By starting sentences like this…

By starting sentences like this, you are forced into a clumsy structure. By avoiding the “by +…ing” opening, the sentence is made snappier.

Let’s put it another way. Starting sentences that way forces you into clumsy structures. Avoiding it makes them snappier. The solution is usually to forget the By… (or Door… in Dutch) altogether: you will then find that the sentence either:

  • rewrites very nicely with an active verb instead of a passive (which many style guides prefer anyway. As I did for the two above)
  • or can be rephrased with let or mean, two of the small words in English that are vastly underused by Dutch speakers. For instance, “Avoiding that syntax lets you write more snappily.”
  • Try it with a real example:
    • By conquering the interior, they could set up plantations there =>
      Conquering the interior let them set up plantations there
      Conquering the interior meant they could set up plantations there

“By + …ing” as the stock translation of the many Dutch sentences starting with “Door…” isn’t grammatically incorrect. But it’s rarely pretty, rarely necessary, and sounds very clunky if used more than occasionally.

Prevalence: endemic. One of the major annoyances and something that will genuinely help your writing sound more fluid.
Frequency: high. Particularly in explanatory sections (which technical and scientific documents often contain).
Native: maybe. Certainly in translations, because it is grammatically correct, after all.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

3 thoughts on “By starting sentences like this…

  1. I’m not sure if I fully agree with you on this. I can see your point from an academic language technician’s point of view. However, the advantage of the by + gerund construction is that it allows you to use second person in an accessible way and get readers or listeners more directly involved in actions as opposed to providing them with normative statements that may read more passively and make their eyes glaze over. The by + gerund construction is quite prevalent in spoken language when providing people advice on doing things, particularly in North America.

    In my experience, telling somebody, “Adding more flour means the dough won’t stick as much to the side of the bowl” is likely to elicit the follow-up question, “So are you saying I should add more flour?” In contrast, saying “By adding more flour, you can knead the dough without it sticking to the sides of the bowl” is more likely to elicit an immediate reaction such as, “Well, then I’ll add some more flour”. It’s more empowering (imho).


    1. It’s a valid grammatical structure, and so it does have its uses in native English (and speech), in particular when you’re trying to emphasize the consequences or purposes of an action. With you on that.

      But when used in translations from Dutch (which is what I’m really talking about here), it turns out to be a stock translation of a specific Dutch structure and 90%+ of the time, it can and should be phrased more simply.


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