The 6 Types of False Friends in Business English

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When it comes to doing business, you always need to be prepared. If you are doing business in English, but your mother tongue is German, then you need to be prepared for the traps (false friends) that the English language holds for you.

Different types of false friends

1) Same or similar word but different meaning

Take the German word Mappe. ‘Map’ exists in English but, while you are talking about something to put papers in, your Englishspeaking business contact thinks you mean a large piece of paper with roads and towns on it (Landkarte). The correct English word for Mappe – in this particular case – is ‘folder’. Other examples are Gift/gift, Kredit/credit, Fabrik/fabric.

2) Same or similar word and similar meaning

These are words that generally mean the same, but it depends on the context. Here is a standard example: extra and Extra. If you say in German „Ich habe es extra so hingestellt, damit du es sofort siehst“, you would need to say in English ‘I put it there deliberately so that you would see it’. If you are in a restaurant, though, and order eine Extraportion Gemüse you can say in English ‘an extra portion of vegetables‘. There is one verb which deserves special mention here, because it is probably the most frequently made mistake, namely: machen/make. We make mistakes, we make coffee, we make a fuss, but we do sports, we do courses and we do the accounts.

3) Via direct translation

You probably already know not to describe an Unternehmer as an undertaker, unless of course that particular entrepreneur or business owner really is an undertaker (Leichenbestatter). Similarly, it is widely known that a Hochschule is not the same thing as a high school.

4) Pseudo-anglicisms

These are English words that have found their way into everyday German usage but mean something completely different to the original English word, such as Handy, Peeling and Body. Others, such as Wellness and Neckholder, do not even exist in English; and some can shock your audience or perhaps make them laugh although you meant to be serious: take public viewing, for instance, which until now meant solely (öffentliche Aufbahrung einer Leiche)! It is better to talk about a ‘live transmission on a big screen’. Who knows, perhaps these terms will gradually find their way into everyday English.

5) Non-existent English words

There is a strange phenomenon which occurs with just a few German words. They are often translated by German speakers into words that do not exist in English. One false friend of this type is ‘reservieren‘, which many express as ‘reservate’. ‘Reservate’ does not exist, but it is said automatically by many people due to what they have learnt so far of the English language.

6) Only a false friend in certain contexts

Take the German word isoliert: if the context is a location that is far away from anywhere else, then the translation is indeed ‘isolated’. However, this is a false friend if we are talking about buildings and stopping the heat escaping from them; in this context you need to speak of ‘insulation’. Making presentations For natural performers, this is a chance to shine. But for the less confident among us − especially where English is concerned – this can be a daunting situation. See what effect these typical false friends have.

Better phrases für presentations

Avoid saying this:
Good morning everyone. I want to say how lucky I am to be here today.

…was ich für ein Glück habe, heute hier zu sein.

Say this instead:
Good morning everyone. I’d just like to say how great it is to be here to talk to you today.

…wie glücklich ich bin, heute hier zu sein.

Avoid saying this:
The theme of my presentation is…

Die Titelmelodie/ Das Motiv meiner Präsentation ist…

Say this instead:
The subject of my presentation is…

Das Thema meiner Präsentation ist…

Avoid saying this:
First, I will talk about…; next I will tell you about…; and last I will give you some stuff to think about.

Zuerst will ich über …sprechen und als nächstes will ich Ihnen über…erzählen. Zum Schluss will ich Ihnen etwas Zeug zum Nachdenken geben.

Say this instead:
Firstly, I’d like to talk about…; then I’ll go on to tell you about…; and finally I’d like to provide you with some food for thought.

(Ich will and ‚I will‘ are often use as if they were identical, but of course they are not. I’d like to has a better ring to it – it shows that you are taking your audience into consideration.)


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Über den Autor

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Nigel Paterson

Trainer for intercultural business and business English, director of studies and lecturer of continuing and university education in Southampton and Winchester. Additional qualifications: train the trainer and business cultural trainer. Area of expertise: English communication and conversation.

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