Werner Kuhn
English for German Speakers

My research methods courses emphasize clear writing. Since English is a foreign language for most of us, and its orthography is only loosely connected to its pronounciation, clarity sometimes suffers from basic and easily avoidable spelling or grammar errors. Here, I am collecting hints on some of these, especially (but not only) for native German speakers. I acknowledge the numerous unintentional contributions from students over the years. Comments, additions, and corrections are welcome.

Spelling

there vs their
then vs than
proof vs prove
were vs where
send vs sent, build vs built, etc.

Grammar

unlike German, English distinguishes adverbs from adjectives: ...

"since 1995, I have been..." (not "... I am")

conditional - "if I wrote (not: "would write") this in clear English, readers could tell whether it makes sense"

Prepositions

at the level of (not on)
view of (not on)

Semantics

count vs mass: few vs little, many vs much, several vs a lot

There is no plural form "informations" in English
(and German "Informationen" is journalistic: technical information is not countable in either language)

"eventually" and "eventuell" are "faux amis"! An English term for German "eventuell" is "possibly".

 

Lexicon

German "aktuell" is English "current", not "actual"
German "dafür" is English "for this purpose", not "therefore"
German "verschiedene" is English "various", not "different"

Interpunctuation

no comma before that, but before which

Pronounciation

cost vs coast
era vs area
angel vs angle

Style

The most common problem in (scientific) English written by German speakers is that of overly long sentences. Not only is it bad style to write long-winded and complicated sentences, but the likelihood of grammatical errors increases exponentially with the number of words. Say things clearly and briefly, in the simplest possible terms. (Btw, this helps in German, too!).

A typical way of creating long sentences is to use filling words and expressions like “So, …”, “As stated previously, …”, particularly at the beginning of sentences. Such phrases increase noise, without adding signal. Scratch them.

Despite the fact that excellent English style guides are readily available [Strunk and White, Economist Style Guide], and against repeated advice to the contrary, many German speakers are fond of starting sentences and paragraphs, such as this one, with all sorts of disclaiming hedges, before inserting sheepishly what they really want to say – which is, in this case, that a padded sentence, like the one you are reading, helps readers ignore your message - and then completing the padding with additional denials of the point, which is of course an entirely understandable tendency, given the style of much German scientific writing. Or, as good old Goethe put it:

“Die Deutschen, und sie nicht allein, besitzen die Gabe, die Wissenschaften unzugänglich zu machen.”
Goethe, Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre II