Category Archives: Writing in English

dark and stormy

It was a dark and stormy night…

This is the cliché beginning to all scary stories in English–the “Once upon a time” equivalent for scary stories, usually those with no happy ending.

English Writing Expressions

I started using this expression in my writing courses when we talk about reader expectations. Why this expression? Because some words are used together so commonly in English that you automatically fill them in, even before you read them. “Dark and stormy night” is a widely recognized example of this phenomenon.

Google uses this same concept when it tries to guess what you are searching for and fills in the end of your phrase in the search box.

If you’re interested in language learning, then you have probably heard that learning how words are commonly used together is a more effective technique for advanced learners than learning individual words. These are called collocations and they can be useful in writing as well.

For example “dark” frequently goes with “night”, so we frequently hear “a dark night”. This collocation seems pretty self-evident.

Or so I thought…

Because this is such a common expression, I expected the students to be able to guess the ending quickly and easily.

It was a dark and stormy _______________.

However, I was in for a surprise. Usually, at least one student in a group answers “day! It was a dark and stormy day!” in all seriousness.

What I hadn’t considered is that some of the collocations we have in English aren’t necessarily as strong when you live in a place with an unusual climate. Where I’m from, dark goes with night and light/bright goes with day. During the day, the sun shines.

Here in the Netherlands, however, days are more frequently dark and stormy. For a Dutch student, a dark and stormy day makes perfect sense. For me, well, it is starting to make sense too!

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Why scientists CAN be fabulous writers

Science. Writing.

Does seeing those words together make you cringe? It doesn’t have to.

science writing

Here’s why scientists may have a leg up on the rest of us when it comes to writing well. Don’t miss the writing tips at the end!

I see a lot of clever PhD students coming in thinking they are “bad” writers, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. They just need to learn to tap into a skill that they’ve already honed.

Here’s why I think scientists and academics already have the upper hand on writing:

Many scientists are left-brain dominant. The left side of the brain controls logic, analytical thinking AND language. So, believe it or not, it may actually be easier for scientists to become better writers than non-scientists. Scientists have already developed their ability to think things through logically, to tell a story sequentially, and to show relationships.

Think of writing as a puzzle. Don’t you love filling in the missing pieces? Fitting everything together so that it fits perfectly? In writing, you do just that.

As a scientist, you have already trained your brain to fit together pieces of a puzzle by showing relationships between facts or ideas. You may not have all the information, but your thinking strategy is developed. You can and should apply the same “puzzle solving” strategy to your writing.

You choose the most appropriate word and place it in the most simple sentence that portrays the essence of what you want to say. Still sound hard? You may just need some help finding your groove.

When you’re struggling with your writing, try these tips:

  • Delete what you’ve written. Sometimes trying to edit a clumsy, disorganized paragraph feels more like being up against a brick wall than starting the paragraph over and going back to the basics: “What do I want to tell in this paragraph?” Starting over rather than trying to salvage a mess can save you time and agony in the long run.
  • Move away from the computer and talk it out with a co-worker or friend. Explain to them what you want to write. Ask if they understand. Record yourself doing this and play it back when you’re sitting in front of the blank computer screen.
  • Focus on the verbs in your sentences. You always did something, found something, analyzed something. When you’re telling a story, we want to know what happened.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist. Getting the words down on paper is step one. Checking your structure and logic is step two. Making them elegant is step three, so don’t get ahead of yourself!

Like these tips? Leave a comment below and let me know what you think or better yet, stop by and have a chat with me at PhD Day at Utrecht University on June 14th. Hope to see you there!

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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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