Writing English content: Tips for German native speakers

Over the years I’ve read a lot of English content written by German native speakers and have noticed some issues that, irrespective of both author and subject, seem to crop up time and again. Being aware of these issues can really improve the quality of your writing. So what kinds of mistakes are we talking about and what tips can I offer? Let’s dive in!

Adding an ‘s’ to uncountable nouns

One of the most common English mistakes I’ve come across amongst German native speakers is adding an ‘s’ to uncountable nouns – nouns that do not have a plural form, as they cannot be counted. Some classic examples include referring to ‘informations’ instead of ‘information’, ‘advices’ instead of ‘advice’ or ‘equipments’ instead of ‘equipment’. A good workaround is to refer to ‘pieces of information', ‘pieces of advice’ or ‘pieces of equipment’.

So much informatio n !

So much information!

Confusing ‘by’ and ‘until’

Prepositions are one of the hardest things to get right in English. A lot of the time there are no rules to follow and you simply have to learn which preposition goes with which verb. One preposition mistake I seem to see a lot is ‘until’ used instead of ‘by’ and vice versa. However, when deciding which of these two to use, there are at least specific rules – hurrah! So, here they are.

Use ‘until’ with verbs where the action has no specific end point. Examples are: ‘I slept until noon’ and ‘I will work until eight’.

Use ‘by’ with verbs where the action does have a specific end point. Examples are: ‘I had finished the presentation by last Wednesday’ and ‘I need to leave the office by eight’.

One final thing: if the verb has a specific end point but is negative, you can use either ‘by’ or ‘until’. Both ‘I didn’t leave the house until eight’ and ‘I didn’t leave the house by eight’ are correct, although they have slightly different meanings – but that’s another story, as they say!

False friends

I remember first learning about false friends in my French class at school – they’re those foreign words that look like a word in your own language but actually mean something totally different. I often come across texts written by non-native English speakers containing words that look right but where, on closer inspection, I suspect the intended meaning is actually something else. Examples I come across often in texts written by German native speakers are:

  • massiv/massive – German meaning ‘solid’; English meaning ‘huge’

  • eventuell/eventual – German meaning ‘potential(ly), perhaps'; English meaning ‘final’

  • irritiert/irritated – German meaning ‘confused’; English meaning ‘annoyed’

  • aktuell/actual – German meaning ‘current’; English meaning ‘real’

  • sensibel/sensible – German meaning ‘sensitive’; English meaning ‘rational, non-emotional’

  • konsequent/consequent – German meaning ‘consistent’; English meaning ‘resulting’

There are more, of course, but these are the ones that I seem to come across time and again, so they’re worth watching out for and double-checking if you’re not sure!

He seems to be waiting for someone – but is he irritated  (genervt)  or confused  (irritiert) ?

He seems to be waiting for someone – but is he irritated (genervt) or confused (irritiert)?

Tense problems (present)

Making sure you’re using the right tenses is crucial if you want to write good, accurate English content. In my experience, there are two tense constructions that German native speakers really need to watch out for. Here’s an example of the first: ‘We are making curry at least once a week.’

The correct sentence would be: ‘We make curry at least once a week.’ Because this is describing a habit that is repeated and usual, you use the simple present tense (‘make’).

If you’re up to your elbows in chillies, coconut milk and fresh coriander, you could say, ‘We are making curry!’ because you are doing so right now, this very moment. So the present continous (‘are making’) is used to show action happening now.

Tense problems (past)

Let’s look at the second common tense issue: ‘I live in Frankfurt since ten years.’ This is an extremely common English mistake amongst German native speakers. It’s a direct translation of the German: ‘Ich wohne seit zehn Jahren in Frankfurt’. There are two issues here – ‘live’ and ‘since’. Let’s look at ‘live’ first.

In English you cannot use the present tense to describe something that started in the past. Instead you’d need to write ‘I have lived in Frankfurt for ten years’, ‘I’ve lived in Frankfurt for ten years’ or ‘I have been living in Frankfurt for ten years’.

This highlights the second problem – ‘for’ versus ‘since’. Both words can be used when referring to the past, but they have quite specific uses: ‘for’ is used to express a time period (‘I have worked here for a year') whereas ‘since’ is used in combination with the starting point of the action (‘I have worked here since 2002’).

So for any German native speakers out there looking to brush up and optimise their English content, keep an eye out for these issues in your writing and you’ll be well on your way – and if you need a spot more help with your writing, just let me know!