Posts tagged ‘grammar’

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 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.

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.



January 20, 2011

More confusing words – lay and lie

Here is a group of confusing words: lay, lie, laid, lied.  So lets’ try and get them straight!

Lay means to set something down or place something somewhere as in “please lay all the presents on that table over there”

Lie – well here it gets a little more complicated – means two very different things, namely 1) to recline, to position oneself in the vertical “I am really tiered.  I am going to lie down on the bed for a bit”

and 2) to tell something that is not true. “Tell me did you break that window with your ball or was it little Johnny – and don’t lie to me!”

When lie means relaxing on a bed and when it means telling somebody a falsehood should be pretty obvious from the context.

For those interested in using these words in the past tense:

Lay – laid- “She laid out all the facts.”  “The chicken laid an egg.”

Lie –  lied: “He lied to me for years about his finances.  I’ll never trust him again.”

Lie – and here it gets tricky – lay: “I lay on my bed all morning long thinking about what I should do with the rest of my life.”

December 19, 2010

Lat’s talk abbreviations

Here is a couple of really confusing abbreviations that are very commonly used: i.e. and e.g.

The reason they are so confusing is that they abbreviation are not of English words but of their Latin equivalent.  And few of us regularly use our Latin and stay current – this makes it tricky.

So what do theses letters mean?

i.e. stands for id est which translates into that is or in other words

we had great sushi, e.g. toro, sake and unagi, pic: © Kitsen |

e.g. stands for exempli gratia which means for example

Now the trick is to use the right two9 letters in any given context.  The difference in use can be somewhat subtle.  Here are a couple of examples, that might make it easier to understand the difference.

i.e. specifies and clarifies something, fleshes out something that has already been stated.  Here is an example:

“I am going to go shopping now, i.e. I am first going to the bookstore, then to the electronics store and at the end I’ll go to the supermarket to get groceries. ”

e.g. indicates that you are about to give a few examples implying that the examples you give are only a partial list  Here is an example.   We will have a great selection of food for the BBQ e.g. hamburgers, salads, ice-cream, hotdogs 9and many other things).

I put and many other things in paraenthesis because you can say that but in reality it is implied anyway.

December 5, 2010

Bubbleboy and Mandatory Volunteering

Another good example for an oxymoron "permitted trespassing", pic:

Let’s first make sure we are all on one page. A dictionary always comes in handy in such moments:
(?), a. [L. mandatorius.] Containing a command; preceptive; directory

Vol`un*teer” (?), n. [F. volontaire. See Voluntary, a.]

1. One who enters into, or offers for, any service of his own free will.

oh, and one last:

Ox`y*mo”ron (?), n. [NL., fr. Gr. , fr. pointedly foolish; sharp + foolish.] (Rhet.) A figure in which an epithet of a contrary signification is added to a word; e. g., cruel kindness; laborious idleness.

I love myself a good figure of speech, even the occasional oxymoron, used in the privacy of my office, on my computer writing, or in conversation with my witty husband and friends who get the sense of irony associated with it.  If it is dragged into real life, meant literally, though, an oxymoron turns into moronic in no time.

And so we encounter the concept of mandatory volunteering – unknown to me until fairly recently and thus far blessedly absent from my own daily life. Some of our friends with kids in other schools, however, are feeling the full brunt of an oxymoron coming to life and ascertaining itself. It is one thing to be shamed into volunteering, one can withstand that – catholic guilt aside – but mandatory volunteering leaves no options, no wiggle room, no back door.

The idea is the following: you send your kid to a public school thinking that you drop them off, pick them up, pack lunch and a snack, and occasionally attend some little event where they sing or dance or show their art. But then you read the fine print which states that you have to “volunteer” for 10 hours every year. “10 hours” you think “how hard can that be, 10 hours is nothing.”

After a month or so you realize, however, that the 10 hours are on top of the “voluntary volunteering” that you are getting shamed into, the reading in class, and putting folders in the kids backpacks and the 37 different events you are supposed to attend during the year, for Mothers Day, and Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Teacher Appreciation Week, Father’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Columbus Day, Martin Luther King’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Diwali, Rosh Hashanah, Talent Show, Chinese New Year, Cinqo de Mayo, Yom Kippur, Last Day of School Celebration, Science Fair, Math Marathon, Festivus – okay, that last one doesn’t really happen – hyperbole on my side.

So 10 hours are all of a sudden 10 hours in addition to what you are willing to do without being forced, 10 hours, which, if you work in Silicon Valley, you simply don’t have bumming around somewhere. So you postpone going to the gym or the OBGYN and get up at 4 am a few times to cut out paper bonnets and hats for the annual Thanksgiving feast including really cute early settler costumes for everybody.

And then there are the projects you are supposed to work on with your child, the little cute craft thingies that maybe, if he was Leonardo da Vinci with an ambition he could do by himself, but – since he is just a regular little boy who can’t find his scissors ever and really doesn’t care for coloring – you better help him and make it look pretty because all the other parents help their children and make it look pretty and how sad would it be if only your artistically challenged child would show up with something he actually made all by himself?

So you find yourself thinking, cleaning glue from your table and putting color pencils away “if I didn’t work and really was into doing crafts and had no gym to go to, no friends to meet for lunch or coffee, no house to clean, no garden to weed, no underpants to wash, no meals to cook, no supermarket runs to make, no windows to clean, no mothers-in-law to listen to on the phone – then” you think  “I might actually enjoy that plus the 10 hours of mandatory volunteering which I will spend on just attending yet another party/event/show/demonstration but organizing it, including procuring the healthy food choices.” “Then” you think “I might help with the lunch service, correct the kid’s math problems, chaperon them on a field trip, or do any of the other million things that are necessary or desirable but the State of California seems unwilling to pay for.”

So, dear school board and PTA members or whoever else dreams up these things, if you need my help, tell me.  I might be able and willing to. However, if you try and sneak this by me under the guise of “mandatory volunteering” implying that I should be wanting to do all the work happily, willingly, and most importantly completely voluntarily but that I am such an hard-nosed, unyielding and unresponsive member of society that the volunteer work has to be made mandatory for me, then, dear member of the School Board, I am going fall back into my worst teenage behavior, stomp my foot, cross my arms, make a pouty face and say “No”.   If you ask me why the answer will be similarly straightforward “just because!”

November 14, 2010

s or ‘s or s’

Plural and possesive - really not that confusing, pic:

The s at the end of the word is a source of confusion to many – native and non-native speakers but it is relatively simple once one understands the underlying principle.

An extra “s” at the end of a word generally indicates plural: cat – cats, car – cars, concept – concepts

There is an exception for nouns ending on s, z, ch, sh and x – to make it easier to pronounce those plural forms they take an -es plural form

beach – beaches, fox – foxes,  fish – fishes

Then there are the possessive forms which indicates that someone owns something (it is like the genitive):

“This is Mike,  Jane’s new boy-friend.” (Mike “belongs” to Jane)

“The family’s house has five bedrooms” (the house belongs to the family)”

If the noun already ends on an s, z, or x the possessive s is generally dropped “Charles’ new bike”, “Max’ ambition is to become president”

Lastly, the possessive plural – use the plural form and add the apostrophe: “the singers’ voices are simply beautiful”

There are irregular plural forms of everything, as to be expected – but this covers the vast majority of cases.