Category Archives: Business English

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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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.

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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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Work hard, play hard

In the US, the work hard, play hard motto is ubiquitous, especially in corporations. I think I first encountered it in college around 2002, or at least that’s the first time it stayed with me. Even back then I thought there was something deeply disturbing about this concept, something wrong with the notion that your whole life has to be hard. Organizations claim that this phrase encourages work-life balance, but let’s be honest: what it really communicates is the idea of doing everything at full blast.

What does play hard really mean?English courses Utrecht

I’m sure the form it takes differs, but in my experience it means employees playing (partying) together: binge drinking, all-night parties, crazy behavior that typically would not be accepted at work but is during the party period, and then getting up at 7am on a Saturday morning and working all day. I question: When did you sleep? Plus, if you are partying with your coworkers, is this really time away from work, or work-sponsored partying?

Wikipedia claims: “This work-play balance is similar to the concept of work-life balance.”

However, if all parts of your life are hard, where’s the balance? The concept of “life is hard” is everywhere, but I still strongly associate it with the US. There, it has taken the form of “Life is hard: work all the time,” but no one talks about how your productively plummets when you live such a lifestyle, not to mention what happens to your stress levels.

The more time I spend in Europe, the greater the rift that grows between me and the US culture of working non-stop and then playing hard. Such a lifestyle would never have been my choice, though what interests me is why people still think it’s not only normal, but also the preferred way to live.

We know Americans view Europeans as lazy: shops are closed on Sunday, everyone gets at least 6 weeks of vacation every year,  and you can’t get anything done in August. Compare this to the 24 hour superstores and 2 weeks of vacation and it doesn’t make sense that US productivity per employee per hour is lower than the Netherlands and some other European countries. I am not an economist, but it seems like if you compare productivity per hour worked, a number of European countries come out better than the US:

Europe: More Holidays and More Productive?

List of countries by GDP (PPP)

So why continue to promote this destructive culture? By destructive I mean destructive of your health, both physical and mental, and destructive of your relationships outside of work.

Fortunately, not all companies are continuing to promote it. After analyzing their alcohol-related incidents at work, the U.S. Air Force tried to change their motto from work hard, play hard (which in practice had become work hard, play recklessly) to work hard, play smart.

How about work hard, then relax? Spend some time with your family? Take the weekends off to recharge? Employees should be able to decide for themselves how they spend their free time.

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Your Professional Reputation: the conditional

If you’re trying to come across as professional and capable of speaking English at a high level, even the smallest giveaway can clearly demonstrate that your English is not up to par.

One of the most common pitfalls for non-native English speakers occurs when people want to talk about a conditional. This can be a hard habit to break since it is a direct translation from Dutch.

The big blunder in the Netherlands is putting the will/would in the “if” part of the sentence:

Right: If I get a promotion, we will go on vacation.
Wrong: If I will get a promotion, we will go on vacation.

Right: If you ran a marathon, you would be really tired.
Wrong: If you would run a marathon, you would be really tired.

Sometimes, students are confused because they think that because we use the past tense (if you ran) then we are talking about something that happened in the past. Not true, this is just an idiosyncrasy of English: we use the past simple to talk about a future condition.

Another common problem is when people mix up if and when as if they are interchangeable–they’re not!

As a rule of thumb, conditionals always start with if:

If means that you are not sure something will happen. When means that you know it will happen, you’re just not sure if it will be tomorrow, next week, or next year.

Be careful: If you start a conditional sentence with when, it can change your meaning entirely and you may end up saying something you don’t want to.

If we rob this bank, we’ll be rich. (I haven’t decided yet if we will rob the bank. No need to call the police.)
When we rob this bank, we’ll be rich. (Decision made! We are so robbing the bank. Don’t say this too loudly.)

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Your Professional Reputation: Fired or Laid off?

In our current economic climate, more and more people are losing their jobs. In the Netherlands, we have been hearing about the casualties every week on the news: 3000 from one company, 800 from another. If you find yourself among the ever-increasing number of unemployed, Dutch and foreign alike, you should do all you can to increase your chances of future employment, starting with changing your vocabulary.

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“I got fired” is the go-to expression in the Netherlands. However, this expression implies that you did something wrong and that you left your company on bad terms. When you say “I got fired,” you will usually be asked to explain what happened (you weren’t performing, you cooked the books, you couldn’t get along with your manager). Most companies are going to view the phrase “I got fired” as code for “I was a bad employee and my company had to get rid of me.”

Most likely you will want to use “I got laid off”: because of circumstances outside of your control, the company could no longer afford to employ you (and probably many of your co-workers). This expression implies that you could be a good employee, but your business division or your job was made redundant. It strengthens your argument if you can say something along the lines of “I survived three rounds of layoffs before it was my turn.”

Another neutral option is “I lost my job.” Use this when you don’t want to give information about the circumstances surrounding your dismissal.

Best of luck on the job market!

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