Posts tagged ‘phrase’

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 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!

September 21, 2012

Pull Rank

Some people at the office are driving me crazy and despite the fact that I always try to bring about decisions in a consensus kind of way I was getting angry about all the nonsense and was thinking to myself: “This is how it is going to be – and if I have to pull rank I will.”

Ugly and made especially for demonstration purposes by me.

Pull rank is the critical phrase here.  It means that one uses ones position of power to make others do what one wants them to do.  In my case to never ever use pink in a excel data graph in a company presentation again.  Asked too much?  I didn’t think so.  If it isn’t obvious (especially when looked at in combination with the corporate orange), then I have no other option than pulling rank.

Pulling rank is normally not the most efficient way of getting things done – at least in my experience.  Asking politely often gives better results.  However, there are times when it is the way to go and – if used diligently – to get the desired results – and fast.

So I am going to pull rank on that pink thing and while I am at it on purple and an assortment of other colors also, as well as weirdo gradients and shadings, shadows, glows and reflections.
There you have it!

September 17, 2012

Much ado about nothing

yes, it is the title of a Shakespeare play – as we all know, at least now but the phrase “much ado about nothing” is also used in everyday language.  There it is used in situation where a great deal of fuss is made over something of very little importance or relevance.

The word ado dates back to Shakespeare who first used it in Romeo and Juliet to mean business or activity which is still the same as the modern day use “a lot of activity over nothing”.

Here are a few examples for the usage of the phrase:

Much ado about nothing at that maeeting, pic:

“What was that important home owner’s meeting all about?”

“Somebody had repeatedly parked in the wrong parking spot upsetting some people terribly.  Much ado about nothing if you ask me as there are enough parking spaces.”

“Why was Shirley so upset yesterday?”
“much ado about nothing, really, she couldn’t find her favorite necklace and convinced herself that the cleaning lady must have stolen it, but she found it in some box in her jewelery drawer – as always.”

It is a useful phrase that expresses mild criticism and a certain weariness and tedium with the behavior of the people who create much ado about nothing but isn’t strong or insulting enough to be avoided.

September 15, 2012

Upper Hand

This phrase is read this morning in the newspaper in connection with the current unrests in Libya, Egypt and Yemen.  It is an interesting one, actually quite obvious what it means in the context of most sentences – to have /get /keep /regain the upper hand means to have /get /keep /regain a dominant position, the position of power, the advantage over.

The little guy on the right has the upper hand – at least so far.

The phrase is used widely, in sports a team can have the upper hand over another, in war or in politics one group can have the upper hand over the other and at home mom has the upper hand – at least that is what I tell my son.

The origin of the term seems to go back to a game:  a player grabs a stick with his/her hand the next one puts his hand on top and the first one on top of that and so they go until they reach the end of the stick.  Whoever manages to squeeze in the last hand wins.  Apparently this method was also used – or maybe is -on playgrounds for selection of impromptu baseball teams, the captain who has the upper hand gets to choose the first player for his team from the group of kids wanting to play.

September 13, 2012

Moral High Ground


“Taking the moral high ground” is an expression you might hear used in discussions about controversial topics where ethics/morals play a role.  I realize that a discussion about different baseball teams or the advantages of certain cars over others can be controversial as well, but the opportunity to take/claim/seize the morale high ground are less abundant in these situations.

The clearest definition I found (and I found a bunch of confusing ones) is the following: The moral high ground, in ethical or political parlance, refers to the status of being respected for remaining moral, and adhering to and upholding a universally recognized standard of justice or goodness.”

And that, I might add, despite the fact that this position might not be the most personally advantageous one could possibly take.  The phrase implies a critique of other, less moral positions and a person who takes the moral high ground may come across as a bit of a snob.

I was looking for an example and only found ones pertaining to politics, seems that field is ripe with moral high ground but remains in dire need for it.  So here is one:

“Under the leadership of President Bush and Vice president Cheney, the United States has given up the moral high ground that we used to occupy as an international leader.” Marty Meehan 

August 16, 2012

…And The Rest Is History

“.. and the rest is history” is another little (American) English phrase that can be very useful in conversation.  The phrase is used to refer to a story or event everybody is familiar with and therefore does not need to be repeated.  Everyone is not necessarily everyone in the world or even the country or town but everyone (or almost everyone) taking part in that particular conversation.

I just recently used the phrase (or rather would have used it had this conversation happened in English) in the following context: My oldest girl-friend was telling my son how she move from one country to another when she was only 10 years old and how she had to leave her best girl-friend behind. To give the whole story a optimistic spin she then continued to say “but then, two years later, I met your mom in school” to which I would have added “and the rest is history!” meaning everybody around the table knows that we have been best friends ever since and knows many stories about our adventures – both silly and serious.

I like this phrase, it seems like it is the closest thing to telling an insider joke without actually telling a joke.

No picture this time, for the life of me I couldn’t come up with a picture to illustrate this phrase that wasn’t completely cliche or unrecognizable.



April 8, 2012

Top of the Hour

The news is on the top of the hour. Pic:

“We have the news for you on the top of the hour”  – when I first heard that sentence a few years back, or one very much like it, I did a bit of a double take.  I kind of knew what they meant but wasn’t entirely sure whether my intuitive understanding was correct of wildly off (as intuition can sometimes be).

By now this expression has become so common that I hear it almost every day when/if I listen to the radio.  On the top of the hour is when the news are normally being broadcast, that is the full hour, when the minute hand of the clock is pointing straight up.   The bottom of the hour is the opposite: on the half hour.I have heard the expression also used in the context f baseball, as in “the top of the inning”.  In this context it means the first half of an inning, during which the visiting team bats.

Then, of course, there is the expression “on top of the world” – but we all understand that one.


October 23, 2011

Baker’s Dozen

Modern version of the baker's Dozen - the glazed donut dozen, pic:

My husband asked me about this expression today and I knew the correct answer but had no idea where it comes from so I thought this might be a good blog post.  A Baker’s dozen is not – you guessed it – 12 but 13.   My original notion, namely that it was some clever marketing ploy to get people to buy at your bakery, not another by giving them 13 bagels for the price of 12 proved to be overly modern.

The expressions seems to be predating modern marketing ploys and date back to the 13th century.  An interesting but historically dubious explanation is that in the England of Henry III bakers who short-changed their customers where severely punished.  We are not talking stuff like jail time or a fine here, we are talking having your hand cut off by an axe.  To avoid such unpleasantness – so the story goes – bakers would bake a 13th of whatever with the dozen thereby reducing the risk of being one short.

Another explanation is that it is easier to bake 13 – as this makes an nice arrangement on a tray 3+2+3+2+3.  I find this unconvincing – baking 13 doesn’t mean you have to sell them all at once – but maybe I am thinking modern marketing again.