Why is writing well in English so difficult? Why do so many Germans with an excellent command of English still struggle to produce stylistically smooth prose? Lack of familiarity with English vocabulary and grammar is usually not the issue. The far more typical problem is insufficient mastery of good sentence structuring techniques. Indeed, in my experience, writing errors committed by German natives tend to stem from sentence construction strategies (viz. Satzbaustrategien) that are specific to German grammar and which do not work well in English. This could be a particular weakness for Germans because the pitfalls that abound in this regard cannot be easily subsumed into systematic categories that are amenable to formalized learning; the problems in this area are diffuse, confusing, and often difficult to explain. In this blog post I would nevertheless like to make a first attempt toward systematizing one usage issue typical of this “problem nexus.”
In German writing the preposition “mit” (“with”) is often deployed to create prepositional phrases that, when translated directly, are exceedingly stilted in English. Let us turn to an example:
Driverless vehicles are expected to become an important supplement to fixed-route public transit with a positive effect on vehicle demand.
Note the absence of a verb after “with.” In a great variety of circumstances German accommodates the stacking of nouns in prepositional phrases in ways that are simply not considered grammatical in English. In English, a new verb is needed to clarify the relationship between the elements of the sentence. My edited version reads:
Driverless vehicles are expected to become an important supplement to fixed-route public transit, and will thus have a positive effect on vehicle demand.
Let us look at another example. This one is taken from Deutsche Bank’s English website:
We adopted a comprehensive energy and climate strategy in 2007 with a commitment to effective environment action in all our activities.
The “with” prepositional phrase is used to introduce a “noun stack” of supplemental information in a manner that is clumsy in English. In this case, a good solution is to create a restrictive clause that has its own verb:
We adopted a comprehensive energy and climate strategy in 2017 that commits us to effective environmental action in all of our activities.
Let us turn to one last example:
The study explores the policy environment for investment in renewables, with a special consideration of their effects in cross-border renewables cooperation.
While most Germans would find no issue with this sentence, for English natives, it is clearly deficient. Another very good solution for the “mit noun stack” is to create a new independent clause that starts with “while” and a gerund:
The study explores the policy environment for investment in renewables while giving special consideration to their effects on cross-border renewables cooperation.
My hope with this blog entry is to sensitize German natives to one specific type of error they often commit when writing in English: namely, creating prepositional phrases that rely on “with” to introduce unreadable noun stacks that lack a verb. This is a sentence structuring technique that works well in German, but usually fails dramatically in English. In almost all cases, the best solution is to expand the prepositional phrase by turning it into a subordinate clause that contains a verb.