Gender in English

One of the most difficult things for English speakers learning German is the use of gender. English has one gender, and German has three, which is one more gender than humans have.

The genders in German are the masculine “der”, the feminine “die”, and the neuter “das”. I was very sad to learn that my name, “Brett”, is in German a “das” word, and that I have no gender in this country.

Every noun in German has a gender. It seems to be very important to Germans that everything in the world is male, female, or like me, neither. The fork is a girl, the spoon is a boy, and the knife is neither. This is very strange. If any of these things should be a boy, it’s the knife. But Mark Twain has already discussed this.

What’s more important for you is to understand how English speakers think of gender. It’s quite different.

1. Things do not have genders.

This should be obvious. In English, we only have one definite article, “the”, and one indefinite article , “a/an”.

The pronouns “he”, “she”, and “it” are very easy to use. Just follow these five rules:

  1. If it has a personal name and a penis, use “he”
  2. If it has a personal name and a vagina, use “she”
  3. If it has a personal name, but you’re not sure if it has a penis or vagina, be very careful.
  4. If it is a guitar, boat, or car that belongs to a man, and the man really loves it, you can use “she”.
  5. If it doesn’t have a name, use “it”.

So, pretty easy. Hopefully you didn’t learn too much there.

2. Your friends.

I have never had a boyfriend. This is because I’m not a homosexual. I’ve had friends who are boys, and friends who are men, but never a boyfriend. The words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” only describe romantic relationships.

Some women, most of them American, will use “girlfriend” to talk about their female friends, usually when they’re talking about a group of friends. For example: “Last night some I watched 'Twilight' with some girlfriends. Then we ate ice cream and had a pillow fight.”
Don’t say this. It’s for native speakers only.

If you’re talking about a person you like who you do not have a romantic relationship with, say “My friend, Lynne” or “a friend of mine”.

Friend = non-romantic
Boyfriend = romantic
Girlfriend = romantic

One more note: “partner”, at least in America, is usually used for a romantic relationship between two homosexuals (or a business relationship). So be careful with this word, especially if you, or the people you are talking to, are homophobic.

3. Jobs and nationalities.

I am an English teacher. My colleague, Liz, is also an English teacher. In English, we use the same word, “teacher” for the job we both do. It doesn’t matter that I have a Y-chromosome and Liz doesn’t.

In English, we try to look past gender when talking about jobs. The only jobs I can think of that have different words depending on if the person is a man or a woman are these:


But even in these jobs, the recent trend has been to use the same word, like “server”, “actor” and “hooker”, whether the person is a man or a woman. In the past, we called a female flight attendant “stewardess” and a male flight attendant “steward”. But now, everybody’s a flight attendant.

You might wonder, how will people know if I’m talking about a man or a woman? Well, they won’t. Because they won’t really care. They also won’t know if the person is black or white, or gay or straight. If it’s important at all, it will become clear at some point, because you will have to use a word like “he” or “she”, or maybe the person’s name.

4. The German word “man”.

This translates formally to “one”, but more often, we just say “you”. As in, “you are what you eat”.

5. “They”.

Normally we use the word “they” when talking about a group of people that we are not a part of. But it has another use. If we want to talk about a hypothetical person, we can use “they” instead of “he/she” or the more sexist “he”. For example:

“If I find out who ate all my Pringles, I’m gonna kick their ass!”

It’s much more elegant than “If I find out who ate all my Pringles, I’m gonna kick his or her ass!” 


Some and any

“Some” and “any” are difficult words for some people to use correctly, because they don’t really translate directly into German. The typical mistake is that Germans overuse the word “any”.

The major difference between “some” and “any” is that the word “any” has no limits to it. For example:

I’d like something to drink.

Here, I’m a bit thirsty, and want some milk, or maybe a beer, or maybe a cocktail. I’m not saying what I want, but I have something in mind. Something a bit specific.

I’m so thirsty I could drink anything.

This means there is nothing I will not drink. Blood, piss, cum, Holsten. Anything.

So that’s the big difference. That’s why we say

I have something to tell you.

And not

I have anything to tell you.

That second sentence doesn’t make sense. If you want to talk to me, it’s because you have something to say. Something specific. Not just “anything”

So most of the time, we use “some” in positive sentences. With the word “not”, we have to use “any”.

I don’t want anything to drink.

Again, there is the idea of no limits. There is NOTHING out there that I want to drink.

We'll come back to this another time, I'm sure, but for now, again, "any" has no limits at all. In fact, it often translates to alles in German. And to make it even simpler, "some" is the word we use for positive statements most of the time. "Any" is usually used for negative statements.


Present perfect vs past simple (Part 2)

Some more general guidelines for this.

1. This is nothing at all like German.
There is absolutely no connection between German and English grammar on this point. None.
Ich war noch niemals in New York would translate to "I've never been to New York."
Gestern Nacht habe ich zu viel getrunken would translate to "I drank too much last night."
Sometimes they are the same, often they are not. There is no real way to connect the two languages on this point.

2. Again, we use the past simple MUCH more often.

3. Whenever you use a word that describes the past, or there is a clear finished time being discussed, you have to use a past tense.
As I wrote yesterday, words like "yesterday" and "last week" are used with the past simple most of the time. They are never used with the present perfect. Never.

4. With the present perfect, we usually don't know or care about when it happened.
If I tell you "I've been to Paris three times", we don't care when I went. The point is "yes, I've been to Paris. Three times in fact."
If I say "I went to Paris three times," this sounds strange, because with the past simple, we expect to have an idea of the time being discussed.

Okay, that's all for now. I have to go teach this very thing to a class.


Okay, some tenses. Present perfect vs. past simple

I’ve waited a while to do this, because it’s not really that important. But here we go.

My favourite band is a group called Laibach. I’ve seen them eight times.

I’ve seen them eight times.

That’s the present perfect. You have the word have/has, and then the third form of the verb. This is the present perfect. We use it to talk about finished actions that took place in an UNFINISHED time. The eight concerts are all finished, but Laibach still exists, and I can and will see them again. Also, I’m not dead. So the only times we’re talking about in this sentence are unfinished.

Here’s another example:

I’ve smoked 20 cigarettes today.

The 20 cigarettes are all finished, but I’m still alive (barely) and the day isn’t over, and I can smoke more cigarettes.

I’ve never met President Obama.

Again, I’m still alive, President Obama is still alive, so there’s no finished time discussed here. Maybe I’ll meet him someday.

There are some key words for this tense of course. For example:

So far
Have you ever…?
Still (in sentences with “not”, for example: “Shit, I have class tomorrow and I still haven’t done my homework.”
Yet (in questions and sentences with “not”, for example: “Shit, I have class tomorrow and I haven’t done my homework yet” or “Hey, asshole. Class is tomorrow. You haven’t done your homework yet?”
Already (this word has one meaning: “sooner than expected”. Yes, normally it translates to “schon”, but not always.
Just (in British English)

But more importantly, let’s talk about the past simple. We use it much, much more often. We use the 2nd form of the verb, and in questions and sentence with “not”, we use the helping verb “did” with the infinitive.

So, for example.

I saw Einstürzende Neubauten twice.

Einstürzende Neubauten don’t exist anymore, unfortunately, so that’s a finished time. We use the past simple for finished actions that happen in finished times. Another example:

I smoked 30 cigarettes yesterday.

Yesterday is finished. I can’t smoke any more cigarettes yesterday.

I never met Ronald Reagan.

Ronald Reagan is dead. (yay!) I will never meet Ronald Reagan.
Because he is in hell.

Some keywords for the past simple:
Last night, last week, last month, last year
When ("When I was a kid...." or "When did you go to Poland?")
In 1981 (or any other year before 2010)
Just (American English)

That’s it for now, but there is a bit more to this. It will come later.


Things more important than tenses. #1: False Friends (Part 4)

More false friends, and other words that aren't really false friends:

1. will / will

Very simply, "I will" is something we use for the future, and ich will means "I want" or "I want to". That's it. Don't forget it. If I can get this right in German, you can get it right in English.

2. consequent(ly) / konsequent

These words have nothing to do with each other. The German word konsequent means "consistent". Our word "consequent" or "consequently" has a completely different meaning. Usually something like folglich.

3. critic / Kritik

The German word Kritik never translates to "critic". A critic is someone who watches films or concerts, or listens to albums, and then writes something to tell you what he thinks about it. Usually they give the film, concert or album some kind of score, like four stars, or two stars. That's a critic. A critic is also someone whoe doesn't like something, or someone.who consistently doesn't like something. So someone who doesn't like Barack Obama's health care plan would be a critic of the health care plan.

A Kritik would be a review or a criticism. A review is when a critic writes about a movie and then gives it four or five stars. A criticism is a negative comment someone makes about Obama's health care plan.

4. menu / Menü

The English word "menu" is a Speisekarte. The German word Menü is a "meal" or a "dish". Please don't confuse these.

5. notice / Notiz

In English, the noun "notice" is something we write for a group of people. I can write a notice, put in on the wall, and everyone reads it. A Notiz is something else. It's usually a NOTE I write for myself, or for one other person. Again, a "note" is something I write for one person, and a "notice" is something I write for everyone to see.


Words you should use correctly: #2 haven't, hasn't

Okay, another short post.

These two words, “haven’t” and “hasn’t”, exist for only one reason: as helping verbs for the present perfect form. They are not the negative forms for “have”.

“I haven’t an umbrella” is not correct. Well, it’s old-fashioned, it’s possible, but you should normally say “I don’t have an umbrella”.

This all gets uglier with the verb “have to” (müssen), and people start saying things like “I haven’t to work tomorrow”. This is just completely wrong, and it always has been. It just doesn’t mean anything at all. 

Please, please, please try to remember this. It will save everyone a lot of trouble.



This is just something silly I wrote for my other blog. It's about English, sort of. It's really just about the alphabet.