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.

English derailed by Deutsche Bahn


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.

At best is not so good

German (and very likely other)  speakers sometimes use the phrase “at best” incorrectly, and have no idea how big a blunder that is. The problem is that “at best” has the meaning of the best thing in a bad situation, and therefore has to be used with care. For example,

I’m at best qualified for the job.

suggests that you are not sure you are suitable for the job, that you think that you may be suitable, and that there are certainly people who are better qualified than you are. If you want to express that you are the best person for the job, you should say, e.g.,

I’m the best candidate for job.


I’m the best qualified candidate for the job.

The origin of the incorrect use of “at best” by German speakers is very likely the German expression “am besten”, which expresses that somebody or something is the best in a certain situation or context.


While reading an article about BMW’s Harald Krũger, who apparently fainted on stage at the Frankfurt Auto show but is OK, I noticed that BMW cited “circulation problems” as the cause. The term is a translation of the German expression Kreislaufprobleme. However, circulation problems in English refer to a serious and often lethal condition caused by blood clots. In contrast, Kreislaufprobleme is a German expression for various forms of not feeling well. According to the discussion here, it may be thought of as the German version of the British “back problems”, often invoked in order to have a reason not to attend an unpleasant activity (work, family affairs). The Xenophobe’s Guide to the Germans has this to say (the quote is also mentioned in the hilarious discussion here):

[…] the Germans devote enormous resources to the treatment of an illness that doesn’t exist, the notorious Kreislaufstörung. While the rest of us go to meet our maker once our circulation stops, the Germans routinely recover from it and go on to lead useful and productive lives. […]

Have you any questions?

Let me share some of the most interesting English blunders I encountered during a recent physics conference in Germany.

Mistake 1: Several German native speakers made the mistake of pronouncing the th in thermal and thermodynamic as a t rather than a θ. Since most of them pronounced other occurrences of th correctly, I suspect that they were confusing the English and German pronunciations of these words. You can hear the correct pronunciation of thermal here. For a general discussion of how to pronounce th, see here.

Mistake 2: I noticed that it is quite common for nonnative speakers to mispronounce the word engineering (as well as engineer). While the noun engine is stressed on the first syllable [‘endʒɪn], the stress in both engineer and engineering is on the last syllable (for example, [ˌendʒɪˈnɪə(r)]). Click to compare engine and engineer.

Mistake 3: In an effort to adopt an American accent, people sometimes make interesting mistakes, see here. A recent example is the pronunciation of because as [kɔːrs] (corresponding to becourse) rather than as [bɪˈkɔːz]. While the letter r is pronounced very strongly in American English, there is no r in because. An even though a so-called intrusive r is sometimes added at the end of words, this is not common in the middle of words.

PS: The title of this post was the exact last sentence of a speaker at the conference. Certainly better than a go-home message, but still not perfect.