An unauthorized categorized list of interesting language problems from a class in which German teachers were encouraged to ask  questions about more or less tricky problems they came across e.g. when marking tests.
The teacher of this class – author of novels resp. stories, familiar with the ins and outs of literary and intellectual history, in short: a most extraordinary ‘man of letters’ – showed us that language is more than just a system of grammatical rules, of simple rights and wrongs and defies all schoolmasterly self-conceit.

If you are interested: There is a very moving 28-minute video feature about the life of this extraordinary man on the web:



Answer / comment


Simple versus progressive


"Peter goes to school every day, but today is Sunday, and so he stays at home."

perfectly OK!

He had been sitting by the riverside for three hours.

He sat by the riverside for three hours.


The second sentence not wrong.

But only "Since when have you been sitting  here".

I saw that it had been raining.

I saw that it had rained.

Both possible.

"They were thoroughly wet because they had walked through the rain for two hours."

"walked" NOT wrong, although "had been walking" would be more normal.

While she waited at the bus stop, she heard somebody calling for help.

Not wrong: "wait" contains duration.

This is the first time I'm hearing of it.

AE; in BE:This is the first time I've heard of it

"Are you wanting tea?"

very idiomatic, particularly polite

This lift has been sticking a lot recently

ing-form expresses repetition in a certain period of time; "stuck" would be wrong!

"Have you  enjoyed the party so far"

"Have you  been enjoying the party so far"

the first more normal; the second also possible

"Did you enjoy the party so far?", "Did you enjoy the last few days?"


"The pyramid has stood in the desert for thousands of years" versus

"The pyramid has been standing in the desert for thousands of years"


"I've been working for the company for 10 years"

"I've worked for the company for 10 years"


For three years he was playing for Manchester then he quit.

No! "…. played"!

Pieces of glass lay / were lying on the floor.

Both. (With "Still" rather progressive form)

More and more American universities claim that ……

No! Only "are claiming"!

The girl he goes / he's going with….


While she waited at the bus stop, she heard somebody shouting for help.

Possible because "waited" contains duration





She asked me what my favourite free-time activities were when I was ten.

"had been" instead of "were" would not only be pedantic but wrong!The backshift is not the rule: è pto

E. g. He said he saw a ghost when he was in England last time.

They met last week after the meeting was arranged a month ago.

after 'after' (if it refers to time sequence) normally simple past, nicht past perfect [ähnlich bei 'before' – because in both cases the conjunction already expresses „Vorzeitigkeit“].


After he had obtained a work permit, he was allowed to settle in the country.

Oder: Yesterday two young men were arrested after they had broken into a bank.


If "after" expresses 'causal relation', there must be past participle.


He knew his father had given him the key when he had left the house.

"It seems to be a German failing to repeat the past perfect in a dependent clause when this is not necessary; 'had left' sounds as if he was given the keys after  leaving the house."

It should be: … "when he left the house" or – even better – "…when he was leaving the house".



Present perfect simple versus simple past


There have been times when African and Asian members of the Commonwealth have been [shouldn’t it be: were?] angry with British governments for limiting immigration into Britain.

"were" is definitely right; "have been" is also possible!

"What have you done!" But "Why did you do it."

"Where have I put my keys" (not "Where did I put …");

"Have you seen my sneakers anywhere?" (not "did you see…");

"She has just left" = BE

"She just left" = AE


She has been married twice.

She was married twice.

Both correct; the second is just a historical statement

"I always said that …………"


"Were you ever in Regensburg?" statt "Have you ever been to [only!] Regensburg?"

Not wrong, also possible! Idiomatic exception to the rule!

We never saw something like that before.

Not wrong (also in written English – although more American.

Did you ever see such confusion?

Have you ever seen such confusion?


I never met such a terrible liar.

I've never met such a terrible liar. OR:

Did you ever see a ghost?

Have you ever seen a ghost?






both! Interchangeable!


Did you ever meet a Pygmy?

Have you ever met a Pygmy?


Two Israelis have been shot in the West Bank yesterday.

A Russian general has been killed in an air crash yesterday.

possible, not wrong (very common now – esp in newscasts; zuerst die Tatsache als solche, dann als 'afterthought' zusätzlich eine Zeitangabe).



Present Perfect versus Present


"I have a metal plate attached with seven screws to my tibia bone since an accident in 1996."

l"I have this pain in my side since I was wounded…"

"Have" in these cases not wrong, because the present fact is more important!

She is terrified of riding a horse since she was thrown off the horse last year.

Correct, because the "since"-clause gives the reason; like: … because she was thrown…..





I have to stay at home tonight;

tomorrow I have to wash the curtains;

no future necessary if obligation is now!


Similarly: Do we have to bring our books tomorrow.

Correct; nicht "Will we have to bring our books tomorrow" – nobody would say that

Next week  I must tell you something else.

Possible (instead of 'I'll have to…') because you feel the obligation now.

Hingegen: 'Next time you'll have to bring your dictionaries'.

By contrast, "If the car breaks down, we must walk"                                                      è

 Wrong! Only 'We'll have to …'.

I hope England doesn't (or won't? or both?) lose the match against Germany.

Both! Hope can be followed by present or future.
[BUT  "expect" must be followed by the future tense: I expect you will come next week; or: ….expect you to come ..]

"Everybody can see this bridge is going to collapse." – "If it is going to collapse, we had better use the next bridge down the river." OR: "If he's going to come to dinner, I'm going to leave."

in such cases the going-to-future in if-clauses is absolutely OK. Especially in the first sentence only “is going to”  expresses that the bridge is bound to collapse / will necessarily collapse.

The situation will improve / is going to improve  / will be improving

No difference in meaning. 

We've got / we'll have a test tomorrow.




Everyone is enjoying themselves

only! („unisex pronoun“)

No one likes to see their mother-in-law.

   "       "    "

This is nothing to do with it.

Absolutely idiomatic and correct; sames as 'this has nothing to do..."

This development caused that factories sprang up everywhere.


"It's him who / that gives the orders."

No; "he"; it would be preferable to say: "He's the one who gives the orders."

Traditional rule: You should not start a sentence with "because".

No; because at the beginning of a sentence is perfectly OK, even Fowler says it's correct

"He's not much good at gardening."

OK; idiomatic

"I think it isn't a good idea" versus "I don't think it's a good idea": the second is preferable, the first more formal, less usual


In this storm there were five people killed.  There  was a crime committed here every night.

No! No passive construction with "there…"

The Ku Klux Klan is known for hating all non-whites.

No! For idiomatic reasons. Only "….to hate…".

It didn't strike me wrong.

It didn't strike me as being wrong.


The boy was told off because of being late.

Because of having no money he could not go on holiday.

No – "because of" + gerund  is very unidiomatic!



Relative clauses


This morning I met Diana, who I hadn't seen for ages.

In non-defining relative clauses in correct standard English only "whom"

Diana, to whom I had given my camera, …..

Diana, whom I had given my camera to,…..;

similarly "Mrs Butler, whom I spoke to yesterday, is a fine woman."


è The second word order has come to be perfectly acceptable.

The group which accepts this ………

The group who accept this …………



but only "There are some companies which don't spend enough on research and devel     opment.

And: the police, who…



"with his father being unemployed, the family could afford to buy a car";

"with everybody being very tired, they decided to go to bed";

"though being terrified, …….."

the "being" should be left out!



Infinitive - gerund


"Sorry  for troubling you with more of such trivial questions";

"Sorry  to trouble  you with more of such trivial questions";

"Sorry for interrupting you";

"Sorry to interrupt you";

both correct and equally idiomatic

It's a good method to deal with this problem.

No, only "of dealing" .

"in absolute / relative figures"

No, only "terms".

nach "possibility" nur "of + gerund"

im ALD Infinitiv ausdrücklich als falsch deklariert



Five and five is/are/make/makes ten

all correct

There was (not "were"!) pudding and some cherries on the table.
(But: a pudd. and a cake were on the table.)


The fish and chips is good.

Nur so.

In the green bottle is one or more sleeping pills.

Not! "…are"!

The couple was walking up the hill.
The couple were walking up the hill.

è AE

è BE

None of us know ……..

Perfectly all right; "knows" would be pedantic



Odds and ends


The jobs got less and less.

In correct English it should be "fewer and fewer";

BUT: "18 less", "a few less" (ein paar weniger); three people less ("fewer" would be wrong); "one bottle less" (eine Flasche weniger); three plates less to wash;  there are 75% less poisonous exhaust gases now; in no fewer than 10 countries ["less" answers the question 'how much/long/big' – measurement; "fewer" answers the question 'how many']

commas: before "because no comma except after a negative (otherwise wrong meaning; e.g. Don't come here to learn English, because you know enough already) .

Today in letters after "Dear Mr XY" often no comma.


What do you call this in English?

How do you say this in English?


But NOT "How do you call this in English"

Some unemployed were waiting in front of the employment agency.

In BE "people" would be required; in AE acceptable.

"Lots of unemployed" or "thousands of unemployed" correct in AE and BE.

Whose jacket is this? – That on the table or that on the clothes peg?

Hingegen: Whose jackets are these? – Those on the table or those on the clothes pegs?

"that" is wrong! "The one on ….."


"those" is acceptable!

Almost everyone identifies oneself with a movie star.

Wrong! "themselves" or (less usual today) "himself/herself"

Let's look a bit closer at the text.

Clearly wrong! Only "more closely".

"What was the weather like."

"How was the weather."


"how was the meal",  "how was the holiday" OK, only purists don't accept it.

"They said Vroni to her"

No! Only: they called her …

What brought him on the wrong way?

NO! "What put him on the wrong track?"

"This star is very much like the sun."

Wrong! Only: … is very like the sun (after "to be"). BUT "He behaves very much like his brother."

good at maths, but weak in maths

to be good in physics is not wrong!

Don't overtake in dangerous bends.

NO! "….on dangerous bends"

Did you know that in the UK there are 659


Nicht "do you know"!

The refugees were far too many for the relief agency.

No (you can't use "many" after the verb "to be"); "numerous"!

Let's not go to the cinema;

don't let us go to the cinema.

Both correct!

He had success in his new surroundings.

No! …"was successful…"

Can you help me getting (in getting) out of this situation?

Both wrong! Only "…(to) get…".

She styled herself in a very bizarre manner.

Similarly: a styled lady…

No; perhaps dressed up / dolled herself up…

è no!

Are all Germans the way they are described in this film?

No!  Only "…"

to get to know the American way of life…?

You "get to know" only people not facts.

What speaks against her?

No! è What tells against her.

She came here in the car of her husband

Wrong! (Ownership!) Only 'her husband's car

Wieviele seid ihr?

How many of you are there? (NOT 'How many are you?')

It's time to leave – but it's high time we left.


Should foreigners try to integrate themselves more than they often do?

No! "… be integrated…"

Listen to my every word (instead of …"every word of mine"); similarly: the interest that follows their every move…..

Very idiomatic!

"almost nobody"

geht – neben 'hardly anybody'
('nearly nobody' would be wrong)

…in the last years       

Definitely wrong! (…"last few")




Funny expressions for the classroom

to open an egg with the sledgehammer

Are you settling into a coma?

mutton dressed as lamb

You can't just sit there in a coma.

I have to sleep on it

That's the limit!

We must draw the line.

A conversation runs out of steam.

Rich people set up charities

Is that clear or am I going too quickly?

You don't know the half of it. 

the dead-fish look

This is old hat.

This makes me see red

English as she is spoke 


He's not out of the wood yet.


I'm working my fingers to the bone.