Category Archives: Language Learning

How to be more concise in academic writing: a quick fix

Do you have a problem with wordiness in academic writing? Do you want your writing to be more concise and easier to read?

Make this one change: Use More Verbs. Here’s how you do it.

  1. Look at one section of your writing at a time.
  2. Highlight the main verb in each sentence. Usually you’ll see words like: shows, is, does, makes, are, etc. These verbs are vague: they tell me NOTHING about what is happening.
  3. Look at one sentence now. If the verb does not give a clear action, ask yourself what action you are trying to show. Here’s a simple example: Variable A shows an increase over time. The verb is shows. The action is increases.
  4. Change the boring, empty verb to a precise verb¬†that shows the action. In the example above, you need to change the noun (an increase) to a verb (increases). Now you’ve got Variable A increases over time.
  5. Repeat! Add precise verbs everywhere. You cannot overdo it.

In summary: change the nouns in your sentences to verbs. You’ll reduce wordiness and add clarity.




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It’s just not all it’s cracked up to be.

When you say something is “not all it’s cracked up to be” you mean that you think it’s not as great as everyone says it is. Not to say that Halloween isn’t fun, just that it’s over-hyped. So: Halloween isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be.

You can use this for almost anything:

College isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: the one-time ticket to success is more likely to result in a lifetime of debt.

Utopia isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Why working for yourself isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Why intermittent fasting isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.


And finally,

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Vol is vol and no rainchecks!

Vol is vol. How to translate this little Dutch beauty?

I’ll tell you what not to do: full is full. NO.

Your translation will depend on the context.


If it’s for a concert or show:

Space is limited.

First come, first served.

Tickets will be sold on a first come first serve basis.

Seats will be allocated on a first come first serve basis.


If you’re selling a product:

Once they’re gone, they’re gone!

Limited supply.

Limited time offer.

No rainchecks.


What’s a raincheck? It’s the opposite of vol=vol actually. When a store is out of stock of a sale item, you can get a rain check and then come back and get the item another time for the sale price! Talk about customer service. ūüôā

Here is what a rain check looks like at Target:

rain check english lessons utrecht

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We’re all just mere mortals

Mere and Merely are not extremely common but when these words come up, people have¬†a hard time understanding what they mean. In general, you can replace them with “only”.

They can be put to good use in academic writing!


Something small or insignificant; Nothing more than what is mentioned (only)
The mere idea made me shudder.
It was a mere formality.
With the merest suggestion of corruption, the entire project will be shut down.


nothing more or less (only)
He’s merely a secretary.
I was merely suggesting that…
This merely aggravates the problem.
This procedure is merely a matter of form.
It was merely a coincidence; there was no causal relationship.
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The world’s English mania

In just 5 minutes, Jay Walker looks at the world’s latest mania: learning English. He focuses especially on China, showing photos and spine-tingling audio of Chinese students rehearsing English by the thousands. But why make such an effort to learn English?


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September 29, 2014 · 7:00 am

How to tell when you are learning

Learning is happening constantly, we just don’t notice it.

Only when look back do we notice how much progress we have made. However, if you don’t notice how much you are learning, you may think that you are not learning anything.

This can lead you into a vicious circle: if you cannot see the progress you are making, you will think that you are not making any progress, then you will get frustrated at yourself, which limits your ability to learn, which impedes your progress even more.

It may seem like it gets worse before it gets better

To get out of that circle and back on the right track, it may help to understand that you go through stages of learning, and it may seem like your language skills get worse before they get better. They do not actually get worse, you only become more aware of what you need to learn.

Maslow’s four stages of competence show how this actually works.

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Diagram by Donna Horn

The Four stages of Competence (De vier stadia van leren)

(partial descriptions from Wikipedia)

  1. Unconscious incompetence (onbewust onbekwaam)
    The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognize their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage. 

    You leave this stage when you decide to start learning something; you recognize that something is missing in your knowledge. This is when you decide to sign up for English lessons, for example.

  2. Conscious incompetence (bewust onbekwaam)
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.

    This is a vital stage where you might have the tendency to quit. You become aware of all the things you don’t know, which may feel overwhelming. In language, there seems to always be more that we don’t know.

  3. Conscious competence (bewust bekwaam)
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

    You make fewer mistakes, but speaking your new language still requires effort. You may start to wonder if you will ever speak “with ease”.

  4. Unconscious competence (onbewust bekwaam)
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become “second nature” and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.

    You feel that you have arrived. You radiate confidence.

The second stage: the one that hurts, the one where all the learning happens

Many students I see are in the second stage. You realize that you are missing something but may not be quite sure what it is. After a few sessions, you have a better idea what is missing and sometimes it’s a lot.

Confidence can plummet at this point–all you can see is how “bad” you are, and not how much you are changing week by week. But progress comes in many forms.

Here is how to recognize that you are learning something:

  • You can say what you don’t know– you can put a name to it
  • You can correct your mistakes when they are pointed out to you
  • You can identify your mistakes or recognize when something is “wrong” (even if you don’t know what is “right”)
  • You can ask questions about what you don’t know
  • You can say what parts you understand and what parts you don’t


So please don’t get hung up on the fact that you are making mistakes.¬†That’s exactly what you should be doing–making mistakes!¬†You should be struggling with difficult concepts–the more you focus on what’s difficult, the more you’ll learn. No need to be flawless and perfect the first time.


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How to form a proper sentence in English

english lessons utrecht

You might be thinking that this post is too simple for you to read, that you learned this in kindergarten. However, if your mother tongue is something other than English, please read on.

Outside of reading my students’ work, I sometimes find myself reading English written by Dutch speakers on the internet or in a book. I wince in embarrassment for the author when I see half of a sentence with a period after it.

Complete sentences in other languages are not necessarily complete sentences in English. This statement is especially applicable to Dutch speakers–many will look at half an English sentence and think that it would sound right in Dutch, so what’s the problem?

The problem is your colleagues and clients might be judging your harshly for writing in half sentences¬†because it makes your writing look childish.¬†In short, this can be an embarrassing mistake for a professional to make.¬†Are you alarmed? Let’s correct this.

Part I: You need two things

To form a sentence in English, you must have two things:

1. a subject

2. a main verb

(Actually, you also need a capital letter.)

If you are missing either of these two things, then you are not looking at a sentence, you are looking at a phrase.

These are not sentences, but phrases:

a vase of roses

a very interesting life

as fast as possible

under the couch

These are sentences:

A vase of roses was sitting on the hall table when I walked in.

He led a very interesting life.

The race car driver drove as fast as possible.

They hid my keys under the couch.

Part II: You can put sentences together in different ways

A sentence can be composed of one or multiple clauses. A clause is just a part of a sentence with a subject and a verb. A simple sentence, like

Ice cream has a lot of sugar.


Kids love ice cream.

only has one clause. It’s independent because it can stand by itself and and makes sense. This is your typical English sentence: subject-verb-object. (Ice cream-has-sugar.)

I can put both independent sentences together using the words for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so (FANBOYS):

Ice cream has a lot of sugar, so kids love it! OR Ice cream has a lot of sugar, and kids love it!

Part III: All ways to combine sentences are not equal

What if I add a different word to the beginning of the sentence?

Because ice cream has a lot of sugar.

“Because” is a word that connects two sentences together, but it causes the sentence to become dependent. It’s called a¬†subordinator (other subordinators are¬†since, after, although,¬†when,¬†that, who,¬†or¬†which).¬†This sentence is now dependent because it starts with a subordinator. What is it dependent on? It is dependent on another sentence. It cannot stand by itself. It needs to be joined to an independent clause to be considered a sentence.

Kids love ice cream because it has a lot of sugar.

Taa-daa! Now it’s a sentence again. This is called a complex sentence because it has an independent part (Kids love ice cream) and a dependent part (because it has a lot of sugar). These two parts of the sentence are not balanced. The first part can stand by itself but the second part cannot.

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Part IV: Examples from Dutch

The root of the problem among Dutch speakers seems to be that it is ok to use dependent clauses as complete sentences in Dutch. For examples, you can have a sentence like this in Dutch:

Zodat wij al die bezoeken aan de musea kunnen blijven betalen.

which translates to this in English:

So that we can continue to be able to pay for all those visits to the museums.

The Dutch sentence is correct (I assume, since I see it everywhere) while the English sentence is not actually a sentence. Why not?¬†They both have a subject and a verb. The problem is that “so that” in English causes the sentence to be a dependent clause.

In English, only this sentence is correct:

We need to continue to subsidize the museum card so that we can continue to be able to pay for all those visits to the museums.

More examples…

1. The mortgages are granted by banks who profit from these deals greatly.

Although¬†there are¬†voices¬†stating that plenty of banks¬†back up their mortgage¬†deals¬†with¬†a mix of real¬†and imaginary (or ‚Äėmultiplied‚Äô)¬†money.

This is only half a sentence–it’s only the dependent part.¬†An independent part needs to follow the dependent part. Here is an example with “although”:

Although what constitutes as a militia has been up for debate, the supreme court upholds the idea that a militia is the general population.

2. Dealers usually have a whole assortment of wares you might be interested in.

So it’s easier to start experimenting with other drugs.

Here is the correct version:

Dealers usually have a whole assortment of wares you might be interested in, so it’s easier to start experimenting with other drugs. 

Do you have any other examples of only half a sentence when translating from Dutch to English?

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British vs American English

Ever wonder why sometimes you see “center” and other times “centre”? Sometimes you see “fulfill” and other times “fulfil”? Many students of English have no clear notion of what exactly makes British and American English different, hence this post. I hope to clear up your confusion.

Britishenglish lessons utrecht

Some people call this “proper English” but it’s actually composed of many different people speaking many different dialects, only a small percentage of which is “received pronunciation” or BBC English. How small? Estimates show that 3-5% of British native speakers actually speak with this accent. So, please, let’s not worry about the accent.

British English is characterised by

  • additional silent letters, like the “a” in paediatric, anaemia, orthopaedic and aesthetic or the “o” in¬†edoema, foetus and manoeuvre;
  • “our” in words like flavour, favourite, endeavour and honour;
  • an additional “l” in words like counsellor, labelled, or traveller;
  • “ise” in words like authorise, characterise, organise and accessorise (though “ize” is becoming more accepted);
  • “yse” in words like analyse, catalyse and paralyse;
  • “re” in words like centre, theatre, calibre and litre;
  • “gue” in words like dialogue, catalogue and prologue.

British English also uses the semi-colon after each bullet point and the full stop at the end of a list, where American English uses no punctuation with bullet points.

Americanenglish lessons utrecht

Americans have stereotypically “worse” speech, but that depends highly on where a person is from. Many people tell me they find American English to be easier to understand, but whether that is because they are more familiar with the accent through the American media or because Americans use fewer rare and complex words, I don’t know.

American English is characterized by

  • deletion of those pesky silent letters, like the “a” in pediatric, anemia, orthopedic and esthetic or the “o” in¬†edema, fetus and maneuver;
  • “or” in words like flavor, favorite, endeavor and honor
  • a single “l” in words like counselor, labeled, or traveler
  • “ize” in words like authorize, characterize, organize and accessorize
  • “yze” in words like analyze, catalyze and paralyze
  • “er” in words like center, theater, caliber and liter
  • “g” or “gue” in words like dialog/dialogue, catalog/catalogue and prolog/prologue

Fortunately, most differences in British and American English are in the spelling or everyday vocabulary domain and so should not have a dramatic impact on research or professional situations.

This is by no means an exhaustive list (though this is a pretty exhaustive list), so use the dictionary and spelling function on each document–choose UK or US English and just follow the dictionary’s recommendations.



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Fortune favors the brave

As a new academic year begins, here’s a thought :

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For more than 2200 years, people have been exhorted to take action, to dare, to aspire to achieve great things. How can you use this expression in your life today?


Colleague: I can wait to publish this article until next year when I have more experience.

You: Fortune favors the brave! You might get accepted already–you never know.


I’ve decided to sign up for this writing course even though I’m not finished writing my article yet. It will stimulate me to get it done and you know, fortune favors the brave!


Child: The slide is scary!

You: Fortune favors the brave! Go for it!



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How to use less and fewer

The difference between less and fewer is actually really easy!

Use less with things that you can’t count:

There is less violence in the world today.

Less time is wasted on silly things.

He’s got less money than he had a year ago.

Use fewer with things that you can count:

Strong verbs are easier to read and use fewer words.

Fewer and fewer people know how to use this correctly.

And the most famous:

English lessons Utrecht

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