To give away: a costly mistake

A fellow member of my gym tried to find someone to take over her membership. She posted on Facebook in German, but also included the following English translation:

Hallo! Ich gebe meine Fitnessstudio-Mitgliedschaft ab. Bei Interesse gerne melden.
Hi! I’m giving away my gym membership. If you’re interested, let me know.

The problem is that “to give away” specifically implies that you don’t want anything in return. According to the Oxford English Dictionary:

to give something away: to give something as a gift

I’m sure it would be much easier to find someone to take your membership for free!


To charge or not to charge a card

Almost every week, I hear one of my German colleagues say

I have to charge my card

just before we go to lunch in the canteen. Interestingly, this means essentially the opposite of what they mean to say. When you charge a card, the card owner will have less money than before. What my colleagues do when they “charge their card” is to put money on the card, to top up their card, or to load their card. Another expression with the same meaning would be to add money to their card. The confusion may arise form the fact that in German, you use the verb aufladen in this context, which translates to “to charge” in English.

Monotonic/monotone vs. monotonous

At a physics conference I attended last week in Berlin, I came across yet another example of tricky distinctions to master. Several  speakers confused the words monotonic or monotone with monotonous. While these words can be used interchangeably in some situations, only monotonic and monotone are correct in a mathematical context.

You can check the exact meaning using, for example, the Oxford online dictionary. For monotonous, you’ll find:

“never changing and therefore boring”

as well the ssynonyms dull and repetitious. Although you may also consider a monotonic function to be boring, this is not what you usually want to express in discussing your results. Instead, monotonic has a specific mathematical meaning. For example, the picture below shows a function that is monotonic (non-decreasing in this case).path4143

The fact that monotonic/monotone and monotonous translate to the same German word (monoton) does not exactly help. This is why we were taught in school that you cannot just take any possible translation from the dictionary but have to consider context. For example, entering monoton into the popular online dictionary  produces monotonous, monotone, and monotonic (among other choices), with monotone and monotonic being clearly marked as mathematical expressions.

How to pronounce expertise

During a recent talk I heard someone (a nonnative speaker) pronounce the noun expertise in a way I had not heard before, namely as [ˌekspɜːˈtaiz], similar perhaps to exercise (listen here). While at first I thought this was simply a pronunciation mistake, it turns out that the verb to expertise (yes, there is a verb, and it means “to study or investigate as an expert”, see here) is in fact pronounced [ˌekspɜːˈtaiz]. However, the standard pronunciation of the noun expertise is [ˌekspɜːˈtiːz]. You can listen to the correct pronunciation here.


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.)

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, …).


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?


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


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.