing it at the beginning of the sentence.

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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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