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.)


About Mrs S, Mr X and A J

The English language offers some very interesting ways to shorten names.

First, it is common to abbreviate double names (two first names, as opposed to double-barrelled names which correspond to two last names) by their initials. For example, the son of Anthony Soprano in the fantastic TV series The Sopranos is usually called A J (instead of Anthony John). There is a crucial difference to German, because while in German you may abbreviate Hans Peter as H P in a written document, I have never heard of anyone named Hans Peter call himself H P (exceptions do exist, as I have just learned from a reader). Other common names in English are T J and C J (if you are in my age group, you may remember C J Parker from Baywatch, and C J Gregg from Westwing). For some reason, the short form seems to be most popular if the second initial is J.

Second, in English, you can abbreviate the surname of people you know (but are not on a first-name basis with) by using only the first letter. Most of the examples I remember involve children who address adults (for example, fathers or mothers of their friends). Hence, Mrs Soprano becomes Mrs S, and Mr Simpson (yes, Homer) becomes Mr S (an example is given here). In the case of English, it seems that such abbreviations were made popular by the sitcom Happy Days, where Mr. and Mrs. Cunningham were called Mr. and Mrs. C. To my knowledge, such a short form is not used at all in German (apart from using initials in order to avoid mentioning real names in news articles, etc.). Do you know if it exists in other languages?

Finally, in English, Mr/Ms X is used for a person whose name is not known.

Journal editors can improve your English

Most high-quality science journals have editors who will proof-read your manuscript before it is printed or published online. While not all journals exclusively employ native speakers as editors, their English is typically very good. Therefore, the proofs you receive should not be regarded as an annoying hurdle on the way to another publication, but can serve as a very useful way to improve your English.

To this end, several years ago, I started a list of errors that I committed and that were corrected by the editors. While it may not make sense to keep track of all errors (this typo only occurred once), I think that you will quickly find that there are some errors that come back again and again. Of course, the list can also include errors that you discover yourself before submitting a paper.

Before submission, I usually go through the list of errors and check the manuscript. Interestingly, after having kept and used this list of mistakes, I managed to permanently avoid many of the mistakes in the first place. This in turn means fewer corrections in the proofs, easier to read papers, and more efficient publishing.

Logistic or Logistics?

On a recent commute to work, I happened to notice the words Logistic Center written in huge letters on a company building here in Germany (you can find a picture here if you look closely). As mentioned in a previous post, there are many false friends of this type that differ from the correct English word by just the letter s, and are often used incorrectly by non-native speakers (examples: physics, mathematics, genetics).

The word logistics is a particularly interesting example. First, both logistic and logistics are correct English words, but logistic is an adjective. According to Wikipedia,

Logistics is the management of the flow of resources between the point of origin and the point of consumption in order to meet some requirements […]

The expression Logistic Center is most likely a mistake related to a translation from the German word Logistikzentrum. It may also be a literal translation of the German expression Logistisches Zentrum. At any rate, the correct English expression is Logistics Center (or Logistics Centre).

It’s surprising how many companies with non-native speakers in charge of naming buildings and managing web content make this mistake. (Just do a Google search for the term “logistic center”, including the quotation marks.) Finally, l don’t quite understand why a German company has to make life unnecessarily complicated by naming a building in Bavaria Logistic Center.

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.

kindergarten oder kindergarden?

The German word Kindergarten has become part of the English language in the form of kindergarten. Interestingly, many native and non-native speakers instead use kindergarden. However, the dictionaries I consulted only include the word kindergarten. Moreover, there is no official support for pronouncing kindergarten like kindergarden. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary provides the British and the American pronunciation here. In both cases, –garten is pronounced with a t rather than with a d. You can compare the pronunciation to that of garden by following this link.

While the incorrect spelling kindergarden is quite easy to spot (the WordPress spell checker is telling me right now that something is wrong), the pronunciation is more tricky. Have a look at the trailer of Kindergarten Cop,

and compare it to the Oxford English pronunciation. It’s hard to decide whether they say kindergarten or kindergarden in the trailer.

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