Archive for ‘Uncategorized’

June 21, 2015

He, She, It

The inappropriate use of  pronouns is one of the most common mistakes native German speakers make when they start speaking English and have progressed to the stage where they attempt conversations, even simple ones.

In German there are three definite articles “der, die, das” associated with gender: der for male, die for female, das for neuter nouns.  The process of assigning a noun and a gender and with that an article strikes many non native speakers as arbitrary and, although there are rules, that is probably at least partially true.

However random this might look to English speakers, gender and articles are deeply engrained in the German language and when Germans start speaking English they carry that notion with them.

That’s why German refer to dogs as “he” and cats as “she” despite the fact that they do not know the actual gender of the animal because in German it is “der Hund” and “die Katze”. What to make of “das Pferd” – the poor neuter horse is a different story.

Die Katze, der Hund, das Pferd, welcome to the confusing world of German articles source:

Die Katze, der Hund, das Pferd, welcome to the confusing world of German articles

In English if one uses a pronoun to replace a noun it is “it” unless we know, as in the case of animals, for certain what actual gender the animal has.  So if we know that Ginny, our friend’s dog, is a girl we refer to her as “she” and to  Rascal, our other friend’s tomcat as “he”.  The same is true for humans, that goes without saying, Fred is “he” and Sarah is “she” and Baby Caitlyn is “she”, too, not “it” as it would be – correctly stated- in German, as Little Caitlin (das Maedchen, the girl) is technical a neuter.

However, in English one never ever uses “he” or “she” to refer to an inanimate object.  So the infamous sentence “put it into she” I once heard a German visitor use when he meant to say that the other person should pour the water (das Wasser and hence “it” – which happens to be correct) into the bottle (die Flasche and hence, in German, “she”) is not only horribly incorrect but also rather unambiguous verging on the suggestive because if “she” is used the assumption is that one speaks about a woman.

An exception are engines: all sort of moving engines such as trucks and ships are referred to as “she” in casual language. I don’t know why, but my assumption is that the lone trucker out on the highways or the boat captain away from home for months likes to think about his vehicle as a woman.

Another exception is the earth, which is generally referred to as “she”, also countries can take a female pronoun.  However, assigning a female gender to these words sounds rather poetic and should only be done if that connotation is desired.

It is not intuitive to Germans to replace all their pronouns but for a few with “it” but it is also not a hard rule to learn and an easy one to remind oneself of and correct oneself – and will go a long way towards a much better command of the English language.



November 28, 2012

United Airlines, or how to seriously p… off your customers

Now granted this is a ranting blog post not a culture blog post  – having said that, there is a bit of culture (or lack thereof) involved – and also I just need to rant about this.

So, for as long as I can think of I have been a United frequent flyer.  I never amounted to more than a Silver status but what kept me is Star Alliance which also includes Lufthansa and Swiss, which I fly regularly and the fact that San Francisco is a UA hub.  Now, for the first time I exceeded 50,000 miles and felt more than entitled to my Gold status, after all I had chosen United to fly to Australia recently over, say Qantas or Virgin.  I flew back Air New Zealand, a Star Alliance member, for one reason only, the flight was about a thousand dollars cheaper (I flew business).

My account now shows 51,000 some odd miles and Silver status.  Wait, Silver status???

So I called, politely inquiring when my status will be updated.  Call me a status hog but part of the reason I did this was to get to Gold and therefore into the Lounge and to more frequent upgrades.

However, I was informed, that I do not qualify for Gold as I have not satisfied an new requirement, namely that one flies 4 segments with United per year – not any old stupid alliance partner.  The reason being that the administration of the mileage program costs money and obviously I am not worth that money.

To put this in perspective: had I flown to LAX from SFO twice for under $200 I would qualify but having had just one measly business class flight to Australia plus a cross country flight to New York makes me inadmissible?  Which genius did think that scheme up?  Was it developed with the expressed purpose of annoying the hell out of loyal customers?  Does United seriously fell that they have to many frequent flyers and therefore need to treat them badly to get rid of them?

Somebody should write a Harvard Business School case about this classic imbecility.

I for one will take my business somewhere else.  Virgin offers a status matching program, American might, too.  Then I am going to get myself a Lufthansa Miles and More card and will henceforth avoid flying United at all cost.

Bye bye, United, it was a long and unhappy marriage and now it is over.  I am divorcing you!




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November 17, 2010


These are most certainly sugarcoated, © Jonny Mccullagh |

Bitter pills are sugarcoated, that is covered in something sweet, like a hard sugar glaze, to make them more palatable.  The pharmaceutical industry has known that for decades, probably centuries and so we have all sorts of sugarcoated pills, bitter medicines on lump sugar, etc.

Figuratively sugarcoating something means the same thing, to make a thing, fact, decision, story, etc appear more pleasant or appealing.  Just as with the bitter medicine the implication is that the reality has faults and problems that are being hidden by the sweet coating.

This is a very common expression and concept and applies especially to all things relating to politics and business but is also applicable in the personal space.  A couple of examples:

Example 1:

Employee after an all-hands meeting: “They are planning to outsource IT and they are trying to sugarcoat it by telling us how much more efficient the company will be and how much easier our jobs will be once they have done so.”

Example 2:

Girl-friend 1: “Wow, Susan sure told Jennifer what she thinks of her latest plan.”

Girl-friend 2: “Yes, Susan has strong opinions and she doesn’t sugarcoat them either.”

November 10, 2010

All squared away

Everything is squared away, pic: © Artyom Yefimov |

The expression ” squared away” has nothing to do with something actually being square in shape of form.  The expression means: everything is in order, everything is arranged and taken care off.

This idiom is used fairly frequently and it is entirely proper in both business and casual conversation and does not have a bad or negative connotation.


Boss to assistant: “Diana, did you invite everybody on the list to the sales meeting next week?”

Diana: “Sure, all squared away.”


Wife: “Honey, did you fix the leak in the roof?”

Husband: “Don’t worry, it’s all squared away.”
In German the equivalent is “unter Dach und Fach” which means in the literal translation something is “under the roof (= dry and secure) and in its proper drawer.”

November 3, 2010

Get the ball rolling

Get the ball rolling, pic: © Nextlimits |

If you get he ball rolling you are about to start or initiate something, or start an undertaking or keep it from failing.  It is, of course, another sport idiom and seems to date back quite a ways into the 17th century.  It originated in one of several team sports where the ball was rolled into the field to start the game or it was important to keep the ball rolling.

The expression is pretty widely used, especially in a business context. Here are some example of how this expression would be used:

Project team leader: “We’ll get the ball rolling on this project right away.”

“Join our movement and get the ball rolling!”

The following headline is also a good example: “Obama wants to get the ball rolling on immigration reform”

November 1, 2010

With baseball being all the rage – another baseball idiom

First base at baseball, pic:

As I write this the San Francisco Giants and the Texas Rangers are playing their 5th World Series game and all of San Francisco and the Bay Area are going crazy over baseball.  I still don’t get baseball, don’t know the rules and have little desire to deal with all the statistics involved – a total give-away  that I am a stranger and will always be.

So today’s idiom is “covering all your bases” 0r “covering your bases”.  It means to thoroughly prepare for all eventualities and cases,  to be very well prepared.  I rather not try and explain the underlying baseball principle but the general idea is that defensive players are assigned to cover a base (one of four positions in the corner of the diamond shaped baseball field).  It is a very bad error to be in the wrong place and not covering the base one is responsible for.

This idiom is widely understood and used and is well suited for business as well as casual conversation.


“We prepared a very thorough report.  I believe covered all the bases.”
“When applying for a new job you should cover all your bases to increase the chances of being hired.”
October 31, 2010

Out of the woods

Out of the woods © Henrischmit |

Another nice American idiom that is useful in everyday life and easy to explain.   Literally if you are out of the woods (forest) – a dark and dangerous place – you are in safety.  Figuratively it means the same thing: to emerge from a difficult or dangerous situation.

An example would be: “Bob had major surgery after a bad car accident.  He was is a serious condition for a while but it looks like he is out of the woods now.”

The negative version “not out of the woods”  is used even more frequently.  One uses it to describe a situation where one can relax a bit but the danger is not completely over.  Example:  we have seen signs of improvement but the economy is not out of the woods yet.

The German equivalents are: “aus dem Groebsten heraus sein”, “aus dem Schneider sein”, ueber den Berg sein”

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October 29, 2010

Bubbleboy bikes – or not

Parked Bike ©Cristian Nitu Dreamstime

California is big on all things green. Fine by me, I grew up that way, recycling, turning off the lights in rooms I am not in, conserving water, riding my bike.
My son’s school is a mile away. My son loves his bike and wants to take it to school. That’s fine, school encourages it, there are walk/bike-to-school days and a special enclosed bike/scooter parking area. And since so few people take advantage of it those who do are well-known. In a school of 1,500 kids the principal greets mine by name and makes a comment about his scooter.

All’s good, right? Not so fast. After school my boy goes to an after-school which is about 1.5 miles away. The ideal scenario would play out like that: dad takes son to school with the bike, mom hops on hers at 2:25 pm and picks up junior at school.   Mom and son ride bike to after-school. Bike gets parked, mom rides home and adds 15 minutes biking to her daily calorie log (60 calories burned!).   Son and bike get picked up later by mom or dad.

The reality is slightly different:  after-school does not allow kids to bring, use, or even park their bikes/scooters on the premises. Why you ask. So did I. The answer: if one brings a bike, all will want to bring a bike and we have no room for all the bikes so they would stand around everywhere and it would be too dangerous.
The school has ample free space to park bikes. Most kids are pre-schoolers who traditionally do not ride bikes to school. The after-school program has maybe 50 kids. My guess would be that about 2 or 3 tops would come by bike – occasionally.

Naive as I sometimes am, I wanted to have a rational discussion about this topic. “Look” I said “He isn’t bringing his bike as a toy. It is a means of transportation. He will not bring it into class and will not play with it during the time he is here. We just need to be able to park it somewhere safe.”
“I can not allow that. We can not have bikes on the school grounds. It is too dangerous.”
Me: “Sorry, I think you don’t understand what I mean. We are riding our bikes here from school and need a place to park it.”
“You’ll have to take it with you when you leave.”
Me, puzzled: “I am coming by bike as well. How am I supposed to take his bike back with me on my bike??”
” I can’t tell you how to do that but you can’t leave his bike here. He can bring it for ‘bring-your-bike-to-school-days’ twice a year.”

We went though several rounds of this over the next two weeks. I just couldn’t believe it. I thought I must have somehow misunderstood. My English is good, but maybe,  I missed the critical part. The part where she says: “he can’t bring the bike inside and ride it around on the carpet but other than that there is really no problem.” But I didn’t. She meant it. Parked and locked bikes are dangerous and as such forbidden on the grounds of my child’s after-school. Damn the CO2 emissions and the health benefits from physical exercise. It all pales in comparison to the huge danger a parked bike poses to kids who never, ever walk the school grounds unattended anyway.

Now, my son takes his scooter to school. I pick him up by car, stuff both child and scooter in, drive him to after-school and take the scooter home. He can’t ride his bike anymore. My car is too small, I cannot fit both him and the bike in.

October 29, 2010

Don’t Drop the Ball

Maybe you are playing basketball or football and somebody yells at you not to drop the ball  – in that case you take that advice literally and do not drop the ball to the ground if you can at all avoid it.

Literal ball dropping at a football game (c) Jacob Petersen/ The Lumberjack

It is another expression borrowed from American football where it is a really bad idea to drop the ball because then it can be snatched up by the opponents and they can make a run for the goal.  Consequently, in a business context “dropping the ball” means to fail to perform as expected, not to live up to one’s responsibilities, to make a (serious) mistake.

It is a fairly serious expression so if your boss tells you: “I am giving you this important project, make sure you do not drop the ball!” you better make sure you perform.

It is also used after the fact, as this example of a headline shows: “DHS (Department of Homeland Security) has dropped the ball on network security”  this is followed by the following strong statement “Bleak doesn’t begin to describe the picture painted by this morning’s news coverage of a 35-page government report scoring – and excoriating – the nation’s ongoing inability to protect critical network operations from cyber attack.” (

October 26, 2010

Blue Moon

Blue Moon, © Jana Kopilova |

Blue Moon does not refer to your local bar or the latest shade of nail polish – although this would be a good name for either – a blue moon is the second full moon in a month.  This is a rare event, it occurs roughly once every two to three years.  The next blue moon will not be until August 2012, August 31 to be precise, with the first full moon occurring on August 2 that year.  Why the second moon in a month is called “blue” seems the subject of debate and we will not concern ourselves with that question.

Although this looks like the start of a really boring astronomy lesson it is not.  I am just setting the stage for explaining the idiom “once in a blue moon”.  It means exactly what it appears to mean after the astronomy lesson above: on a very rare occasions, very rarely.  It is a fine idiom that can be used in casual conversation but is perfectly appropriate for a business setting.

Customer: “How often does your software crash?”

Sales rep:  “Don’t worry about that, once in a blue moon – if that.”

German equivalent:  alle Jubeljahre

Spanish equivalent (or so they claim): “cada muerte de obispo” which literally means “each time a bishop dies)