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

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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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

albeit

conjunction

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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