Category Archives: Writing in English

5 myths around academic writing debunked

English lessons UtrechtIf you can stop believing in these myths, you’ll make writing that paper much easier on yourself.

5. I need to use big words.

Generally, you’ll already have quite a few big words to describe the specifics of your research. Since you can’t change those words, you should try to balance it out with shorter, simpler words in between. The most common example is “use” instead of “utilize”. Using shorter, more normal works gives your reader a chance to catch her breath!

4. Passive voice makes me look objective.

Passive voice does not have the power to cause objectivity. Passive voice takes away the agent of an action, that’s all. Sometimes the passive voice can help you (e.g. when discussing methods or processes), but other times it can hinder you (e.g. when drawing conclusions). If used incorrectly, it can actually make you look like you are not taking responsibility for the conclusions you’ve drawn or decisions you’ve made.

3. I need to have a complicated sentence structure because my topic is complicated.

Actually, the more complicated the topic, the more simple and straightforward the structure should be. A complicated structure blocks your message because you give your reader two things to decipher (structure and message) rather than just one. Think of your structure as something that the reader shouldn’t notice at all. Focus on your message.

2. I should use a thesaurus to avoid repeating any words.

On the contrary, you will need to repeat certain words exactly and consistently to avoid confusing your reader. If you’re writing about type 2 diabetes, for example, and you call one group “the obese group” and then later call that same group “overweight,” your reader will wonder whether you’re talking about the same group. Remember that rarely do you find two words that are exact synonyms. If you change it up, have a reason, don’t just change the words because you think you are using them too frequently.

1. The only way my article will get accepted is if I write the way everyone else is writing, even if I don’t like it myself.

Have the courage to write an article you would want to read. Don’t use words you wouldn’t normally use when talking about your research. If you read a sentence and can’t understand it yourself, then no one else can either. Publishers and journals want you to write clearly, concisely and actively; they don’t want jargon-laden, noun-heavy paragraph-long sentences.

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Writing in English: How to get the passive voice right

It’s hard enough to write in the active voice, but once you start writing in the passive voice, things can go haywire. Let’s start with the basics.

How do I form the passive voice? (in four easy steps)

Example sentence: We made a mistake.

1. Identify the verb and verb tense in your active voice sentence.

made, past tense

2. Make your object your new subject.

A mistake…

3. Put the verb “to be” in the tense that you identified in #1.

A mistake was…

4. Put the past participle of the verb after it.

A mistake was made.

When do I use the passive voice?

Not all the time! Not even often! Please read this post about when and why we use the passive voice.

For Dutch speakers…

If you’re Dutch and writing at a high level, the passive voice is going to trip you up. It’s all about the words is and was: we use them in both languages but in vastly different places.

When you use this in Dutch

…use this in English!

 wordt  is
 werd  was, has been
 is  was, has been
 was  had been (was, has been)

The trick is to avoid using is and was in English in the same place as in Dutch. It will be tempting, but resist!

Dutch to English Passive Voice:

1. Deze afdeling wordt goed geleid.
This department is managed well.
2. De binnenlandse markt is hard geraakt door de verhoging van de BTW.
The domestic market was hit hard by the VAT increase.
3. De ideale oplossing is gevonden.
The ideal solution has been found.
4. De eerste auto werd gemaakt in 1886.
The first car was made in 1886.

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its or it’s?

Use it correctly, please

Everyone seems to confuse its and it’s. Sometimes it seems like more people use it incorrectly than correctly! This mistake is all over the internet, and I can’t imagine how confusing it must be for all the non-native speakers who see this word misused and think that it must be correct– because if English is someone’s native language, they should be able to write it correctly, right?

Is this distinction really so confusing that even native speakers can’t use it correctly, or is it more that no one cares anymore what the difference is? Could we be in the middle of a grammatical shift or will we continue to judge the its/it’s mistake as grammatically uncouth?

Misuse of these two words will get you at best raised eyebrows, and at worst your resume discarded. Correct use does not actually make you competent in your field, but it does make you appear more competent, which is half the battle sometimes, isn’t it?

Just remember: its means possession and it’s means it is.

Possession: its

When something belongs to you, you say it’s yours.

That’s my mistake

That’s your problem

That’s his way

That’s her prerogative

That’s our opinion

That’s their loss

My, your, his, her, its, our, their

Notice how its belongs with his and her. It is exactly like he and she, but it has no gender, it is neither male nor female.

It=the monster

Its smile is terrifying. (The monster’s smile: his smile/her smile/its smile)

It=the unborn child.

We are keeping its gender a secret. (The child’s gender: his gender/her gender/its gender)

It=the dog on the street

Its dirty paws ruined my pants when it jumped on me! (The dog’s paws: his paws/her paws/its paws)

Notice that when we use a regular noun (the monster, the child, the dog) we use an apostrophe to show possession. But it doesn’t belong with nouns, it belongs with pronouns.

He, she, it → his, her, its

His, her, and its are new words that show possession, there is no “added s” (you don’t say hes and shes, do you?).

Contraction: it’s

When you have a regular noun, you add ‘s to show possession, but we just saw that it is the exception–it isn’t a noun, it is a pronoun. So it’s does not show possession.

it’s always means it is or it has

This is really simple. Read your sentence. If you can replace it’s with it is or it has then you’re right. If you can replace its with my, your, his, her, etc, then you’re right.

itsits

Click here to visit the YUNiversity.

In summary…

Its = my, your, his, her, its, our, their

The Dutch team impressed its foreign competition with its extraordinary command of the English language.

It’s = it is

It’s not a disaster if you use this incorrectly, but it does lose you points with a lot of people.

It’s been a while since we did a purely grammatical post, hasn’t it?

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Stylish writing in English: entertain

You can entertain in a lot of contexts outside of the entertainment industry. In academia, “entertain” is commonly used in the negative, as in “Late submissions will not be entertained.”

Entertain also means
a. To consider; contemplate: entertain an idea.
b. To hold in mind; harbor: He entertained few illusions.
english courses utrecht

You can entertain a thought or an idea.

Actually, you can entertain anything that you can choose to dedicate mental energy towards.

This is commonly used in the negative in academic or professional contexts, for example:

Late submissions will not be entertained.

Further complaints will not be entertained

Telephone inquiries will not be entertained.

This gives the feeling of “I will not deign to look at your late submissions, so don’t bother.”

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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

Stylish Writing in English: tout

Essential vocabulary for academic manuscripts

Tout: to praise publicly and energetically with the intention of publicizing something

(pronunciation tip: rhymes with the English out)

This precise verb is quite useful in the introduction section of academic articles.

Tout is often used in the passive voice (because we don’t care who is doing the touting, and most of the time we don’t know anyway) as seen in the examples below:

Crowdfunding has been touted as a mechanism for creators without access to ready cash. (The Economist)

Medical marijuana has been touted as an effective cancer treatment for decades by its various supporters, but despite the growing number of states that have legalized cannabis for medical purposes, marijuana remains a sparsely recommended drug for patients with life-threatening illnesses. (RiseEarth)

Social media has been touted as having an increasingly important role in many aspects of the hospitality industry, including guest satisfaction and process improvement. (Ecornell)

Biofuels have been touted as a possible replacement to fossil fuels. (Ted, Jonathan Trent)

But as you can see from the extent of these examples, tout is used is many tenses and contexts.

But that means travellers lose the benefit of a downtown arrival, often touted as an advantage of trains.
For a while it was touted as the fuel of the future, but it remains difficult to produce, transport and store.
Fluorescence is increasingly being touted as the future of clinical imaging due to its selectivity.
Micro fuel cells are being touted as the hot portable energy source of the future.
Some officials have touted the new property tax as another market-dampening measure.

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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