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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Filed under Language Learning, Writing in English

Top 10 English mistakes among Dutch speakers and how to correct them

Dear Dutch compatriots,english utrecht

Maybe this year you resolved to improve your English on a professional level. In order to get you started on the right foot, please find below 10 small changes that you can make today that will greatly improve your fluency.

10. I live in Utrecht for two years.

Dutch tenses are used differently than English ones, even if they look similar. Beware! Whenever you have “for 3 months” or “since December” use the form “I have lived” and not “I live”

✔I have lived in Utrecht for two years and I’ve worked here for three months now.

9.  Maybe I do it soon.

English uses the future tense more than Dutch does. Start pronouncing the ‘ll and your English will noticeably improve: I’ll, you’ll, he’ll, she’ll, it’ll, we’ll, they’ll. Read more about when to use will in English.

✔Maybe I’ll do it soon. Don’t worry, I’ll get it done before the end of the week.

8. Yes. No.

You know this: English is less direct and more polite than Dutch. Answering with just one word sounds rude (I know you don’t mean to be!) Remember the rule of three to be more polite:

✔Yes I do. / No I don’t. / Yes I have. / No I haven’t.

Have you finished that presentation yet?

No I haven’t.

7. Hereby

You only use this word in English if you’re writing a contract. Since you probably aren’t doing that, throw this word away. When attaching a document to an email, use

✔Please find the revised version of my article attached.

6. on school

Many prepositions are used similarly, so it’s hard to tell which prepositions are different. On is an easy one though: Are you sitting on the roof of your school? If not, then you are

✔at school

5. Greetings

There are innumerable ways to translate groetjes or groeten, none of which are greetingsRead the blog post about how (not) to use greetings.

✔Cheers/Take care/Kind regards

4. The report is published.

Is published is the past tense in Dutch but the present tense in English, so it usually does not translate exactly. Read more about how to get the passive right in English.

✔The report was published (yesterday). / The report has (already) been published.

3. I am having an idea.

Certain verbs cannot be used in the ing form, even when you’re talking about right now. The most commonly misused one is have because have also appears in many expressions where it means something else, like

We’re having dinner (have = eat)

He’s having a great time (have a great time = enjoy oneself)

When have only means have, it can only appear one way:

✔I have an idea. He has a plan. We have our own company.

2. When I would do that, you wouldn’t like it.

There are actually two issues here: when and would do. Read the post about if/when and conditional sentences.

✔If I did that, you wouldn’t like it.

1. I have seen that yesterday.

I have seen/I saw sounds a lot like ik heb gezien/ik zag. However, you use each form in a completely different way than you do in Dutch. When an action is finished (last week, on Tuesday, yesterday), you have to use I saw even though you would make the sentence with ik heb gezien in Dutch:

✔I saw that yesterday.

If you learned something from this post, please share it with your friends or colleagues!

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Filed under Business English, Language Learning

Why you should be talking to yourself

english language learning utrecht

Have you been trying to learn a new language (or even English–aren’t we always learning?) and can’t seem to get really comfortable speaking? You do your homework, review your notes, try to consume English-language media…but when you have to turn around and talk to a real person, it just doesn’t feel so fluent?

You are missing one thing. You should be talking to yourself.

Out loud.

Crazy, you say? Not so, according to PsychCentral, who asserts that talking to yourself is a sign of sanity and may even make you smarter.

And how else are you going to get in hours of practice conversing in a new language without frustrating the kind native speakers who volunteer to talk to you or picking up other learners’ bad habits?

I spoke to myself a lot, both when I was learning French and when I was learning Dutch. Especially in the Netherlands, I always got comments on how fast I was improving and how fluid my speaking was becoming. It didn’t happen all on its own. I had to talk to myself a lot to get there! I am now no longer actively learning either, and have noticed that the less I practice speaking, the less easy it is the next time I need to do it for real.

It’s easy to practice reading and listening–you don’t need anyone’s help. But usually people shy away from practicing speaking because they worry about what others will think when they make mistakes. When the only audience is you, you don’t have to worry. Just put it out there and listen to how it sounds. Correct yourself. Say the same sentence five times until it feels right.

Does the idea of talking to yourself still feel a little funny? Here are some ideas to get you started:

1. Read out loud to yourself.

2. Ask yourself questions, then answer them.

3. Tell the story of your day as you’re brushing your teeth at night.

4. Practice giving your opinion on a topic that interests you or a topic that came up in conversation last week that you weren’t prepared for.

5. Practice planning a get-together with friends or talking about what you do for a living.

6. If you’re a more advanced speaker, then you have to do the same things native speakers do: practice that sales pitch out loud. Practice your presentation out loud.

Remember this: you can’t improve your speaking unless you speak. Speaking out loud is different from imagining a conversation in your head. Your vocal chords and mouth have to get used to new forms and vibrations.

Plus, if you talk to yourself, then the next time you speak to the native speakers they are that much more impressed because they don’t know about the time you put in practicing when they weren’t there. Good luck!

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Punctual, prompt, and on time

Punctuality is valued differently everywhere it seems, but here in the Netherlands, it is valued! Time is money, right? Maybe you’re turning over a new leaf this year and trying to be on time more often. How do you talk about it?

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Punctual and prompt are used in slightly different ways.

Punctual means arriving exactly at the appointed time.

We expect guests to be punctual at meals.

He is not a particularly punctual person.

You can use on time in almost the same way, but you can’t use it just before a noun.

We expect guests to be on time at meals.

He is not a particularly on time person. He is usually not on time.

Prompt means punctual, but it also means doing something quickly, without delay.

He answered the phone promptly.

She responded promptly to my inquiry.

Thanks for your prompt reply!

Now, if you’re going to start being on time, there are a few more words you need: sharp and on the dot. They both mean “exactly, precisely” and are used with time.

english lessons utrecht

This is what 6:00 on the dot looks like.

The meeting starts at 9 o’clock sharp.

We’ll see you at 6 o’clock on the dot. Please don’t be late.

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Turning over a new leaf

It’s January and everyone seems to be turning over a new leaf. Here a leaf is like a page in a book, not a leaf like something that falls from the trees in the autumn. This is an empty page, a chance to start over, to begin anew. When we turn over a new leaf we try to do better, to be better than we were before.

english lessons utrecht

Likewise, we can use leaf as a verb when talking about turning pages: to leaf through a book.

He leafed through the book quickly, trying to find the answer.

When you leaf through something, you turn the pages quickly, looking briefly at each page or even every couple of pages. You don’t read every page. You generally leaf through a book in the bookshop when deciding whether or not to buy it.

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She fell off the face of the Earth.

I haven’t posted here for the last few weeks and I’ve been pretty absent on social media too. (It’s ok if you didn’t notice!) That’s because I was on vacation! However, to the outside world, it might have looked like I fell off the face of the Earth. When you say this about someone, you imply that you haven’t seen or heard from them in a long time. They have, essentially, disappeared, or they are not making contact. It sounds pretty extreme, I know, but that’s the fun of it!

Why do we say the face of the Earth? This is not your eyes-nose-mouth face, but the face that means surface. If you fall off the face of the Earth, you can imagine falling off a cliff like this one in Ireland:

english lessons utrecht

This expression seems to imply that the Earth is flat and that we’ve fallen off the edge, never to be heard from again.

Here are some other expressions with the face of the Earth:

She’s the nicest person on the face of the Earth. (~in the world)

He dropped off/disappeared off the face of the Earth. (~completely disappeared)

The virus was wiped off the face of the Earth. (~was eradicated)

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New Year’s Resolutions and how to make them stick

Resolution is just a fancy word for goal. When we make New Year’s Resolutions, we are just setting goals.

We’re setting them for the whole year though! Most people can’t follow through on their self-challenges for a whole year, but what about for a month? Have you ever thought about setting yourself a 30 day challenge?

Matt Cutts gives a short (3 1/2 minute) presentation about why 30 day challenges are much more effective than big, crazy resolutions. This is an apt discussion for the New Year. Have you considered learning a new English word every day for 30 days? Or simply writing 250 words of whatever you want in English for 30 days? This structure can be especially useful for those who are trying to write academic articles: 250 words a day for a month. Check out the talk below.

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December 30, 2013 · 12:00 pm