Posts tagged ‘Explanation’

July 31, 2015

Sweet and salty

A long while back I wrote a short blog post about acquired taste and today I want to point one out that is – at least in my mind – very American: the combination of sugar and salt on any given food.

In Germany I grew up with the notion that these two flavors are mortal enemies and could never, ever co-exist in one dish.  You have to make up your mind whether you wanted one or the other, you can’t have both.  Period.

The first serious shake to this fundamental belief came when I had an American boyfriend in Germany, who, to my utter shock and surprise put salt on apples.  Apples are in the sweet category and may only occasionally and for a very good reason cross the border into savory territory, e.g if served as part of a meat/main dish (Berlin style liver comes to mind, fried liver served with sautéed slices of apple and onions or latkes with apple sauce),  By themselves, however, they are considered sweet and sprinkling them with salt is an abomination (or pretty damn close to one).

Much later I should learn that American boyfriends are not the only ones that put salt on fruit.  I remember a fruit stand in Guadalajara, Mexico on a hot day selling containers full of fresh, juicy slices of water melon, mango, etc. I ordered a container and before I realized what was going on and could scream “no, por fovor, no quiero sal!” the vendor had put a generous helping of salt over everything.  Try as I did, I couldn’t eat most of it.

But Americans take it far beyond the apples and water melons to things like popcorn, ice-cream, and chocolate.  They see nothing wrong with putting sweet and salty stuff on the same plate at a buffet without erecting a Chinese Wall or something between the two enemy flavors on the plate.  They heartily bite into a mini cupcake that has been exposed to salad dressing.  Oh, the horror of it.

In grad school I asked a friend about this once, rather I expressed my shock in such weird habits and he had no idea what I was talking about.  He had grown up combining sweet and salty, and to him it was the logical brother of sweet and sour.  He added – a bit tongue in cheek – that Americans just like to have it all and don’t want to choose between the flavors.

Over the years I have learned to tolerate the mixture in most instances and even appreciate it in some.  The one example where it is outright delicious is kettle corn style popcorn.  Made fresh in huge  kettles at farmers markets with a lot of sugar and some salt it is delicious.  Sugar alone makes it overly sweet and uninteresting, salt alone is not exciting either but put both in and you have a winning combination.  On first try it is hard to even determine whether the popcorn is sweet or salty but once you had a few you can’t stop eating it.  I will however, stay away from any bakery products that have been exposed to meat sauce, salad dressing or are sprinkled with rock salt.  That taste isn’t “acquirable” for me.

For you visitors of the US, if somebody offers you some very unintuitive sweet/salty concoction, please keep in mind: this is no attempt on your life and not meant to be an assault on your taste buds – just simply the American idea of “having it all”.

July 24, 2015

Different Rules for Dining Out

Now that I have been back in Europe for a while traveling different countries I noticed – or rather re-noticed – that there are substantial differences in the rules for dining out.  There are two in particular that I want to point out, one at the front end of the restaurant experience and one at the back end.

Dinner rules here and there. Photo: (c) Tina Baumgartner

Dinner rules here and there.
Photo: (c) Tina Baumgartner

Let’s start with getting a table.  There are two ways of doing so in the US: you call and make a reservation or you get in line. The first is easy and logical but sometimes one forgets or the restaurant does not take reservations.  The second is quite different from my experience here in Germany. In the US, at least in California every restaurant, including the fish&chips place by the beach and the fast food restaurant have an orderly process. You go up to the hostess and ask to be seated.  If she can’t seat you your name goes on a list and that list gets taken care off starting from the top as patrons leave the restaurant and vacate tables.

Sometimes there is no hostess but there is a list and people take it upon themselves to put their names and the number of people in their party on that list – in the right order, without cheating and without trying to skip the line.

Then one waits, patiently or not, that doesn’t matter, until one’s name is called.  Sometimes one just hangs around the front area of the restaurant or one is given a buzzer thingy that one takes along while browsing the shops in the mall or whatever. When it buzzes and blinks the table is ready and by that I mean it is ready for you to sit down and order: no half-empty glasses and partially eaten dinners are lingering.

In Germany there are also two ways of getting a table: you call and make a reservation or you outrun your competition for a table. What you do not do is stand patiently at the entry and wait for the next table to become available.  I mean you can do that but what will inevitably happen is that somebody else, who came long after you, has been pacing the place to get a good pole position.  That art starts with keenly observing the room to see who is close to being done and has asked the waiter to pay up, then one hangs out near that table and as soon as the first person at that table as much as lifts half a butt cheek those skilled in the art (everybody) grab that chair, plunk down and declare victory.

Meanwhile you have politely waited and taken a few steps towards that table as you see the patrons stirring but by the time you get there the whole posse already sat down, pushed the dirty glasses and plates aside, opened the menus, started discussing their wine selections.  And they certainly have no intention to leave the table to you.  In fact any such inquiry will be met with blank stares.  Securing a table in a busy German restaurant is a full contact sport.  I find it rather strange by now but if you want to sit down and eat you better play by the rules.

Now let’s assume you got that table and have had your food and a glass of wine and another and maybe a coffee, then there is another cultural difference to negotiate.  In Germany and other European countries I have traveled to now it is time for you linger; maybe have another glass of wine, in the olden days a cigarette or two, a little brandy and since we are all having such a grand old time, let’s have a round of Grappa.  The waiter would never, ever dare putting the check on the table (unless it is past closing hour by now), you call for the check when you are ready.  Then the waiter will come with an itemized list and – unless you are lucky somebody pays the entire bill – every person picks what they had, that gets added up and they pay their share.  In the rare case when an unclaimed beer remains  everybody will contemplate whether they in fact didn’t have three instead of the two they paid for and somebody is generally found pretty quickly who agrees to pay for it.  This I find a rather civilized way going about paying.

In the US the waiter will put the check on your table before you have even finished your last bite of dessert, sometimes before you even ordered dessert.  You can, of course, say that you want dessert and then the check disappears and the dessert menu appears.  Once you half-way through that triple chocolate cake the check will reappear.

Once you are done eating you are expected to pay and leave.  You want some more wine – that’s what the bar is for.  One simply does not linger once one is done with dinner.  It is time to pay up and leave.  I once observed a German couple getting totally outraged by the rudeness of the waiter who put the check on their table while they were finishing up their omelet.  “Honey” I wanted to say “they don’t mean to be rude, it’s just how it is done here.”

Then comes the paying part and this irks me to this day.  The waiter brings an itemzied list of everything consumed and expects that one person pays it all or the patrons figure out among themselves who pays how much.  Smart phones with calculators help some, but often it isn’t the math that is limiting.  What makes it infinitely more difficult in the US is that you need to add both taxes and the mandatory tip which people forget or sometimes “forget”.  So in the end there is never enough money in the pot and everybody feels that they paid their fair share along the lines of “I only had a sandwich for $8.50, I put $10 in so that should be enough.  Well, no, not in California at least, you need to add at least 25% for taxes and tip, so $11 would be closer to the truth.  The higher the bill the larger the discrepancy gets.

Another bad method is “going Dutch” where the bill just gets split by the number of people and everybody pays the same whether you had a small salad and water or the Filet Mignon plus appetizer, dessert, wine and a cocktail.   This works if you go out with your three best friends and everybody is conscious of not charging the others too much.  At your colleagues large birthday party – with a bunch of people you don’t even know – this spells disaster.  Especially if the Filet-Mignon-cocktail people need to leave early (oh so busy) and don’t leave enough money to cover their part.  After falling for this like a sucker one time I decided to never attend such large birthday parties again.

So, in the end, each culture could learn from the others.  The Americans do the getting the table part better, the Germans the paying up part.

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July 21, 2015

Articles – and now the exceptions

No rule without exception is the unfortunate truth with most languages – and pretty much any and all other rules.  In a prior post we were talking about the rules for the use of articles in English which leaves us to explore what the exceptions are. Here we go: certain fixed expressions of place, time and movement do not take articles.  Here are some examples:

  • I am going to school – not the school
  • He was in prison – not the prison
  • Let’s stay home tonight – not the home
  • we’ll go by car – not by the car.  However, it is “we’ll take the car” not “we’ll take car”

A more comprehensive list can be found here. Articles are also often dropped after the following expressions: after both, all, sort of, kind of and alike as in these examples:

  • Both boys and girls were playing soccer
  • All family members spent the weekend at the beach house
  • What type of food do you prefer?

Also double expressions often do not have an article:

  • Brother and sister came to visit
  • Cats and dogs often fight
  • We are available day and night

Also the following categories of exception exist: No article is needed for

  1. Words used in a general sense – “women love shoes” – it is a general statement, whether true or not or Japanese food is healthy – in general, not just the dish you are currently enjoying
  2. Countries, towns, continents, etc.  – I live in Germany – okay, there are exceptions to the exception such as “I live in the Netherlands” but the country is called “the Netherlands” (another: The United Kingdom) so it makes sense
  3. Languages – “I used to study Spanish”
  4. Acronyms as long as they are pronounced as one word such as NATO, FIFA, SCOTUS but an article is needed when the letters are pronounced independently such as UN, WHO, NIH, etc
  5. Holidays – Christmas is my favorite holiday.  Halloween is fun.

These are so to speak the official exceptions, those you can read about in books and on other webpages but then there are some that I have encountered repeatedly and I have grown used to but really can’t explain or find a proper explanation for.

Here is what I mean: When speaking about babies people often drop the article.  You will hear sentences like “make sure baby’s head is not covered with a blanket.”  If that sentence addresses a particular set of parents with a specific baby then the sentence should be “make sure the/your baby’s head is not covered with a blanket”.  If, however, one is speaking about babies in general the imperative would not be used and the sentence would be something like “Babies’ heads should never be covered by a blanket”.  I suspect “babies” or “baby” in such sentences is used as a placeholder for a name.  And since we don’t know whether this particular baby is called Michael or Michelle they are called “Baby” as name.  I suppose it is meant to sound more personal – to me it sounds weird to this day.

Keep the - aehm - your distance. pic source:

Keep the – aehm – your distance. pic source:

Something similar happens with legal counsel but probably not for the same reason.  In business you will hear sentences like “let’s run this by Counsel” or “we need to get Counsel’s approval.”  However, you wouldn’t say, “let’s run this by doctor/CEO” it would definitely be “let’s run this by the/your doctor/ the CEO.” Why Counsel here is treated like an general concept as in #1 above rather than an individual is unclear to me.  Maybe people want to give the impression that they have a whole, well-oiled legal machinery supporting them rather than one little lone lawyer – but I am just guessing here. Another confusion is around the use of “you/your” in certain instances where, e.g. in German and also in Spanish nothing would be used.   A recent example is from I trip I took to Austria.  On the freeways they had signs up that encourage people not to drive to closely behind the car in front of them.  And surprisingly, those signs were in English.  Discouragingly, though, they said “keep the distance!” “Wrong”, I screamed, “it has to be ‘keep your distance'”.  My German friends did not understand where the “your” is coming from and I couldn’t explain it.  I just knew that nobody would ever say “keep the distance”.  It just sounds weird.  Driving 90 miles per hour I missed the opportunity to take a picture of this faux pas – darn.

So here we have a few exceptions to mull over.  Like with all languages, the little things like keep your distance and keep the distance can make a the difference.

July 13, 2015


Those little articles can be tricky beasts and their usage varies between English and German in subtle ways that are sometimes difficult to pinpoint.

Before looking at differences is usage it makes sense to first establish what the correct usage of the English articles – a/an, and the – are and when using an article would be wrong.

The rules are fairly simple.

For countable nouns – that is nouns that one can put a number in front of such as 1 blogger, 40 readers, 9 roses, etc.

  • both a/an and the can be put in front of the noun, depending on the context
  • A countable noun in the singular needs an article “I am talking to the teacher” or “I am eating an apple”
  • If used in the plural without an article one refers to all of that thing, e.g. “Apples are yummy.” Meaning apples in general are yummy, not just the one you are eating right now which would be “the apple is yummy.”
  • The first time you use a countable noun, generally, you would use the indefinite article “I am reading a book.” subsequently the definite article is used as one refers to a specific embodiment of that thing “Is the book interesting?”
  • The is also use when the listener knows which thing one refers to in the following example: “the phone is ringing”. e.g. when it is your one and only phone that is ringing vs. “a phone is ringing” when it could be your landline, your cell phone, your husband’s or even the neighbors’ phone.
  • “an” is used in front of words starting with a vowel sound, e.g. “an apple” or “an herb garden”.  If a word does not start with a vowel sound “a” is used such as “a flower”, a house” and “a user”. These examples make it clear why vowel sound is important, not vowel.  A word can start with a vowel but not a vowel sound such as “user” or it can start with a consonant but a vowel sound, such as “herb” as the h in “herb” isn’t pronounced making the word sound like “erb”. One needs to be careful with the h, though, not all h’s are dropped and hence it is “a history”, not “an history” because the h is not silent. After all it isn’t ‘istory, although the French might pronounce it that way.

“water is precious” – no article, as this refers to water in general. But: “The water was very cold” – meaning that the specific water I put my hand/foot in was cold, which wouldn’t come as a big surprise in this case as it was winter in Germany. (c) Tina Baumgartner

The other group of nouns are uncountable words, which, obviously, you can’t put a number in front.  A few examples are: water, happiness, luck, money.  Of course in many cases you can put a unit of measure in front that makes them countable, as in 3 bottles of water or 2 suitcases full of money but then it is the bottles or suitcases you are counting, not the water or money.  Obviously that does not generally work with happiness or luck or hope, etc.

So in the case of uncountable words:

  • generally you cannot use a/an in front of them.
  • generally you can’t make an uncountable noun a plural “waters”, “lucks” and “happinesses” are not proper words, though is special circumstances that might work, e.g. “the waters are deep” – a case where “water” doubles for a body of water such as a lake or maybe river not water in general, or “monies” a technical term used in finance.
  • if you use an uncountable noun with no article if it means that thing in general, e.g. “water is precious”, “I am a great believer in luck.” etc.
  • and finally you use an uncountable noun with “the” to talk about a particular example of that thing. “The money I raised will be donated”, “The water in the Sierra Nevada tasted very good.” “you won’t believe the luck I had in the last poker game”.

This sounds like a lot but really isn’t too bad and rather easy to remember.

There are, of course, exceptions which sound weird to the ear of a non-native speaker and even my non-native ears with almost 2 decades of speaking English.  Those will be discussed in a later blog.  Stay tuned.


July 7, 2015

New Official English Words

Welcome to the new additions to the Oxford Dictionary.  Pic:

Welcome to the new additions to the Oxford Dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary recently released the latest words that are no officially part of the English languages, as opposed to being used but not being “official”.   Some surprised me because I expected them to be official words for, like, ever, some because I didn’t even know the word or I knew the word but didn’t know it had that additional meaning that now as made official.

Some others are pretty much non-events.

Let’s look at a few.

High on the list of media attention grabbing new words is “twerk”, the dance move, popularized in 2013 or thereabouts is defined as dancing “in a sexually provocative manner, using thrusting movements of the bottom and hips while in a low, squatting stance.” – Now that is a long explanation for something that everybody, who has ever seen Miley Cyrus do anything, grasps intuitively.  Welcome to official existence, twerk, you child of twisting or jerking.

One of those I stare at and wonder is “gimmick”.  It supposedly means “a night out with friends”.  I have never heard it used in that sense and maybe it just isn’t something Californians use.  The good old gimmick I know and like has the following meaning:an ingenious or novel device, scheme, or stratagem, especially one designed to attract attention or increase appeal“.  How the word made it from trick to happy hour I can’t begin to explain.

One I had never heard used is “fo’ shizzle”, slang speak meaning “for sure”.  I seem to not travel in the right circles for that kind of slang.

Then there is guerrilla used in the sense of “describing activities carried out in an irregular and spontaneous way”.  Now, maybe my job has biased me but I have know and used guerrilla in this sense for years.  In fact, I probably have used it more often in this newly approved sense then the original one.  So again, welcome to the world of officially approved terms, guerrilla marketing.

Now one that I like, the somewhat childish but cute sounding look-see, pronounced “looksy”.  It means what you think it does, taking a quick look around, doing a brief inspection.  Here is an example:

“Shall we pitch our tent on this camp ground?”

“Let’s have a quick look-see first.”

What else is new? The universally used “meh” that expresses a profound lack of excitement and enthusiasm which seems to date back to the early 1990 and the Simpsons. Another popular culture addition is “Twitterati”, describing prolific users of the social networking site Twitter, plus many many more, some of which I am very unlikely to ever use. But it is good to know that there are words for things I might want to say, one day.



July 5, 2015


This is the first of a small series of German language blog entries that are designed to address some common mistakes Germans speaking English make.  Some content might be redundant with the content provided in the English language blog.

In dieser kleinen Serie fasse ich einige der haeufigsten Fehler zusammen, die Deutsche im Englischen machen.  Fangen wir mit den an sich einfachen aber doch haeufig verwirrenden Konzept des “besitzanzeigenden s” an, das im Deutschen am ehesten dem Genetiv entspricht.  Im Deutschen wird der Genetiv – der ohnehin fast nie benuetzt wird –  ebenfalls durch ein s signalisiert. “Das Haus des Grossvaters/Grossvaters Haus ist der Stadt” waere ein Beispiel.

Im englischen ist das ganz aehnlich nur ist das s mit einem Apostroph abgetrennt: “Grandfather’s house is in the city.”

So weit so gut. Was aber wenn man zwei Grossvaeter hat, die beide in der Stadt wohnen? In dem Fall wird der normale Plural gebildet und dann das Apostroph angehaengt um den Possessive anzudeuten: “The grandfathers’ houses are in the city.”

Unuebersichtlicher wird es bei Worten, die auf s enden, denn dann gibt es zwei Moeglichkeiten” Grandpa Charles’s house is in the city” oder “Grandpa Charles’ house is in the city.”  Beide sind richtig und haben ihre Grammatik-Gurus, die die eine vs. die andere Schreibweise befuerworten.  Die einfachste Empfehlung ist, dass man sich fuer eine Schreibweise entscheiden soll und diese dann auch durchgehend verwendet.

Natuerlich gibt es jede Menge zusaetzlicher Regeln und Empfehlungen, was man mit Worten, die auf x oder ch enden macht, was wenn es Eigennamen sind oder auf s enden oder Worte, die auf zwei ss enden und vor einem Wort stehen, dass mit s anfaengt?  “the hostess’s sink” – “das Wasch/Spuelbecken der Gastgeberin” waere so ein Beispiel – dass ja recht bescheuert aussieht.   In vielen Faell ist ebenfalles gesunder Menschenverstand und Konsistenz gefragt.  Wenn man schreibt dass man bei den Joneses zum Abendessen war dann sollte man mit den Sanchezes ins Kino gehen.  Wenn man allerdings bei den Jones’s diniert hat, sollte man mit den Sanchez’s ins Kino.

Wichtig ist erstmal, dass man die Grundlagen richtig hinkriegt, um Missverstaendniss zu vermeiden oder nicht wie ein Ignorant darzustehen.

possessive 2

Das ist ein ganz normaler Plural muesste also “Signs” sein, nicht sign’s. Das Schild macht so ueberhaupt keinen Sinn.


Das gleiche Problem, Hondas ist ein Plural – viele Honda Autos. Wieder ergibt das Schild so keinen Sinn.

Die Grundregeln sind:

  • In einem normalen Plural hat ein ‘s nichts verloren.  Meine zwei Soehne sind “my two sons” nicht “my two son’s” or “my two sons’ ” Das letztere waere richtig wenn es von einem Nomen gefolgt waere. z.B. my two sons’ boat- das Boot meiner zwei Soehne, also ein Boot das beiden gehoert.
  •  Ein Possessiv braucht ein Apostroph, sonst ist es kein Possessiv sondern ein Fehler.

Bevor es ganz bloed und umstaendlich wird kann man sich meistens mit einer Umschreibung behelfen.  Also statt “Illinois’s constitution” also “Illinois Verfassung” kann man ohne weiteres “the constitution of Illinois” sagen, also “die Verfassung von Illinois” oder – vermutlich korrekter im Deutschen “die Verfassung des Staates Illinois”.

Wenn man das gemeistert hat, kann man schon mehr als viele Muttersprachler.

July 2, 2015

Presumed English

A few words recently came to my attention that Germans often get wrong but that are not false friends per se.  It is more that everybody presumes that these are English/American words because they sound English when in fact their are not.  These mistakes are hard to avoid – because they are made in the conviction that the words/terms used are English and as such never questioned.

Here are a few examples.

The most well-known one is “Handy” the term universally used in Germany for a mobile or cell phone.  The “y” at the end and the English pronunciation generally used for the “a” makes people believe that they are using a proper English word.  Most are very surprised, many to the point of thinking it is a joke, when they are told that no such a thing as a “handy” exists in the English language.

Somebody asked me the other day what “handy” actually means in English but I had to pass.  Other than a slang meaning that I wasn’t prepared to discuss while the kids were in the room I couldn’t think of any.

The puzzling term "beamer"

The puzzling term “beamer”

A funny one, and probably an American English rather than British English one is “beamer”.  Germans use “beamer” – an unquestionably English term – for a projector.  One of those handy-dandy things one attaches to the computer that enables one to project the computer screen to a large external screen.  There is a beam of light so, undeniably, this makes a certain amount of sense.  However, in American English a beamer is something quite different, namely a general term of a BMW.  Don’t ask me how this came about, I assume it has something to do with BMW being a mouthful and beamer keeps the B and M sound but does away with the clunky W while making it sound fast and sleek.

After having spent almost a year in Germany I fell for it myself the other day.  In a meeting I said that it would be good to have a  …. what’s that word? …. you know that thingy that projects to the wall …. a beamer.” I caught myself a split second later and corrected myself but not before seeing some blank stares and silly grins.

The list keeps going:

Public viewing

In English, as Wiki states, is the condition of a deceased person, often of high social stature, whose body is available for public viewing.

In German or rather “Denglish”: the live broadcast of a sporting event to a public square on which 100 to many 1000s will rather to watch together.

Body Bag

In English those dreary black plastic bags that are used to remove corpses from a crime scene

In German/Denglish: a messenger bag like accessory that is worn close to the body

There are a bunch more but those are a few of the good ones.  If you have a favorite please let me know!

June 27, 2015

False Friends

I mentioned false friends before, words in the language you study that sound very much like words in your own language and hence one is tempted to assume they mean the same.

Two examples from the German and English languages come to mind: eventually and actually in English and eventuell and aktuell in German.  Let’s talk about and clarify both of them:

Eventually and eventuell – are very close sounding and used in similar contexts.  However, “eventually” indicates that something will happen at some non-specified time in the future.  The point is, the thing will happen, just when isn’t determined yet.  “Eventuell”, on the other hand, means that something may happen in the future, so the basic fact whether the event will happen is uncertain.

Getting married eventually is very different from getting married "eventuell/maybe."  (c) Tina Baumgartner

Getting married eventually is very different from getting married “eventuell/maybe.”
(c) Tina Baumgartner

The difference can be rather disconcerting: “eventually we’ll get married” is quite different from “maybe we’ll get married.” Hearing a college student say: “I will eventually finish my degree” is cause for concern for parents, but hearing them say “Maybe, some day, I’ll finish my degree” is way worse.   From the German’s perspective misusing the word the consequences can be dire as well: saying to your business partner “I will eventually come up with the $2M needed to keep the doors open” is telling him/her that you will get the money when what you meant to say that you “eventuell” will get the money which means potentially/maybe you somehow manage to come up with it.

Actually and aktuell are also similar sounding but have the advantage of being used in different contexts and hence it should be easier to keep them apart.  “Actually” is a frequently used word in English which is mostly used in the same contexts as the German “eigentlich”.  It is a bit of a fudge word that is hard to translate and very context dependent.  A few examples might illustrate the use best:

“Are you going to the grocery store with me?” – “Actually, I had planned on going to the gym now.” – here it is used in the sense of “well” or – since it is often used when saying no to something, it is used in the sense of “uhm, well, no”

“This is actually a good question” – here it is used in the sense of “indeed”

“How did your trip to Italy compare to the last time you were there?” – “Actually, I had never visited Italy before” – here it is used in the sense of “in fact”.

Aktuell, however, means current/up to date:  “aktuelle Nachrichten” are current news, “ist das noch aktuell?” means “is that still up to date?”

So a false friend but not as deviously false as the eventually/eventuell pair.


June 24, 2015

Of course

“Of course” in English is used to express that something is well-known and understood and not surprising.
“We loved Norway in winter, but, of course, the days were short.” Now, that doesn’t come as a big surprise to most people.

“Was the food in Thailand spicy?” “Of course it was.”  At least to those of us who have traveled to Thailand this not new either.

“Of course” is one of those little phrases that Germans use a lot when they speak English and that they use slightly differently than native speakers .  And it is another of those phrases that Germans use the way they would use the literal translation “natuerlich” in German as a way to emphasize a fact or statement. They often start a sentence with “of course” to express not that what follows is a well-known fact but that what follows is a somewhat surprising or unusual fact that needs a bit of emphasis.”Of course, all our dishes come with French fries” a waiter might say, before anybody even asked whether French fries are available.

Germans use “of course” often to express that they think something is the case or to proactively confirm a not generally known fact and hence use it more in the sense of “certainly”.

The following is a bit of an overstated example to make the point:

German sales person: “Of course, the computer comes with a free ticket to Disney World and preloaded software.”

While the computer can be reasonably be expected to come with software (and hence an “of course” would be appropriate if the buyer asked “does it come with software?”) it cannot reasonably be expected to come with a free ticket to Disney World, hence the “of course” is misplaced.

Now if the company had put out an advertising campaign saying “Buy a computer get a free ticket to Disney World!” and the buyer had come in, flyer in hand and asked “does this computer come with a free ticket to Disney World?” then “of course, it does” would have been an appropriate answer.

It is a fine difference and probably not particularly relevant in many contexts but I have noticed it a number of times and in some occasions this “proactive of course” comes across as a bit unfriendly or slightly offensive.  As if the other party should have known already.  As if a generally accepted fact somehow had slipped the attention of the other person and one now has to point it out the obvious.

This is definitely American English 201 or even 301, not 101 but its best to not get into the habit of using “of course” to emphasis a fact that isn’t widely known and accepted.



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.