Posts tagged ‘Expression’

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 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 30, 2015


The other day we took a stroll through the center of the historic German town we currently live in when I stopped in my tracks.  Right in front of us was a new store I had never seen before – this might be a bit strange in such a small town but then, things change quickly and seeing  new store normally doesn’t stop me in my tracks – unless, of course, it is an Antique Store, or better yet some sort of indoor flea market type store.  With the town rapidly gentrifying tit was neither.

Friking  - a questionable name choice and an similalrly questionable slogan (c) Tina Baumgartner

Friking – a questionable name choice and an similalrly questionable slogan
(c) Tina Baumgartner

What stopped me in my tracks was the name.  The store – which sells men’s fashion – is called “Friking” – seriously? Friking? The word doesn’t mean anything in German and might be a name.  In any case it is pronounced slightly differently from the English “freaking” – but only ever so slightly.

Now, a German store owner might be forgiven for not knowing that Friking is way too close for comfort to “freaking” if they didn’t make a point of using an English slogan right under that name.  But not only that, they use a slogan that makes no sense whatsoever. The slogan, right there outside the store says “you are in the shop”

Ehm, what?  I am clearly not in the shop, I am outside looking at it in disbelief.  And even if I was in the shop, what would the slogan tell me?  I would know I am in the shop, then, I needn’t be told. I  tried to make sense of this by translating it literally into German, but it doesn’t make sense in that language either, so it isn’t a case of literally translated idiom.  Maybe the webpage holds a clue as it is a Spanish webpage ending on .es – so some Spanish store using a bad English slogan in Germany?  The headache of it all!

Another point, maybe an US vs. UK English point is the use of “shop”.  In US English one would say store rather than shop, a shop has the connotation of a small place where often services are performed such as body shop (car repair), barber shop to get a shave (do shops where people are getting shaved still exist?)

I am still scratching my head over the fact that somebody spends lots of money on merchandize, the very expensive rents in my quickly gentrifying little town, hires sales people etc. etc – but can’t be bothered to ask somebody fluent in English something along the lines of “hi, buddy, help me out here.  Does this slogan make sense?” This is a friking mess, really.

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 18, 2015

Literally Pesky Adverbs

Adverbs can be a bother. It starts with them being quite an idiosyncratic bunch with words thrown in that actually seem to somehow not belong anywhere – such as actually.

Let’s not worry for now, about the intricacies of classification of adverbs and similar advanced topics, much has been written about this by experts, let’s just say, they can make life hard, for the native as and especially for the non-native speaker.  Literally.

Native speakers like to misuse “literally” by using it frequently in a context where whatever they suggest should be taken literally isn’t actually true, literally.

“Oh dear, we literally shopped til we dropped when we were in Vegas.”  Unless you really collapsed on the street or in the store you didn’t literally shop til you dropped, you likely just wore yourself out.

“I literally don’t have anything to wear.”  – no comment needed

“I literally haven’t eaten ice cream in a year.” – while that could, literally, be true it most likely isn’t and the person is just trying to make a point.

So, what is a person trying to learn English supposed to do with literally? Ignore, use correctly, use casually but incorrectly just like the native speakers?  That is really a decision everybody has to make for themselves.  I use literally and I use it incorrectly at times but I do so knowingly.  If called on the topic I would concede that point and acknowledge my ungrammatical ways.  However, why be more catholic than the pope, why try and keep the language purer that the native speakers care to?

Part of becoming fluent in both business as well as casual English is to use the language just as the native speakers do (which can be very different in California and Texas, let along England or Australia) and that includes to a certain extent to adopt idiosyncratic (read: wrong) uses of words.  It’s good to know what is wrong and what is correct and it is also very important not to overdo it such as adopting a specific slang of a group one doesn’t belong to.  Ebonics sounds weird on the overwhelming majority of kids from Stuttgart, Sydney or Shanghai (and most other places).

June 14, 2015

Never ever ever …. seriously!

I said it before, I am saying it again: never, ever, ever translate a saying, proverb, slogan, idiom, expression literally.  Seriously, do not do it, it will not work.

This is a fundamental truth of learning another language and it seems hard to grasp for people.  Somehow I understand, if you only ever spoke one language you might not have an appreciation for the fact that other languages and other cultures see and describe things differently, feel about things differently and hence use other expressions and mental images to talk about it.

That being the case it is critically important to accept that it is that way and that – however logical or natural an expression might seem – it is likely not appreciated in a verbatim translation.

The now infamous "Mirror Egg"I still cringe when I think of my first trip to the US, many many years ago with a couple of friends. We were ordering breakfast and my friend ordered a “mirror egg”. I can’t begin to describe the confusion on the poor waitresses face.  In German a fried egg, sunny side up is indeed referred to as “Spiegelei” which, in the literal translation is a “mirror egg”.  The expression likely stems from the fact that while the egg white is curdled the yolk is still liquid and has a shiny surface.  At that time I wasn’t an expert on American breakfast egg preparation but it was immediately obvious to me that the literal translation was disastrous.  I have no idea how we resolved that situation but I remember to this day how uncomfortable it was.

But that kid of blunder isn’t just reserved for regular people with limited English knowledge.  Even big companies do stuff like that, which is when it gets really bad.  For a long time one of Germany’s major chain of stores selling perfume used the slogan “come in and find out” to entice customers to come into the store and find out what great offerings await them inside.

This phrase has two major issues: firstly, one would never use it in English. “Find out” doesn’t stand by itself, it would need to be followed by a “what”, something that we are supposed to find out. Find out how great/cheap/well-stocked/exclusive/whatever we are.  But “find out” alone leaves me puzzled and unsatisfied.

Secondly the Germans overwhelmingly misinterpreted the sentence to mean “come in and then find a way to leave again”. The “find out” was translated literally to “herausfinden” which can mean discover but it can also mean “find your way out” – like out of a scary dark forest or a maze.  Not exactly what the message was supposed to be.

So, please, big retail store, car maker, pharma company next time you want a cool sounding English slogan ask me first.  I can fix it and save you a lot of confusion and embarrassment.


June 12, 2015

Picking up where I left off

my year by the lake

my year by the lake

I have been inactive for a long time but recently decided to do a little bit more of what I like (writing) and a little bit less of what I have to do (working on a job that by no means can be described as 9-5).  So, here are the good intentions, which – as we are all know – pave the road to hell.

I have spent the last 10 months in Germany, which is my home country.  It was an interesting experience in many ways, also from a language stand point.  Many Germans, especially the younger generation speak English, some very well, some, well, not so much.

English is in many ways pretty prevalent in Germany, of course the Germans send emails, just like the rest of the world, not ePost or eBriefe and have computers, just spelled Computers.  There is a good deal of English in music, science and as mentioned anything having to do with computers/IT and in advertising – although the trend for that latter one seems to be slowing.

Some of the things I will write about in the next few blogs are funny, weird, silly and confusing mistakes made by German natives trying their hand at English – especially if they are trying to sound cool, young and hip.  Generally it is a recipe for disaster and some general conclusions can be drawn for any non-native speaker learning English (or any other language, I suppose).  The main ones:

  • never, ever, ever translate a saying, proverb, slogan literally.  It might work, in some rare cases, but in the overwhelming majority of cases nobody will understand what you mean and you’ll end out looking weird – at best
  • be aware of “false friends”- I suppose most languages have them and there are a few specifically tough ones in German-English that just keep coming up over and over again.  The most obvious example is the English “become” and the German “bekommen” – look like twins, don’t they.  Well, they aren’t.  Bekommen means “get” not “become” – endless confusion ensues.  I actually do know a Spanish false friend or rather a really devious couple of false friends: “asistir” in Spanish means attend, whereas “atender” means pay attention to, look after.  I can’t count how many times I had native Spanish speakers tell me that they will “assist” an event.
  • Adverbs matter and so does punctuation.  More on that in a later post but I’ll end with that example that has been going around on Facebook and alike:

Let’s eat Grandpa!

Let’s eat grandpa! – opps – Let’s eat, Grandpa! – better

September 26, 2012

NewB vs. Noob

I had heard neither term until recently when my 8 year old son used the word “noob” (also spelled nub).

My assumption was, that noob is like newb is like newbie – somebody who is new to something and still learning the skill (often computer games, especially when dealing with young boys).  However, that isn’t the case, I  have come to understand.   Newbs/newbies are different from noobs/nubs in the following respect:  whereas newbies are new to something and hence not very good at it they are willing and able to learn and improve.  Noobs however, are hopeless cases, they are bad at something – or to use a popular slang term – they suck at something but no amount of training will ever make them good at it.  Lost cases, pretty much.

The term is very much a kid/young people slang term and unfit to be used at the office or in a meeting.  The exception here is newbie which isn’t demeaning or negative and is a somewhat cute term for beginner.