Tag Archives: culture

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

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

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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Filed under Business English, Writing in English

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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Filed under Writing in English

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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Filed under Business English, Writing in English

Open House

Today marks an “Open huizen dag” in Utrecht, organized twice yearly across the country. It means “Open House Day”- one of the (many) times that a word for word translation serves you reasonably well. Participating sellers open up their homes to everyone on this day, no appointment needed, in the hopes of finding a buyer. Likewise, those looking to buy a house get on their bicycles and pedal around the city knocking on doors of participating houses.

This is what their flyer looks like:  English Utrecht

Interestingly, while the Netherlands organizes national open house days, I have never seen this on such a large scale in the US. Usually individuals decide when to have an open house entirely of their own accord, not in cooperation with any other homes in their area. This might differ from city to city. Personally, I think a national open house day is a fabulous phenomenon: you can look at a lot of houses in four hours!

You might talk about Open House Day like this:

“We’re having an open house this Saturday.”

“We’re visiting a lot of open houses this Saturday.”

“Sorry, we can’t go away that weekend, it’s Open House weekend! We have to go see houses!”

Open House is also used in another very common context, at least in the US. The evening that parents are invited to the children’s school to see what pictures the kid has made, have a chat with the teachers, and find out what the kid is learning– “Ouderavond” — is also called Open House. During an open house, the (elementary) school opens up its doors to parents.

“I have to leave work on time tonight because my kid’s school is having an open house.”

Notice that in both contexts we say having an open house if you are the one giving it.

Enjoy all the open houses today!

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Filed under Language Learning

Work hard, play hard

In the US, the work hard, play hard motto is ubiquitous, especially in corporations. I think I first encountered it in college around 2002, or at least that’s the first time it stayed with me. Even back then I thought there was something deeply disturbing about this concept, something wrong with the notion that your whole life has to be hard. Organizations claim that this phrase encourages work-life balance, but let’s be honest: what it really communicates is the idea of doing everything at full blast.

What does play hard really mean?English courses Utrecht

I’m sure the form it takes differs, but in my experience it means employees playing (partying) together: binge drinking, all-night parties, crazy behavior that typically would not be accepted at work but is during the party period, and then getting up at 7am on a Saturday morning and working all day. I question: When did you sleep? Plus, if you are partying with your coworkers, is this really time away from work, or work-sponsored partying?

Wikipedia claims: “This work-play balance is similar to the concept of work-life balance.”

However, if all parts of your life are hard, where’s the balance? The concept of “life is hard” is everywhere, but I still strongly associate it with the US. There, it has taken the form of “Life is hard: work all the time,” but no one talks about how your productively plummets when you live such a lifestyle, not to mention what happens to your stress levels.

The more time I spend in Europe, the greater the rift that grows between me and the US culture of working non-stop and then playing hard. Such a lifestyle would never have been my choice, though what interests me is why people still think it’s not only normal, but also the preferred way to live.

We know Americans view Europeans as lazy: shops are closed on Sunday, everyone gets at least 6 weeks of vacation every year,  and you can’t get anything done in August. Compare this to the 24 hour superstores and 2 weeks of vacation and it doesn’t make sense that US productivity per employee per hour is lower than the Netherlands and some other European countries. I am not an economist, but it seems like if you compare productivity per hour worked, a number of European countries come out better than the US:

Europe: More Holidays and More Productive?

List of countries by GDP (PPP)

So why continue to promote this destructive culture? By destructive I mean destructive of your health, both physical and mental, and destructive of your relationships outside of work.

Fortunately, not all companies are continuing to promote it. After analyzing their alcohol-related incidents at work, the U.S. Air Force tried to change their motto from work hard, play hard (which in practice had become work hard, play recklessly) to work hard, play smart.

How about work hard, then relax? Spend some time with your family? Take the weekends off to recharge? Employees should be able to decide for themselves how they spend their free time.

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Filed under Business English