What for a picture

A friend scrolls through their phone, and you see something unusual. You can’t quite tell what it is and ask:

What is that for a picture‽

If you speak German, you understand that the question asks what kind of picture something is:

Was ist das für ein Bild‽

When comparing both versions, the pattern used in the translation becomes obvious. The sentence was translated word-for-word, which resulted in an awkward and incorrect translation.

This pattern makes foreign languages seem approachable. When translating many words at once seems hard, translating individual words seems easy. One word at a time, we could easily translate full sentences. We could translate entire books like this.

Unfortunately, languages are rarely this similar. Translations following this pattern will usually sound out of place.

“What for a” does not translate to “was für ein”. Use “what kind of” or drop the classifier when talking about details of something:

  • What is that for a noise? → What kind of noise is that?
  • What for a day is today? → What day is today?
  • What for a great tip! → What a great tip!

“What for” is closer to “warum” or “wofür”. You use it when inquiring about the reason behind something:

  • What are we having this meeting for?
  • What did you punch me for?

You can capture a sentence’s essence without reproducing its grammar and wording. As long as the other person understands your intention, you don’t need to translate every single word.

All lessons in this course


An actual video

Two words can look like translations of each other even if they aren’t. The word “actual” is our first venture into this category of false friends.

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Making a photo

Even if you translate each individual word in a sentence correctly, the resulting translation can still be off.

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What for a picture

Not every word in a sentence needs to appear in its translation. Languages don’t map to each other one-to-one.

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You can spot Germans by the fact that they use “or” to ask questions. Unfortunately, the word doesn’t work that way in English.

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Hello together

This mistranslation gave this course its name. “Together” refers to doing something with others. Here’s how to greet a group of people instead.

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What do you call a phone you can hold in your hand? Well, it’s not this. If you call it a handy, you’re in for some awkward looks.

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Becoming a car

“Bekommen” and “to become” are another pair of false friends. If you want something, make sure you’re not accidentally turning yourself into that thing.

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Less vs fewer

Is it “less mistakes” or “fewer mistakes”? They both seem to say that something is not as much as it was before, but only one is grammatically correct.

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False friends are everywhere. Eventually is very similar to the German “eventuell”, but it means something completely different.

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Why isn’t it “Whom let the dogs out”? The extra letter does not turn a regular “who” into a fancy version of itself.

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When coming from a language that doesn’t normally use them, where to put apostrophes can seem confusing.

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I vs me

Was an event organized by “Nina and I” or “Nina and me”? To find which one applies, take the other person out of the sentence for a second.

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Good vs well

You’re doing well, Superman is doing good. This lesson looks at the rules behind which of these two is correct in a given situation.

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Looking forward

When you’re excited about something, tell others what that thing is. On its own, you’re only saying half an expression otherwise.

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Gender-neutral pronouns

When you don’t know someone’s preferred pronouns, you can use they/them even when speaking about an individual person and not a group.

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We have been taught to always say please and thank you. Whether they are right for a situation depends on the context.

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Each other

Some actions happen to multiple people at once, like running into someone. In these situations, we need to use reciprocal pronouns.

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Other languages don’t always use the auxillary “do” as much as the English language does, so it’s often lost in translation.

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