False friend alert: to go studying (studieren gehen)

My fellow German native speakers tend to make the mistake of translating the expression studieren gehen as to go studying. However, the correct English expression is to go to university. Moreover, in a previous post, I had pointed out that the noun study is not the English translation of Studium but instead means Studie. Therefore, a study of physics is not a Physikstudium.


Do you care for feedback?

Since a substantial part of the material covered in this blog comes from my encounters with scientific papers and talks, I am wondering how many of you would actually like to get feedback regarding potential shortcomings regarding their English skills.

I have never been a fan of public practise talks, simply because I think that a scientific presentation should reflect the ideas and the style of the author. (That does not mean that others won’t benefit from such talks.) In particular, for most of the questions raised in such practise talks, there is typically no right or wrong answer. While some would prefer for slide A to come before slide B, others will have the opposite preference.

The situation is quite different when it comes to language matters. While not every dispute can be settled, for example as a result of different pronunciations in British and American English, there are correct and incorrect words and pronunciations. Nevertheless, I have never witnessed a situation where language was addressed in a group seminar or practise talk (see also here).

I would appreciate hearing from readers who are interested in feedback. For example, I’d be happy to send comments by email, or to discuss them privately, as far as my spare time allows. With the big spring conferences coming up, I might even happen to attend your talk and take notes.

Commas and capitalization in English letters

I have noticed that people with a German-speaking background often mix up conventions when writing letters and emails in English. For example, in German, the text directly after the greeting is considered to be a continuation of the greeting itself. Therefore, the first word starts with a capital letter if it is a noun or a name, and with a lower case letter else. Hence,

Sehr geehrte Frau Schmidt,

vielen Dank für ihren Brief.

However, in English, things are slightly different. The text following directly after the greeting is considered to be a new sentence, and hence begins with a capital letter:

Dear Ms. Schmidt,

Thank you very much for your letter.

Similarly, in German, you are not supposed to use a comma after the closing at the end of your letter/email and before your signature. Hence, while

Mit freundlichen Grüßen

Max Mustermann

is correct in German, the comma should not be dropped in

Sincerely yours,

Mini Mouse

The myth of excellent English skills

Many job adverts these days ask for excellent English skills, even if the job is in a country where English is not the official language. This requirement is often motivated by the wish of a company to act and appear truly international (the modern word is global), and of course by its business relations in other countries. Remarkably, more and more international companies even switch to English as the official language.

At first sight, all this seems to suggests that people are getting better at English, and of course English (and language) skills in companies have come a long way since, say, fifty or even twenty years ago. However, in my experience, the fact that excellent English skills are mentioned in the job advert does not at all imply that the English skills of the people working in the company are excellent. In fact, very few co-workers impressed me with their English skills, and even though the company asked for certain documents and reports to be written in English, the language was not quite excellent. (For example, if you don’t know that actual is not the English translation of aktuell, your English is certainly not excellent.)

There are a number of interesting questions to ask. First, it is not clear what excellent means in this context (in German job adverts, the word herausragend is often used). Does it simply mean English at the German high-school level, or rather native-speaker level? Is it possible that people with average English skills believe to be excellent? Who would actually claim to have excellent skills in his/her application? (I stick to “advanced”.) At least in my case, there was no test of English skills in the recruitment process. Since when do companies just believe what people claim in their CV? (On the plus side, that means you should not worry if you don’t have excellent English skills and just apply for the job anyway.)

Master vs Master’s

Although Master’s and Bachelor’s degrees have now spread far beyond English-speaking countries, there is still a lot of confusions about the correct spelling. Importantly, in expression such as

Master’s thesis, Bachelor’s thesis, Master’s degree or Master’s student,

the apostrophe is part of the correct spelling, indicating that the thesis was written by a person that is now a Master or a Bachelor. (Interestingly, the expression Doctor’s thesis is not common among native speakers, instead the terms Doctoral or PhD thesis are used). Anyway, if you are the proud owner of Master’s or Bachelor’s degree, make sure you spell it correctly in your CV etc. The same applies if you are advertising a position for a Master’s student in English, or typesetting the front page of your thesis written in English.

A google search for Bachelor and Master thesis seems to imply that incorrect spellings (leaving out the apostrophe and the trailing s) are almost always found on (English-version) websites of non-native universities and people, whereas they are almost always included in the case of English-speaking institutions and persons.

Finally, many languages have their own version of the above English expressions. For example, in German, the words Masterarbeit and Bachelorarbeit, and the mixed-language expressions Masterthesis and Bachelorthesis (see here for their pronunciation) exist. However, those are supposed to be used in German only. For example, I have recently come across the term Master work here in an English document here Germany.

Price vs. prize

The words price [praɪs] (listen here) and prize [praɪz] (listen here) sound and look quite similar, but have very different meanings. Therefore, make sure that you do not confuse them when writing about any prestigious prizes you won, for example, in a cover letter for a job application. Since both words exist in the English language, your spell checker will most likely not flag the mistake.

A prize is an award given to someone in recognition of an achievement. In contrast, a price is an amount of money (or some other currency) that you pay to obtain ownership of something. Once again, this mistake is quite common among German native speakers because in German, the word Preis encompasses both meanings.

It is also important to get the pronunciation right, in order to make it clear to your listeners whether you mean price or prize.

False friend alert: study (Studium)

A remarkable number of German native speakers, including university professors and even Nobel Prize winners, make the mistake of translating Studium into study. For example, they would write

1997-2001 Study of physics

in their CV. However, the English noun study translates into the German Studie, but not into Studium. A proper translation to English would be

1997-2001 Studies of physics

or even better

1997-2001 University degree in physics

Of course, the above is not restricted to physics. (Why not go and double-check your CV right now?)