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.

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

How to pronounce w in wrong, write, wrap

I have previously mentioned that the letter p is often silent in English, see here. Today, I want to discuss the letter w. For example, w is not pronounced in the words (click to listen to the pronunciation)

wrong, wrinkle, wry, wreck, wrench, wrist, wreath, write, wrestling,

even though many nonnative speakers have a hard time sticking to this rule. In fact, I do not remember being taught in school that the w is silent in these words. When you compare both pronunciations (with and without w), you will probably notice that the silent-w version is simpler. (A possible explanation for this common mistake is that pronouncing the w sounds more English to the nonnative ear.) For instance, because the w is silent, the pronunciation of the words write and right is identical, and the same is true for wrap and rap! A great example for an incorrect pronunciation of “wrestling” can be heard in the video below:

A silent w also appears in several brand names, including Wrangler and Wrigley’s (for the pronunciation of “ey” see this post).

There are many other examples of English words with a silent w. Do you remember the film Swordfish? At least among my friends, almost everybody mispronounced swordfish by not noticing that the w is silent. The same applies to the word sword itself. Interestingly, the German trailer below includes a completely wrong pronunciation of “swordfish” (roughly given by [sɜːdfɪʃ]) around the 0:45 mark, listen yourself:

Other examples include answer, whole, two, and owing. Note that in German, the letter w is not silent in words such as Wrack or wringen, and it might be difficult to get used to silent w’s when learning English.