The singular they

The English language makes it relatively easy to write in a gender-neutral way because nouns in general do not have a gender; a gender is only specified when referring to people or animals. Hence, there is only one indefinite article (the) and two definite articles (a or an, see here). Compare this to German, where almost every noun has a clear male or female form that requires to chose the correct definite (der, die, das) or indefinite (ein, eine) article. This has inspired concepts such as the Binnen-I to avoid discrimination. However, there are occasions where even in English you would be tempted to write “he/she” or “his/her” in order to not imply that a person is male or female. As an example, consider the sentence

A reader of this post spent five minutes of his/her time to learn about the singular they.

To avoid such rather ugly constructions, the English language offers the so-called singular they. For our example, it allows us to write

A reader of this post spent five minutes of their time to learn about the singular they.

That’s pretty neat, isn’t it? I suggest you follow this link to see a few more examples. Using the singular they may feel awkward in the beginning but is perfectly correct. (Amusingly, I once overheard a German explaining to a native English speaker that it was wrong.)

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How vs. What

Today I want to briefly address a mistake that is very common among non-native speakers, namely the confusion of How and What … like in forming questions. While I always had a reasonably good intuition when to use which expression, I learned that there is actually some logic behind it.

According to my trusted book  Practical English Usage by M. Swan, How is used to ask about things that typically change (weather, mood, health), whereas What … like is used to enquire about things that usually do not change (looks, character). For example, you would ask

How is John?

if you are interested in John’s current mood (fine, stressed out, sick), whereas

What is John like?

aims at understanding what kind of person he is (charming, funny, …).

Similarly,

How does Jane look today?

refers to her appearance as determined by clothing, make up, etc. In contrast, the answer to

What does Jane look like?

will include her hair colour (which may change, but usually does not daily), her built, etc.

When it comes to asking people about their reactions to certain experiences, either How or What … like is acceptable. For example, you can use both

How is your new job?

and

What is your new job like?

Finally, English allows either How or What … like, but not How … like. Especially German native speakers (the example is inspired by my fellow scientists) often ask incorrectly

How does the function look like?  (Wrong!)

instead of

What does the function look like?

A simple mnemonic that works well for me is that “Like what?”sounds OK, while “Like how?” does not (simply “How?” is fine).

To treat vs. to invite

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Inspired by a recent stay in a hotel (see picture), let me point out that there is a subtle but important difference in meaning between the verbs treat and invite. The situation is made even trickier by the fact that other languages (in particular German) do not have this distinction. Consider the following two sentences:

(A) I would like to invite you to dinner.

(B) I would like to treat you to dinner.

In English, (A) does not automatically imply that I will pay for your dinner. All you know is that I want your company. In contrast, (B) means I would like to have dinner with you and will pay for your food and drinks. While this may be confusing, in this case English is actually more precise than, for example, German. In German, the sentence

Ich möchte dich zum Abendessen einladen.

could in principle mean both (A) or (B).

Finally, the typical expression used when the check comes is

It’s my treat.

 

English derailed by Deutsche Bahn

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As a regular commuter, Deutsche Bahn has caused me quite some headaches in the past. However, they also provide valuable input for this blog. Today, I want to share some of my recent observations regarding their special version of the English language. While it is quite common for passengers to make fun of the staff, you may want to double-check that you are not making some of these mistakes yourself!

Welcome an board

Very often, things get off to a bad start when new passengers are welcome with the phrase “Welcome an board”.

Improper pronunciation of places

Quite a few towns in Germany have an English translation of their name. Examples include Munich, Nuremberg, Cologne, and Berlin. However, the staff of DB tries very hard to avoid using these internationally known names in their English broadcasts, and instead uses the German names that are typically very hard to understand for foreigners. Hence, you often hear sentences such as “The next stop will be Köln.” or even worse “We will now arrive Nüremberg” (yes, they do pronounce the English word Nuremberg with an umlaut!).

Improper use of arrive

There is a widespread misunderstanding at DB that arrive is the direct translation of the German word erreichen. Therefore, the staff construct very strange sentences such as “We will now arrive München” (Wir erreichen jetzt München) instead of “We will now arrive in Munich”. I have even heard the expression “We will arrive the next stop”…

Track vs. platform

DB staff typically translate “Gleis 5” as “Track 5” instead of the more common “Platform 5” used, for example, in the UK. This may cause confusion at the train station.

Opposite and opposide

A very interesting mistake that could also affect others is the incorrect pronunciation of the word opposite, which is often pronounced as if it were spelled opposide (on the other side); the correct pronunciation is given here.

Good bye

Finally, especially in Bavaria, it is very common to hear a friendly good bye with bye pronounced in Bavarian at the end of your journey.

Coffee English

Coffee is not just an important part of my life (I just had my first espresso of the day, prepared using freshly ground beans and a manual espresso machine), but plays a key role for our society. A very readable history of coffee can be found here. In this post, I want to discuss some vocabulary and pronunciation to get you ready for your next visit to the coffee shop, or a discussion with coffee buffs. Due to the enormous richness of the topic, I’m sure that I will not cover everything.

Types of coffee

While I have moved on to espresso, many people are still perfectly happy with drip coffee (also drip brew or filtered coffee), which is prepared by letting hot water trickle through a filter with ground coffee beans. Surprisingly, despite the recent boom of high-quality coffee shops, instant coffee made from hot water and a powder obtained by drying brewed coffee beans is still very popular. Two slightly more sophisticated varieties are the French press and the moka. A moka is similar but not identical to an espresso. It is made with lower water pressure and hence has no crema (as opposed to cream and creme) and has a less oily and thinner appearance. Finally, there is of course an almost endless variety of espresso-based drinks such as the latte and the macchiato. Note that these drinks are made with so-called frothed milk and have milk froth on top (rather than milk foam). All of these varieties can also prepared by using decaffeinated beans. For example, you may order a decaf cappuccino.

Types of coffee makers

The generic term for a device that makes coffee is coffee maker or coffee machine. Among the most popular choices are the electric drip coffee maker, the moka pot, the French press, and George Clooney’s favourite the single-serve coffee maker that uses coffee packs, pods or capsules. The key piece of equipment for coffee shops and enthusiasts is however the espresso machine in combination with a coffee grinder. While I personally prefer a manual machine, there are also semi-automatic machines (which adjust the water volume) and super-automatic machines (which also grind automatically). In contrast to the super-automatic case, manual and semi-automatic machines require you to grind the right amount of coffee, put the coffee grind into the portafilter and tamp it into a puck using a tamper.

Pronunciation pitfalls

First, the word espresso is sometimes mispronounced as expresso (see also this post), that is, [ekˈspresəʊ] instead of [eˈspresəʊ]. More amusingly, the substance that makes so many people drink and crave coffee is called caffeine and is pronounced [ˈkæfiːn] (listen here). German native speakers often confuse caffeine with the German term Coffein, which they pronounce essentially identical to the English word coffin (listen here). Clearly, this may raise some eyebrows among English native speakers. In fact, I believe this potential confusion is the reason why the word caffeine is used in English in the first place.

OK, I think it is time for another espresso…

English for gourmets

Fine dining has become a hobby for many people, so it makes sense to acquire the necessary vocabulary. Because the English-speaking countries were for a long time not exactly known for their exquisite food, many of the expressions are in fact of French origin.

An amuse-bouche or amuse-gueule (listen here) (known as Gruß aus der Küche in German) is an appetizer served for free to get the customer in the mood for food.

Confusingly, an entrée (listen here) can either be the main dish of a meal (in American English, Hauptspeise in German) or a dish before the main dish (in British English, Vorspeise in German). Remember that when you are looking at a menu (not card, for my German-speaking readers) in the US trying to find the main courses!

Finally, the dessert (Nachtisch or Nachspeise) is pronounced as [dɪˈzɜː(r)t] (listen here), in contrast to those really dry regions  called deserts and pronounced [ˈdezə(r)t] (listen here).

The many faces of John

John is not only a very common English name, but actually an English word and part of English expressions. Let me tell you about some of the very interesting meanings of John.

First, we have the noun john, which is used (although not in formal English) both for the clients of a prostitute (the British equivalent is punter) and for the toilet (for example, to sit on the john). Then, of course, there is John Doe, a name used to either refer to a male that is supposed to remain anonymous or to an average man (the corresponding name for females is Jane Doe), see here. Finally, I have recently learned that a Dear John letter is a letter written from a woman to her geographically separated partner to inform him about the end of their relationship. The expression has its origin in letters written by women to oversea soldiers, see here.