Tag Archives: English grammar

How to form a proper sentence in English

english lessons utrecht

You might be thinking that this post is too simple for you to read, that you learned this in kindergarten. However, if your mother tongue is something other than English, please read on.

Outside of reading my students’ work, I sometimes find myself reading English written by Dutch speakers on the internet or in a book. I wince in embarrassment for the author when I see half of a sentence with a period after it.

Complete sentences in other languages are not necessarily complete sentences in English. This statement is especially applicable to Dutch speakers–many will look at half an English sentence and think that it would sound right in Dutch, so what’s the problem?

The problem is your colleagues and clients might be judging your harshly for writing in half sentences because it makes your writing look childish. In short, this can be an embarrassing mistake for a professional to make. Are you alarmed? Let’s correct this.

Part I: You need two things

To form a sentence in English, you must have two things:

1. a subject

2. a main verb

(Actually, you also need a capital letter.)

If you are missing either of these two things, then you are not looking at a sentence, you are looking at a phrase.

These are not sentences, but phrases:

a vase of roses

a very interesting life

as fast as possible

under the couch

These are sentences:

A vase of roses was sitting on the hall table when I walked in.

He led a very interesting life.

The race car driver drove as fast as possible.

They hid my keys under the couch.

Part II: You can put sentences together in different ways

A sentence can be composed of one or multiple clauses. A clause is just a part of a sentence with a subject and a verb. A simple sentence, like

Ice cream has a lot of sugar.


Kids love ice cream.

only has one clause. It’s independent because it can stand by itself and and makes sense. This is your typical English sentence: subject-verb-object. (Ice cream-has-sugar.)

I can put both independent sentences together using the words for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so (FANBOYS):

Ice cream has a lot of sugar, so kids love it! OR Ice cream has a lot of sugar, and kids love it!

Part III: All ways to combine sentences are not equal

What if I add a different word to the beginning of the sentence?

Because ice cream has a lot of sugar.

“Because” is a word that connects two sentences together, but it causes the sentence to become dependent. It’s called a subordinator (other subordinators are since, after, although, when, that, who, or which). This sentence is now dependent because it starts with a subordinator. What is it dependent on? It is dependent on another sentence. It cannot stand by itself. It needs to be joined to an independent clause to be considered a sentence.

Kids love ice cream because it has a lot of sugar.

Taa-daa! Now it’s a sentence again. This is called a complex sentence because it has an independent part (Kids love ice cream) and a dependent part (because it has a lot of sugar). These two parts of the sentence are not balanced. The first part can stand by itself but the second part cannot.

english lessons utrecht

Part IV: Examples from Dutch

The root of the problem among Dutch speakers seems to be that it is ok to use dependent clauses as complete sentences in Dutch. For examples, you can have a sentence like this in Dutch:

Zodat wij al die bezoeken aan de musea kunnen blijven betalen.

which translates to this in English:

So that we can continue to be able to pay for all those visits to the museums.

The Dutch sentence is correct (I assume, since I see it everywhere) while the English sentence is not actually a sentence. Why not? They both have a subject and a verb. The problem is that “so that” in English causes the sentence to be a dependent clause.

In English, only this sentence is correct:

We need to continue to subsidize the museum card so that we can continue to be able to pay for all those visits to the museums.

More examples…

1. The mortgages are granted by banks who profit from these deals greatly.

Although there are voices stating that plenty of banks back up their mortgage deals with a mix of real and imaginary (or ‘multiplied’) money.

This is only half a sentence–it’s only the dependent part. An independent part needs to follow the dependent part. Here is an example with “although”:

Although what constitutes as a militia has been up for debate, the supreme court upholds the idea that a militia is the general population.

2. Dealers usually have a whole assortment of wares you might be interested in.

So it’s easier to start experimenting with other drugs.

Here is the correct version:

Dealers usually have a whole assortment of wares you might be interested in, so it’s easier to start experimenting with other drugs. 

Do you have any other examples of only half a sentence when translating from Dutch to English?

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British vs American English

Ever wonder why sometimes you see “center” and other times “centre”? Sometimes you see “fulfill” and other times “fulfil”? Many students of English have no clear notion of what exactly makes British and American English different, hence this post. I hope to clear up your confusion.

Britishenglish lessons utrecht

Some people call this “proper English” but it’s actually composed of many different people speaking many different dialects, only a small percentage of which is “received pronunciation” or BBC English. How small? Estimates show that 3-5% of British native speakers actually speak with this accent. So, please, let’s not worry about the accent.

British English is characterised by

  • additional silent letters, like the “a” in paediatric, anaemia, orthopaedic and aesthetic or the “o” in edoema, foetus and manoeuvre;
  • “our” in words like flavour, favourite, endeavour and honour;
  • an additional “l” in words like counsellor, labelled, or traveller;
  • “ise” in words like authorise, characterise, organise and accessorise (though “ize” is becoming more accepted);
  • “yse” in words like analyse, catalyse and paralyse;
  • “re” in words like centre, theatre, calibre and litre;
  • “gue” in words like dialogue, catalogue and prologue.

British English also uses the semi-colon after each bullet point and the full stop at the end of a list, where American English uses no punctuation with bullet points.

Americanenglish lessons utrecht

Americans have stereotypically “worse” speech, but that depends highly on where a person is from. Many people tell me they find American English to be easier to understand, but whether that is because they are more familiar with the accent through the American media or because Americans use fewer rare and complex words, I don’t know.

American English is characterized by

  • deletion of those pesky silent letters, like the “a” in pediatric, anemia, orthopedic and esthetic or the “o” in edema, fetus and maneuver;
  • “or” in words like flavor, favorite, endeavor and honor
  • a single “l” in words like counselor, labeled, or traveler
  • “ize” in words like authorize, characterize, organize and accessorize
  • “yze” in words like analyze, catalyze and paralyze
  • “er” in words like center, theater, caliber and liter
  • “g” or “gue” in words like dialog/dialogue, catalog/catalogue and prolog/prologue

Fortunately, most differences in British and American English are in the spelling or everyday vocabulary domain and so should not have a dramatic impact on research or professional situations.

This is by no means an exhaustive list (though this is a pretty exhaustive list), so use the dictionary and spelling function on each document–choose UK or US English and just follow the dictionary’s recommendations.



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How to use less and fewer

The difference between less and fewer is actually really easy!

Use less with things that you can’t count:

There is less violence in the world today.

Less time is wasted on silly things.

He’s got less money than he had a year ago.

Use fewer with things that you can count:

Strong verbs are easier to read and use fewer words.

Fewer and fewer people know how to use this correctly.

And the most famous:

English lessons Utrecht

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Your Professional Reputation: will

English lessons Utrecht

In the Netherlands, you don’t hear will frequently enough among non-native speakers of English. Maybe this is because we actually contract it to make I’ll and you’ll (and those are terrible to pronounce!) or maybe because in Dutch you frequently use the present tense to talk about the future.

Whatever the reason, adding will back into your vocabulary is an easy way to sound more fluent quickly.

 Instead of…       Use…
 I see you tomorrow  I’ll see you tomorrow
 You join us later?  You’ll join us later?
 He goes to Amsterdam this Friday.  He’ll go to Amsterdam this Friday.
 They are late tonight.  They’ll be late tonight.

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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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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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Can or May? The final word. Finally.

Frequently in elementary school, well-intended teachers make you ask permission to go to the bathroom using “May I…?” rather than “Can I…?” (which is what everyone wants to say), leaving grammatically-inept children looking like this:

can or may English

Now the OED has given the final word on the correctness of “Can I go to the bathroom?” in their post Can or May?

The OED (Oxford English Dictionary) says that “the ‘permission’ use of can is not in fact incorrect in standard English. ”

I love the British, but for my poor American ears, can we say this more clearly?

not + incorrect = correct (two negatives, right?)

So, “the ‘permission’ use of can is in fact correct in standard English.”

They go on to say that using can in an “asking permission” context is more informal, whereas using “may” is more formal.

Thank you, OED, for giving us the final word word on the topic. If anyone tries to correct you now (I have a certain annoying high school geography teacher in mind, or a number of elementary school teachers), you can just say that the OED says it’s fine. So it’s fine.

So let elementary school children ask away: “Can I go to the bathroom?” and don’t make them sit there and wait while they repeat the “correct” sentence back to you (“May I go…”)

Little kids have tiny bladders.

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