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English tips

The following are strange features of the English language, which can be the cause of common mistakes. It is oriented towards those learning English as a foreign language, particularly those coming from German.

Until / before

Both until and before can be translated to "bis", but they have slightly different meanings. "Until Friday" means the whole time between now and Friday, but "before Friday" means just sometime in that period. So you can "wait until Friday" (you're waiting all the time), but one would not "write a document until Friday" (unless it was a very long document). In this case you would "write a document before Friday", or "by Friday". This means that it must be done at some time before the deadline, but not for the whole time.

Apostrophes

An apostrophe ' is used in English for two meanings. Either it shows possession (the man's car = the car belonging to the man; David's hat = the hat belonging to David), or it shows that two words have been shortened into one, and the apostrophe shows where the letters have been removed (I'll = I will; didn't = did not).

There are two complications with this, the first involving words which already end in s, for example the tails of the cows. Here we would write "the cows' tails". Or the team belonging to James can be written either as "James's team" or sometimes as "James' team".

The second complication is the confusion between "its" and "it's". This is just something that has to be remembered, "it's" always means "it is", and "its" indicates something belonging to it. For example, "it's cold today", and "that was its result".

Fewer / less

What is the opposite of "more"? Well, it depends. If you're talking about a substance, like water or money, then if one person has more, the other person has less. But if you're talking about things, like apples or Francs, then if one person has more, the other person has fewer. Similarly, there can be a lot of snow or a little, but there are a lot of mountains or few. It all depends on whether you can count the individual things, or whether it is just a quantity of stuff. Exactly the same distinction is also used for "how many?" (things, cakes, Francs) and "how much?" (stuff, food, money).

Low / deep

Again, both English words translate to a single German adjective "tief". But again, they are used differently in English. "Deep" refers to a thickness, or distance, so a lake can be deep if there is a big distance from the top to the bottom. Ice can similarly be deep, or thick, and a hole can be deep. But "low" refers to a position, or place, so Zürich is lower than the Jungfrau, planes can fly low, prices can be low, and temperatures can be low.

Long / tall

In English, 'tall' refers to vertical measurements, and 'long' or 'wide' to horizontal measurements. But people (even when they're lying down!) can be 'tall' (but never 'long', at least not in polite conversation).

Dot / point

How do you pronounce "."? If you're talking about a number, this character is a "decimal point", so 2.3 is pronounced "two point three". If you're talking about a URL, or an IP address, or any time where it's just a character, then it's a "dot", so you would say "google dot com". If you're talking about a sentence, you rarely need to spell it out, but in this case it's punctuation, called a "full stop", so to dictate the sentence "It was good, but not right." you would say "It was good comma but not right full stop".

Which / who

This one is a little difficult to explain, but occurs in a supplementary clause, like "the book, which is on the desk". The "which" takes the place of the second "das" in "das Buch, das auf dem Tisch liegt". But when the thing is a person, this "which" becomes "who", for example "your friend, who was here last week". The distinction between things and people appears to be a lot more important in English than in German!

Remember / remind

When I think about the past, I remember what happened. If you help me to remember, you remind me. This is quite different from you remembering me!

th

The letters "th" have two possible sounds in English, but neither of them exist in German. The first, easier one, occurs in the words "the" and "that", which is made like a "d" sound, but with the tongue against the top front teeth, rather than the roof of the mouth. The second sound, appearing in words like "think" or "both", is often pronounced wrongly as an "s". Instead, poke the tip of your tongue between your teeth, and try to say "s".

clothes

The word "clothes" has only one syllable, not two. So it's more like "clowthz" than "clowth-iz". Unless you're Gollum, from Lord of the Rings, in which case you would say "clothesies". Also, note that trousers, shorts and sunglasses are always plural. You never wear one trouser or one jean, they're always in pairs, in English.