Ten tips for better emails in English (part two)

Here are some more tips for writing professional emails in English. But first, some email trivia:

How many emails were sent and received in the world each day in 2017?

Yes, you’re right. A lot. A mammoth amount. If we add-in yours and mine the total comes to about 269 billion per day. There are an estimated 3.7 billion email users, and climbing. The most astounding (and scary) statistic is that on-average an office worker will receive about 120 emails per day, according to several studies. We are drowning in emails.

Understandably, the general rule is to keep your emails short. Some purists say a maximum of five sentences and you can always attach a document if you have more information to share.

You can read Ten tips for better emails in English (part one) here


  1. When can I change from Dear Ms Johnson to Dear Sue?

Anglo-Saxons move from formal family names to first names quite quickly. It’s part of their culture. The Swiss, in general, are a little more reserved. French mother-tongue speakers often find it difficult to judge the right moment to drop a level in formality and switch from family name to first name.

There are many factors that affect familiarity, such as jobs, positions in the hierarchy, company culture and, of course, your culture and language and that of the person receiving your emails.

Unfortunately, there are no rules.  Sometimes, you can clearly sense a first-name-relationship in the friendly style of the first email or by the engaging voice on the other end of the telephone. Young people are much more open to first names. The older generation have grown up on a diet of formal letter writing, with phrases such as Je vous prie, Madame, Monsieur, de bien vouloir agréer l’expression de mes sentiments distingués, which are today viewed as olde worlde and impersonal.

Here are a few guidelines on when you can start to reduce the formality:

  • If your recipient signs off with his or her first name.
  • If you are on first names in your telephone conversation
  • If you are basically the same age or have a similar position or are passionate about your shared interest.
  • Mirror the style of your recipient. If his or her style is friendly and informal, keep your emails relatively informal.
  • When a prospective client turns into an actual client it is often the right time to make the written relationship less formal. It’s a bit like welcoming them into the family.

But don’t push it. If you are not sure, play safe. Stay neutral/formal until you get a clear sign.


  1. Subject/title

Use the subject line to help your reader focus on the content of your email. The quicker your reader can focus on the subject the more effective he or she will be in dealing with your request. I get annoyed when I receive an email with a blank subject line.

I want to have an idea of the content just from reading the subject line. Our brains start to load relevant information if the subject line is clear and informative. Re. English course in Australia, Re. Cancellation of Nick Cave concert, Re. Student visa for New Zealand, Re. Your blog in Le Temps


  1. Simple terms for simple understanding

Many phrases or words are totally unnecessary and can be deleted or simplified. Be active and edit your email. Cut and slash. Rewrite. Use your delete button like a sword and kill off unnecessary phrases like these below:

  • as far as I am concerned – I think, I believe
  • at the present time – now
  • due to the fact that – because
  • for the most part – generally
  • in my opinion – I think, I believe
  • in the event of – if
  • let me start by saying – firstly
  • and I would like to finish by saying – finally
  • the point that I am trying to make – I think, I believe
  • what I want to make clear – I think, I believe

Remember to use active verbs:

  • We need to make an improvement – We need to improve
  • We made an application –   We applied
  • I think we need to have a discussion about the matter – Can we discuss the matter?


  1. Punctuation

Good news. Minimalist punctuation is fine for emails. Obviously, you need some punctuation to make the ideas flow and make sense. Look at the differences in the two emails below. Example B is my style.

A: Dear Julia,

I am sorry, I can’t make it on Thursday, January 6th. Can we meet on Friday, November 7th at 4 p.m.?

Kind regards,

Claudia Schenker 

B: Dear Julia

I am sorry I can’t make it on Thursday November 6. Can we meet on Friday 7 at 4 pm?

Kind regards

Claudia Schenker

Some people are far too attached to their exclamation point. It’s crazy!!! Every sentence is followed by one! Or even two!! Life is just so exciting!! I even receive emails with the title: Hello Garry!!!

Using an exclamation point can convey excitement but overusing them can make you look a little pretentious and inauthentic. Let your language speak for itself and keep your excitement for the meeting. Yes!!!

  1. Keep your audience in mind from start to finish

When you have finished your email, take a step back. Have a cup of a tea or coffee or finish another task. Then come back to your email and imagine you are the recipient. Is it clear? Do you know what you have to do? Is all the information there? Is there any jargon or language in the email that the recipient might not understand? Can you cut out some unnecessary words or phrases?

Never forget the KISS principle – Keep it Short and Simple.

Take you time. Always have that final check and read-through. Minimise those “OH, NO!” moments when your eyes and finger are synchronised: Your eyes on a spelling mistake just as your finger presses the SEND key.

Here’s a little exercise for you:

The following paragraph below contains more than 90 words. Can you rewrite it in 35 words or less?

This company document is for the purpose of giving the reader a detailed explanation of the reservation process used by all our hotel affiliates and subsidiaries around the world. It describes the step-by-step process we currently use as outlined in our software system which has been, as of August 2018, installed in all our hotels world-wide. In order to provide an introduction to the process for employees who work on a part-time contract, we also have prepared an overview, which describes the highlights of the global reservation process in just two pages.

You can send your response to me: director@tlh.ch

Photo: Unsplash

You can read Ten tips for better emails in English (part one) here

Ten tips for better emails in English (part one)

Emails are one of our most important communication tools. The email has the immediacy of a phone conversation, and a similar sense of informality. It is like a written conversation; neutral, polite and straight-to-the-point. That’s how we like to get things done, isn’t it? For example:

I am happy to confirm our meeting on December 15 at 3pm.

Please send me a copy of the auditor’s report of May 2018.

Could/Can we please meet on Tuesday (tomorrow) at 3pm? I’m afraid I won’t be free at 2pm.

We have received your payment. Many thanks.

Please find below a proposal for your English lessons at The Language House…

Neutral, polite and straight-to-the point…This sounds a lot like The KISS principle.


1. Keep It Short and Simple (KISS).

The KISS principle is a fine rule to live and write by.

This is the best advice for writing professional emails in English (or for writing anything). Forget those long verbose French phrases. Be brief. You don’t have to be boring. You can be creative and add some personality, and still be succinct. Plain English or simple clear English is faster to write, faster to read and easier to understand.

Which do you prefer; A or B?

A. I trust this clarifies the matter for you and we look forward to hearing from you in due course in respect of your decision whether or not you intend to take out a loan.

B. Please contact me if you would like to take out a loan. My direct line is…

English has become the language of business. Here is one reason why:

A. Je me tiens à votre entière disposition pour tous renseignements complémentaires et vous prie, Madame, Monsieur, d’agréer l’expression de mes respectueuses salutations.

B. Please call me if you have any questions. Kind regards


2. The verb is Queen

Life and work is all about action. In almost all emails the most important information relates to the verb (action): update, cancel, postpone, resend, order, propose, calculate, check, recommend, deliver, invite, send, find…

People want to know “what do you want me to do?” If possible, state this quickly in the first sentence of your emails. Don’t hide the important things to do in the middle or at the end.

The world of work is about action (doing things and getting things done) and action is all about verbs. The verb is Queen. But you don’t need to sound like a dictator. Remember what your mother taught you. You should always say…


3. Please and thank you

You can soften (adoucir) the content with politesse, so you sound more like a benign leader or a caring colleague rather than a dictator. If the email is for a colleague or client who you deal with regularly it is important to get straight to the point; but with politesse:

Please send me a copy…

Please contact John in marketing…

Could/can/would you please organise a meeting with…

Thank you for your email. I will do that immediately…

Please confirm the bank details for client 54A234.

If it is first contact, or needs to be slightly more formal, change the wording to:

Could/Can/Would you please send me…

Could/Can/Would you please cancel our order…

Could/Can/Would you please contact our marketing department… 

The use of please softens any awkward language that may sound a bit direct, clumsy or rude. How many times have you received (or sent) a cold or rude email? A please or two in the right places change the tone completely.

I often reply to emails with: Thank you for your email or Thank you for contacting The Language House. This polite phrase thanks the receiver for selecting my company (instead of a competitor) and for taking the time and energy to write.

Be empathetic: I know you are really busy, but I need you to look at the figures attached. Can you please give me your response before 5 pm? Much appreciated.

If the issue is sensitive. It is a good idea to follow up your email with a telephone call.

I think company B is unhappy with our delivery times. Do you think it would be a good idea to invite them to lunch? Can we have a chat about this? I will call you later this afternoon around 3pm. Please confirm.

Advice: Please use please and thank you. Start and end with polite phrases. For example start with: Thank you for your email and finish with Please call me if you have any questions. My direct line is 022 321 52 63. I look forward to hearing from you (Read more here) Not every sentences has to include please. But most sentences should.


4. Subject-Verb-Object

Generally, humans of the English language variety understand information easily if it is given in the following order: Subject-Verb-Object. This is the most digestible order of words in an English sentence. If you have a complex sentence that’s giving you (and therefore your future reader) difficulty, the simplest way to fix it is to rewrite it in a subject-verb-object format. This reduces confusion. If necessary, turn a long or confusing sentence into two shorter sentences. Make a general rule: one idea per sentence. If you have many ideas to share use bullet points.

Which do you prefer?

A. In the case of a board member announcing their retirement, the retiring member must offer the company the first option to purchase their shares no longer than 30 days after their official retirement date.

B. The company has first option to buy a retiring member’s shares.The shares must be offered to company less than 30 days after the member’s date of retirement.

A. At this point in time, despite our investigations we are unable to ascertain the reason as to why the door was left open.

B. We still don’t know why the door was left open.

When making a request use a simple question.

A. I don’t know what your schedule looks like, but if you’re available, I would really appreciate the chance to have lunch with you sometime next week. I hope you are free.

B. Are you free for lunch next week? Do you prefer Tuesday or Wednesday? Please confirm.

A request presented in a short, simple sentence won’t to be overlooked.

Advice: A general rule: One idea per sentence.  If you have many ideas to share use bullet points.


5. Greetings and signing-off

Dear and Hello are fine for most emails. Dear is a little more formal.

Important: In English, ALWAYS use the name of your recipient (if you know it), even if you haven’t had any contact with him or her.

Dear and Hello are fine for most emails. Dear is a little more formal.

In English we only say Dear Sir/Madame if we don’t know the name of the person who will receive the email, for example a government office. Be careful, these impersonal emails often end up in the spam box.

The correct title for a woman named Sue Johnson is Ms (pronounced MIZZ) eg. Dear Ms Johnson. (Read more here: Ms, Mrs and Miss)

Never write: Dear Mr Garry. It is either Dear Mr Littman or Dear Garry

Don’t start your email with How are you? – an open-ended question, that normally demands an answer. You can, instead use the expressions, I hope you are well, I hope you are keeping well, I hope you had a great weekend, I hope the week started/ended well. No replies are necessary.

Don’t (please) finish an email with the robotic and over-used phrase: Have a nice day – (Read more here)

Sign off with Yours sincerely for a formal email and Kind regards/Best regards or Thank you for less formal/neutral emails.


So, there are five tips to think about. More tips to come next week. Comments welcome.



Life in plastic. It’s not so fantastic.

Life in plastic, it’s fantastic in a Barbie world 

Aqua, Barbie Girl 1997


I’m addicted to you
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?
And I love what you do
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?
Don’t you know that you’re toxic?

– Britney Spears, Toxic 2003


The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence

– Simon and Garfunkel, Sounds of Silence 1964


The words of the prophets are also in the dictionary. The words of the year 2018, according to Oxford and Collins dictionaries respectively, are toxic and single-use.

According to the dictionaries, toxic and single-use capture the ethos, mood and preoccupations of today. Ouch! A bit grim, isn’t it?

Once upon a time, toxic was used exclusively to describe something as poisonous.

Its origin is Greek – toxikon pharmakon – a lethal poison used by the ancient Greeks for smearing on their arrowheads. Last year it oozed into the language bloodstream and rapidly spread.  Toxic politics, toxic relationships, toxic workplaces, toxic masculinity, toxic environment, toxic culture… to name a few.

Toxic chemicals also headlined this year when Russian military spies allegedly used a toxic nerve agent to poison a former Russian intelligence officer and his daughter in the sleepy provincial city of Salisbury in the UK. International relations between the UK and Russia became rather toxic for a few weeks.

Here is how the Oxford Dictionary announced its word of the year:

Obviously, Britney Spears knew something we didn’t. She had a hit song Toxic in 2003.

And, of course, there is toxic plastic which brings us to the term single-use, which is the Collins dictionary word of 2018.

Single-use refers to products, mostly made of plastic, which are manufactured to be used only once before they are thrown away. Plastic bags and straws are a good example. Here a few statistics to try and wrap your head around:

  • Nearly two million single-use plastic bags are distributed worldwide every minute. That’s about a trillion a year.
  • A person uses a plastic carrier bag on average for only 12 minutes.
  • On average we only recycle one plastic bag in every 200 we use.
  • It takes 500 or more years for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill. The bags don’t break down completely but instead become micro-plastics that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment.
  • 500 million single-use plastic straws are used every day in America.

The term single-use has allowed some people, mainly in wealthy, industrialised countries, to identify and question their easy-come, easy-go, throw-away lifestyle and obsession with plastic. This scene from the BBCDavid Attenborough documentary Blue Planet II, shocked many people.

Life in plastic, is now not so fantastic.  Plastic is found throughout the food chain and tiny plastic particles and fibres (no surprise, please) are now found in human waste. We also are ingesting plastic. We are now part-plastic.

The European parliament recently backed a ban on single-use plastics such as straws, cotton swabs, disposable plates and bottles and cutlery. It is expected to come into effect in 2021.

But there’s a long, perhaps impossible voyage ahead. Almost every piece of plastic that was ever made still exists in some shape or form (with the exception of the small amount that has been incinerated).

We go from breast to plastic teat, to plastic spoons and forks and plates and pens and bags, from plastic nappies or diapers to windproof jackets and ski pants. We fly on airplanes that are made head-to-tail with carbon-fibre reinforced plastic.

Plastic was a miracle invention as the American Plastics Council tells us:

Today supermarkets are introducing plastic free aisles, as we start to think about ways to slow down the massive plastic juggernaut, which has served us so well and is now a threat to our health. It’s become toxic.


Top photo: Unsplash

“He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle”

In British history one person stands head and shoulders above the rest.

It’s neither Shakespeare nor Queen Victoria. Not the Queen, not Princess Di, not even Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin.

It’s Winston Churchill, a man of small stature with a towering greatness;  a writer, orator and leader who as Prime Minister led Britain to victory in the Second World War. In nation-wide polls, he is regularly named the greatest Briton of all time.

Churchill is also an iconic figure for many non-English, especially French speakers. Politically, he would sit on the political spectrum knee-to-knee with Donald Trump and is still widely detested by many on the political left. He had many failures, some terrible and spectacular, which perhaps gave him the grit and determination for his greatest success.

As an English leader and orator in a time of war – we shall fight on the beaches, we shall never surrender – he is admired by all. He’s been given the eponymous accolade, joining an illustrious club that includes Shakespearean, Kafkaesque, Machiavellian, Freudian, Marxist and our very own Calvinist, to name a few.

A Churchillian leader is one who is uncompromising, focused, determined and able to electrify great swathes of the population with their words.

President John F. Kennedy said of Churchill: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” (The president was quoting Edward R. Murrow of CBS News).

In the clip above, Gary Oldman potrays Churchill in the film The Darkest Hour. The speech is clearer and better enunciated that the real Churchill who managed to often sound as if he had a mouthful of marbles and a belly-full of whisky; the latter more likely.

Here’s the original speech from the man himself.

He had an upper-class plummy accent, but what we hear is not the ring of a haughty aristocrat, but of a man who suffered from a lisp and stammer much of his life. A fine pair; Winston Churchill and the stammering King George VI, both tongue-tied with speech defects, bullied and social recluses in their childhood led the fight against Nazi Germany.

Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience 

Churchill has since become an entertainment industry. About 500,000 people visit the underground Churchill War Rooms in London each year. Hundreds of biographies have been written, many by political leaders and many more by aspiring leaders. Albert Finney, Rod Taylor, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Burton, Timothy Spall, Bob Hoskins, John Lithgow and Michael Gambon have all sucked deep on the cigar, filled their mouths with marbles and spoken forth: Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.

It was said that Hitler could persuade you that he could do anything, but Churchill could persuade you that you could do anything.”

Churchill did this in his own words. He was his own speechwriter. His granddaughter, the author Celia Sandys, said that Churchill’s facility with words was most helpful to his family. “Whenever he needed some money, he picked up his pen. We lived from pen to mouth,” she said in an interview, sounding very much like her grandfather’s grand-daughter.

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.

Churchill did not do only gravity and inspiration, but was also a master of humour and put-downs that had them rolling with laughter in the aisles of Westminster parliament and in front of radio sets in lounge-rooms throughout the isles.

Like Oscar Wilde, he is still outrageously quotable.

He mastered a wordplay  known as a paraprosdokian, loved by satirists and humourists. It is usually a short phrase that features two ideas. The first idea is often positive or an expression the listener may identify with, such as this one from Groucho Marx:

She got her good looks from her father…

The second part of the phrase has the dramatic effect. It’s a kind of verbal ambush, that forces the listener to radically reinterpret the complete phrase.

She got her good looks from her father; he’s a plastic surgeon.

Some of Churchill’s best-known ambushes and put downs:

The last thing I want to do is hurt you. But it’s still on my list.

If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong.

History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.

Do not argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.

Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.

If you’re going through hell, keep going.

I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober, and you will still be ugly.

It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

We know that he has, more than any other man, the gift of compressing the largest amount of words into the smallest amount of thought.

A modest man, who has much to be modest about.

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.

In the course of my life I have often had to eat my words, and I must confess that I have always found it a wholesome diet.

Yes, indeed. So we also have.

Ms, Mrs or Miss?

Ms, Mrs or Miss? The titles given to women can be quite confusing and challenging to non-native speakers and native speakers.

Men have it easy. They are the entitled sex. Mr (Mister) is a title which can be worn comfortably like a pair of old slippers by any man at any time, from Mr President to Mr Jones who lives around the corner and drives a taxi.

Addressing a woman is a little more complicated. There are three main options; Ms (pronounced Mizz), which startles many non-native speakers, and Mrs and Miss.

Titles are important. Just ask any president or director. Titles that describes half of the human population should be well-understood and used correctly, which is not as simple as it sounds in today’s fast-evolving and militant world of identity politics.

Here’s a rough guide. But first, a simple piece of advice: If you are not sure, then simply ask the woman in question which identity she prefers. 

Mrs (pron. missus) – means married woman. This a term that is losing favour in more liberal circles and among professional and younger women. Mrs, many say, defines a woman in relation to her husband. It has the connotation of someone with less control over their life who is happy to play second fiddle to their husband. Mrs Karen Pence, the wife of the US Vice-President Mike Pence, might embrace the title. My daughter would vehemently oppose it. Ironically, the title Mrs was once used to describe an independent, successful woman who may have been married, single or even divorced.

Miss – means unmarried. It has been used historically for both girls and older unmarried women (also known as spinsters). It is now considered old-fashioned and sexist by many as it defines women by their (lack of) marital status or relationship with men. It is used in formal situations to describe girls, but less and less for younger and older women. The term Miss is moving out of official use just as Mademoiselle is disappearing from French.

Both Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton

opted to be Mrs, probably because they

didn’t want to alienate

older and more conservative voters.

And then there’s Ms (pronounced Mizz) – a neutral term for a woman, just like Mr is to men. Ms doesn’t indicate if a woman is married or not. Ms only began to assert itself in the 1990s. Ms is now the default title for women.

So, you would say:

I’d like to present the new member of our team, Ms Catherine Du Pont. Ms Du Pont joins us after three years in a French investment company. Ms Du Pont will take over the client advisory role and…

Or if you could simply say:

I’d like to present the new member of our team, Catherine Du Pont. Catherine joins us after working for…

And you would write:

Dear Ms Guardiola

Thank for you interest in our products. I have enclosed …

Dear Ms Williams

Unfortunately, we have no vacancies available at the moment.

You can also indicate your preference by signing off with your preferred title:

Yours sincerely

(Ms) Géraldine Noix

So, as a general rule:

In a professional environment you should not address a woman as Mrs, unless she specifically asks to be called Mrs. As stated above, the default title for a woman today is Ms.

At the same time it should be noted that both Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton opted to be Mrs, probably because they didn’t want to alienate older and more conservative voters.

The Washington Post editorial board calls her Ms Clinton but has also run several stories that call her Mrs Clinton.

The New York Times automatically refers to women as Ms until they express a preference. The Times believes Ms is more “progressive”.

The term Ms can be traced back to the 17th century. It was originally an abbreviation of mistress which then meant “the lady of the house”.

In the early 1900s, The Republican newspaper in Springfield in Massachusetts USA wrote:

There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill. Everyone has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss. Yet it is not always easy to know the facts… Now, clearly, what is needed is a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation, and what could be simpler or more logical than the retention of what the two doubtful terms have in common. The abbreviation “Ms” is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances.

The term didn’t stick. It was re-floated in the 1950s but only took off in the 1970s. Feminist advocate Sheila Michaels began advocating for Ms in the early 1960s.

Ms is here to stay. So, if you wish to speak English

correctly, both linguistically and politically,

Ms (once again, that’s pronounced Mizz),

is a term to learn and use.

Marvel Comics introduced Ms Marvel a female version of Captain Marvel in 1968.  But the title leap-frogged into the vernacular when Gloria Steinem, US activist and feminist organiser, heard Ms Michaels singing the praises of Ms during a radio interview. Steinem decided the term Ms would be perfect for a new magazine for women she was in the process of co-founding.

 Ms. magazine (see photo above) was launched as a one-off insert in New York Magazine in December 1971. It sold 300,000 copies nationwide in eight days. It generated 26,000 subscription orders and over 20,000 reader letters within weeks.

Two titles were born and still exist today.

Ms has taken some time to achieve its ascendancy. In the 1980s journalists (at least in Australia) were expected to ask women if they preferred to be called Ms, Mrs or Miss. By the 90s, Ms was the default title. The Oxford Dictionary has this definition:

a title used before the surname or full name of any woman regardless of her marital status (a neutral alternative to Mrs or Miss): Ms Sarah Brown.

If you are not sure, then simply ask

the woman in question

which identity she prefers. 

Ms is here to stay. So, if you wish to speak English correctly, both linguistically and politically, Ms (once again, that’s pronounced Mizz), is a term to learn and use.

I suggest you master Ms (pun intended) as quickly as possible. There’s a whole other level of titles knocking loudly at the mainstream door.

HSBC Bank now allows clients to choose from 13 titles when opening their bank account..

As well as Mr, Mrs, Ms, customers can choose from 10 non-gender specific titles (see below).

Mx – pronounced “Mix” or “Mux”

Ind – an abbreviation of individual

M – an abbreviation used in France

Misc – an abbreviation of miscellaneous

Mre – for “mystery”

Msr – a combination of Miss and Sir

Myr – used in other parts of the world

Pr – an abbreviation of person, pronounced “per”

Sai – pronounced “sigh”, used in Asia

Ser – pronounced “sair” used in Latin America



Foreigners, strangers, aliens and Dr Spock

The words foreigner, stranger and alien can be very confusing for French native speakers. Depending on your world view, the words can also invoke different meanings and reactions.

A foreigner is a person who comes from another country. In French, a foreigner is un/e étranger/e.

You might say:

No, he’s not Swiss. He’s a foreigner. I think he’s Egyptian.

It is difficult to work in Switzerland if you are a foreigner.

Bernard Kouchner was the Minister for Foreign Affairs in France.

Tina Turner recorded the song Foreign Affair about a romantic relationship with a Spanish matador.

The tone associated with the term foreigner is increasingly negative. We read about foreign invaders, foreign-backed dissidents, foreign terrorists and foreign fighters. There are growing movements across the world to close borders to foreigners.

There are degrees of being a foreigner. Is your French colleague sitting in the desk opposite really a foreigner? Or is she just French?

You can also say:

Doctors said the foreign object found in the childs stomach was a rusty nail (an object that has entered something by accident and should not be there).

Remember: Un/e étranger/e is a foreigner in English, NOT a stranger.


A stranger is someone that you do not know. In French a stranger is un/e inconnu/e.

You might say:

I sat down in the bus next to a stranger.

There was a complete stranger sitting at my desk.

They got on well together although they were total strangers.

We’ve told our daughter not to speak to strangers.

Franks Sinatra describes two strangers falling in love and lust in his song, Strangers in the Night.

Clint Eastwood developed a genre of westerns as the ‘tall dark stranger’ who rides into a small town and shots all the baddies.

The popular meaning of stranger has also become darker in recent years. Strangers today are viewed by many as a threat and a danger.

The Irish poet William Butler Yeats said 100 years ago: There are no strangers, only friends you have not met yet.

Hospitality towards strangers was not only an obligation, but also a sacred part of many cultures in the ancient world: Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares – Book of Hebrews 13:2

Expression (happy sarcasm): Well hello stranger! is an expression used when you see someone you are close to after a long absence, just like in this song by Barbara Lewis, first released in 1962.


Remember: Un/e inconnu/e is a stranger in English


Alien has two general meanings. It refers to a person who is not a citizen of the country in which they live or work (similar in meaning to a foreigner)  and is often used in legal and political circles.  In the USA the expression, illegal aliens, is widely used.

Singer Sting describes himself as a legal alien in New York in the song Englishman In New York.

You can say:

In 1795, the US Congress passed four laws, known collectively as the Alien and Sedition Acts.

US border police arrested 25 illegal aliens.

You can also say.

For most Anglo-Saxons, kissing a woman (or man) three times on introduction is an alien (or foreign) concept.

Of course, the Hollywood alien is a creature from another world or planet, such as our friend ET or if you prefer, Sigourney Weaver’s nemesis in the Alien films. My favourite alien is Dr Spock, the half-Vulcan, half-human of the science fiction series Star Trek.


Photo Unsplash: two aliens in car. 

This is an updated version of a post that first appeared on the Bilan magazine website.





Are you a culture vulture? A bit lardy-dardy? Like a bit of a rumpy pumpy?

Are you a culture vulture? A gender bender? A bit lardy-dardy? Do you like a bit of rumpy pumpy?

The English language is not only rich in content, but is also a lot of fun. It’s not all irregular verbs, weird idioms and incomprehensible phrasal verbs.

There is plenty of humour, with expressions such as nitwit, namby-pamby and lovey-dovey.

These are duplicated rhyming words. They combine two existing words, like flower-power and culture vulture. Often one of the words is meaningless, as in super-duper. Sometimes both words are meaningless, such as namby-pamby which sounds a little like it means (childish, weak and sentimental). Most of these words you will find in a good dictionary. Many of them come from olde English.

Here’s a quick guide to a few of these colourful and witty expressions:

culture-vulture: someone who love the arts

to hob nob: drink and mix socially with people, often in high society

hoi-poloi: (origin Greek): the common people

hoity toity: pretentious people

the bee’s knees: something that is the best; excellent.

a rag bag: an untidy collection of things

airy fairy: vague, dreamy and unrealistic

chock-a-block: full, crowded

mumbo jumbo: nonsense

odd bod: a strange person

nitwit: someone who is stupid or silly

heebie-jeebies: nervousness and anxiety

nitty gritty: the essential information

a lardy-dardy: a dandy with airs

to kowtow (origin Chinese): to show too much respect, to bow down before someone

rumpy pumpy: casual sex

So let me tell you about last night…

I have a friend Pascal who I’d describe as a culture vulture who likes to hob nob with the hoity toity. I prefer the hum drum of the hoi-poloi. He reckons it’s the bees knees to kowtow, all lovey-dovey, before a ragbag of airy-fairy artists.

I am not interested in the arty farty. However, last night I went to an art exhibition with Pascal. The gallery was chock-a-block. Just my luck, I had to listen to a lot of mumbo jumbo from some odd bod for more than an hour. He was a namby-pamby and a nitwit. I lost my patience and we had a bit of argy-bargy. I wanted to get helter-skelter out of there…

Okay, I said, but no hanky-panky and no rumpy-pumpy

Then I met Samson. How could I describe him? A gender bender with a touch of lardy-dardy and a bit of a fuddy-duddy at the same time. He asked if I was ready for some harum-scarum.

Okay, I said, but no hanky-panky and no rumpy-pumpy.

He placed a little blue pill in my hand. “Hooley Dooley! What is it?”  I asked.

He replied: “One hundred per cent razzle dazzle.”

“Mmmm…,” I replied. “I’ll try an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny bit. But if I go all happy-clappy or higgledy-piggledy, shilly-shally or wishy-washy, promise you will get me out of here.”

Hooley-dooley! What’s this hocus pocus?”

Okey Dokey,” he replied. Despite my heebie-jeebies, I swallowed the pill. The immediate reaction I can only describe as hurly-burly.

Jeeper creepers! Chit-chat came willy-nilly. Most of it was claptrap, a hotchpotch of stupidity and a hodgepodge of bad jokes. Everything was topsy-turvy. Pascal took me aside and asked me: “Hooley-dooley! What’s this hocus pocus?”

Like Humpty Dumpty, I had had a great fall. Helter-skelter, I headed for the door and departed pell mell. I felt such a dead-head!

And that my friends, is the nitty gritty of my eventful night.

Your feedback is welcome.

Heidi is mad! Really mad! You are warned.


I bought some bonds last week. Swiss bonds. They’re called Heidi bonds. You can’t get more Swiss than that. A solid investment? We’ll have to wait and see. Hopefully, I’ll see the result in the cinema next year when Mad Heidi, part-financed by my 25 bonds, makes its screen debut.

Mad Heidi is the first ever Swissploitation film. Alpine cinephiles have been patiently waiting their turn. After Blaxploitation, Mexploitation and Sexploitation, finally, we have Swissploitation.

The film synopsis is pretty simple: Heidi, bless her heart, has grown up and she is not the sweet, pig-tailed girl you might remember. And Switzerland is darker than the deepest recess in the Gotthard Tunnel. As the film website says:

In the near future the world is sinking into war and chaos, but Switzerland has sealed itself off as an island of the rich. An egocentric heir of a multi-billionaire cheese empire is ruling the country with an iron fist to maintain an artificial postcard-image of Switzerland. When Heidi is abducted by the brutal government troops, she must fight back against the cheese-fuelled machinery of hate. They will soon realize they just fucked with the wrong Heidi!

The film, which is in the first stages of production, mixes all the Swiss clichés with copious litres of blood. Yes, it’s a splatter film. Heidi is seriously mad and a highly capable Victorinox assassin. Cheesy and bloody would be the best way to describe the film teaser. It features magnificent Alpine mountain panoramas, stabbing-to-death by Toblerone, torture by fondue and the memorial line:  I love the smell of cheese in the morning

Yes. I did say cheesy. Did I also say extremely violent and in bad taste? Amusing? I hope so. I want my bonds to deliver dividends. Here’s the teaser.

Warning: Not to be watched while eating chocolate or enjoying a fondue or if you are allergic to blood and excessive over-the-top violence.


Mad Heidi: www.madheidi.com

Probably coming to your local cinema, if you buy some bonds… Director: Johannes Hartmann. Producer: Tero Kaukomaa. Producer: Valentin Greutert.

A letter to the FBI agents investigating Judge Brett Kavanaugh

Dear FBI agents investigating US Supreme Court nominee Judge Kavanaugh,

Before you start interviewing male and female schoolmates and acquaintances of Judge Kavanaugh, I suggest you go online and have a look at a dictionary called Urban Dictionary. The address is www.urbandictionary.com

This will help you to decode the slang used by Brett Kavanaugh, then aged 17, in his college yearbook entry. It is quite revealing and will give you a much better understanding of Mr Kavanaugh’s relationship with women and alcohol. Unfortunately, I must warn you that some of the terms are a little unsavoury.

These terms you will not find in the Oxford Dictionary. But you will find them in the Urban Dictionary which is a crowd-sourced dictionary for words and expressions, a great many of them slang. Its motto is “Define Your World.”

Let me explain how it works. The dictionary is open to everyone. People post words and their definitions and language devotees then vote on them according to their perceived accuracy and wit, with thumbs up (approval) and thumbs down (disapproval). The most approved definition ranks number one and is generally considered the most accurate. Each entry shows the date that the definition was posted and how many people approve or disapprove of its accuracy. There are often 30 definitions or more for a word or expression. In many cases the definitions are quite similar. The dictionary began in 1999.

Kavanaugh’s yearbook entry, as you know, lists his accomplishments written in his own hand. It is rich in slang.  Slang was developed by criminals and the working classes as a secret or coded language, incomprehensible to the police and authorities. I am sure you FBI agents have your own slang. Similarly, Kavanaugh’s yearbook slang was meant to be indecipherable to parents and teachers; in fact, all adults, including US senators and, of course, FBI agents.

So, let’s see if we can “define his world” based on his yearbook entries. I’ve picked just three words. I know you have only a week for your investigation. I don’t want to waste your time.

Word number 1: Boofing (verb):  In his year book he writes “Have you boofed yet?” When asked by an elderly senator during his nomination hearing, what boofing meant, Judge Kananaugh replied that it referred to flatulence (farting).  It seems he was asking his classmates if they had ever farted.

The Urban Dictionary has a different definition of boofing. The top-ranked definition posted in 2005 is as follows: The act of inserting drugs, into the anus for a longer effect.

Other definitions include thrusting your genitals into a woman’s face and anal sex. (I warned you the language is a bit unsavoury. My apologies.) But to the judge’s credit, one of 25 definitions does refer to boofing as emitting a smelly fart.

However, FBI agents should note that the most popular definition by far, is the one about putting drugs up your bottom. It has 829 approvals. The definition of farting is the twelfth most popular definition with just 12  approvals and 17 disapprovals.

Here’s the link: Boofing

 Term number 2: Devil’s Triangle (proper noun): Also mentioned in his yearbook entry. It’s the name of a drinking game the judge told the hearing. There are 30 definitions of the Devil’s Triangle in the Urban Dictionary. The most popular definition, and it’s very exact, was posted in 2008:

A threesome with 1 woman and 2 men. It is important to remember that straight men do not make eye contact while in the act. Doing so will question their sexuality.

Once again there are other definitions, such as to insert your penis into three different parts of a woman.

Here’s the link: Devil’s Triangle

Many new definitions have appeared since the judge’s hearing the other day, including the third most popular definition:

“A pretend drinking game made up on 9/27/18 by “Honorable” Brett Kavanaugh when faced with credible allegations of sexual assault put forward by no less than four (so far) women. Devils triangle is a threesome with two men and one woman, not a drinking game like Quarters, as Kavanope would like everyone to believe. Devils triangle can also be defined as a lie told under perjury when a belligerent white male feels cornered when confronted with his own disgusting behavior, most likely with the blessing of a patriarchal and misogynistic system.”

 Term number 3: FFFFFFFourth of July (expression): Another entry in his year book. Judge Kavanaugh shrugged this off during his hearing as the way one of his classmates would purposefully stammer the f-word – ie fffffffuck you! He indicated he and his friends found it quite witty and the expression caught on.

Lawyer Michael Avenatti, who is representing a Kavanaugh accuser who was at school with him at the same time, tweeted a different definition: “Brett Kavanaugh must also be asked about this entry in his yearbook: ‘FFFFFFFourth of July.’ We believe that this stands for: Find them, French them, Feel them, Finger them, F*ck them, Forget them…”

The Urban Dictionary’s top definition of FFFF (posted in 2005) is: “A one-night stand. Used a lot in the 80s. Find’ em. Feel ‘em. Fuck ‘m and Forget ‘em.”

Here is the link: FFFF

FFFFascinating, isn’t it? I hope this is of some help.


Yours sincerely







How can I expand my English vocabulary? (part one)

Expanding your English vocabulary needs discipline. It’s a little like going to a fitness centre. No pain, no gain. It takes time and a bit of cerebral sweat to build a muscly vocabulary. Curiosity also helps.

The challenge is to transform passive knowledge into active language. Yes, that means speaking.

When you find a new word, or a word that you aren’t quite sure about, you need to give it a thorough workout, and get to know it in all its forms.

Learning vocabulary is NOT about learning individual words. You must learn the words that are commonly used together. We call these collocations. For example, we say fast food, not quick food. You make a cup of tea. You don’t do a cup of tea. We speak about a profit margin and a profit and loss statement.

Let’s start with the word worth. The first simple question you should ask is: Does it have a positive or negative meaning? In this case it’s positive. Can you think of another word that has a similar meaning? In this case a synonym is the word value.

Now it’s time to become Sherlock Holmes.  Start by clicking here: https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/. This is a free online dictionary designed for intermediate to advanced learners. It’s English-to-English. Here’s some of the information you will find about worth:

Definition: having a value in money, or a general value (adjective).

Examples: Our house is worth about £300000. How much is this painting worth? It isn’t worth much. If you answer this question correctly, it’s worth five points.

Expressions: to be worth a fortune (a lot of money), worth your/its weight in gold (very useful or valuable) A good car mechanic is worth his weight in gold

Often there are second and third definitions:

For example: to recommend doing something because you think it may be useful or enjoyable. The museum is certainly worth a visit; worth doing something. This idea is well worth considering. It’s worth making an appointment before you go.

You might find the word used in a proverb: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Meaning: it is better to keep something that you already have than to risk losing it by trying to get much more

Worth (noun) – 1. an amount of something that has the value mentioned. 40 dollars’ worth of petrol.  The winner will receive 100 francs’ worth of books.

2. the financial, practical or moral value of somebody/something. Their contribution was of great worth.  The activities help children to develop a sense of their own worth. A good interview enables candidates to prove their worth (show how good they are). She has a personal net worth of $10 million.

When you have a general sense of the word it’s time to investigate its other forms.

Opposites: Worthless (adjective) – having no practical or financial value. The painting is worth nothing. It’s worthless. The meeting was worthless. No-one had anything positive to say.

(of a person) having no good qualities or useful skills. A worthless individual. Constant rejections made him feel worthless.

Unworthy (adjective) (of something or somebody) not having the necessary qualities to deserve something, especially respect. He considered himself unworthy of the prize they had given him.

Worthwhile (adjective) – important, enjoyable, interesting; worth spending time, money or effort on. It was in aid of a worthwhile charity. The smile on her face made it all worthwhile. We all felt we had done something worthwhile for the local community.

Trustworthy (adjective) That you can rely on to be good, honest, sincere. John will help you. Hes trustworthy.

Roadworthy, seaworthy (adjective) In a safe condition. My car didnt pass the inspection. It is unroadworthy.

The best way to increase your vocabulary is to read and read and read more. Don’t skip over words that you don’t know or you’re not really sure about. Stop for a moment. Be curious. Check the word here: https://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com

Of course, it’s difficult to learn every meaning and nuance of a new word. Begin with the most common sense of the word and start using it.

Remember: You need to learn the phrases and words associated with your new word.

For example: How much is it worth?  What is it worth?  I don’t think it is worthwhile planning another meeting.  Jenny is a great organiser in the office. She is worth her weight in gold.  This watch belonged to my grandfather. I thought it might be worth a fortune, but it’s worthless.

Remember: If it is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.

Photo: Upsplash