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False Friends: 8 Common Business English Mistakes

Category: Business English Skills, Language Training, Vocabulary | 2017-05-04

Anyone who has tried to learn a language has had that feeling you get when know you have said something wrong. The problem is, it sounded so right to you! You guessed it, false friends, the nemesis of language learners everywhere.

In Business English, there are several important words that are easily mistaken by German learners. Here, we are going to look at 8 examples of commonly mistaken false friends in a business context and what the correct form is.

Let’s get started!

8 False Friends in Business English

1. Chef

If you are going to start anywhere, you might as well start at the top! One of the most common mistakes I hear in my Business English lessons is the word Chef. To a lot of students, they are confidently referring to their boss. Unfortunately, they have mistakenly referred to the head of a professional kitchen. So, unless you work in the backend of a restaurant, the correct word to use is “Boss”. False Friends, MacPherson Language Institute

2. Direktion

Staying at the top for number two, “direction” is not the management board of a company. Rather it is “the line along which anything lies, faces, moves, etc.” ( Other suitable translations are head office, management, C-level or executive board.

3. Unternehmer

This one always manages to bring a smile to my face. Of course, the direct translation of unter-nehmer is under-taker. An undertaker is the person responsible for preparing bodies for funerals and burial. Acceptable choices to use would be business owner or entrepreneur, which actually comes from the French word “entreprendre”, meaning to undertake. Nobody ever said English made sense! False Friends, MacPherson Language Institute

4. Intern

This one can really mess up the intended meaning of a sentence. Intern in German is an adjective, whereas in English it is a noun or verb. The former means in-house, or internal and the latter is a person (usually a student) in a practical training course at a company. The verb form is the action of taking this training course.

5. Rentabel

While we can rent cars, flats and movies, making them rentable, it may make more sense to buy them. The word that students often want here is profitable, or sometimes lucrative. Another translation of the word is viable, meaning having a reasonable chance of succeeding. A business venture can be viable, profitable or lucrative, but not rentable.

False Friends, MacPherson Language Institute


6. Eventuell

Sooner or later, most students make the common mistake of using eventuell instead of possible. However, with practice (and a good language teacher) it is possible for them to smoothly make their way through the immense English lexicon correctly!

7. Aktuell

The actual word that should be used here is current – see what I did there? 😉 Other phrases we can use are presently, at the moment, or nowadays. As a rule, we use actual(ly) to emphasize that something is a fact or real. The current temperature at the South Pole is actually -52 C.

8. Mappe

Telling a colleague that you are going to put their file in the map is sure to get a look or two. You would be better off to put it into a folder. Google can help you access a lot of information but you might want to look in the filing cabinet first.

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In-House Lessons!

Putting it All Together

These words may not seem important when we look at them on their own. But thrown together, they can drastically change the clarity and meaning of our message. For example:

One of the best things about being an entrepreneur is that I am my own boss. Currently, as the only member of the management board, it is possible to remain profitable by doing marketing and sales in-house. Another perk is that I always know which folder to look in when I need something!

One of the best things about being an undertaker is that I am my own chef. Actually, as the only member of the direction, it is eventual to remain rentable by doing marketing and sales intern. Another perk is that I always know which map to look in when I need something!

I have never said that English is easy, but it certainly can be fun to learn with a few good laughs along the way! Keep smiling and find the humour in your mistakes and you will be much more successful at learning English.


What false friends have given you a good laugh? Leave a comment below and let me know what ones I have missed. And don’t forget to sign up for the monthly newsletter for more tips, articles and exclusive deals.



6 thoughts on "False Friends: 8 Common Business English Mistakes"

  1. Dave Waters says:

    Duplicado – more than once I have seen Spanish HR staff happily translate this as duplicitous when describing a member of staff to an English speaking head office. What they mean is that the person was doing the same job as someone else and are now in need of redeployment/a job.

    ‘Edwardo was duplicitous in the accounts department and is now looking for another position…….’

    1. Ouch! But better than explaining to the next employer you were laid off because you were duplicitous!

      1. Dave Waters says:

        I doubt anyone with an HR reference that says they are/were duplicitous gets a chance to explain anything – there is unlikely to be a next employer.

        One of the nicest things about working with businesses people is the possibility that what you do will have a very large impact on a person’s life. The first time I came across ‘duplicitous’ I was working with a UK based pharma multinational, by chance my student and I were discussing rationalisation of the multiple finance functions and my student referred to a senior accountant as ‘duplicitous’. I believe I saved that senior accountant’s career that day. I cannot remember his name, he has never met me, it still makes me smile.

        1. Ah, Business English teachers…the unsung heroes of the global market! When will we ever get our own holiday?

  2. says:

    For example, a common error Spanish speakers make is to use the English word sensible when they actually mean sensitive.

    1. This is also a common mistake in Germany. I’ll be sure to include it in my next list of False Friends!

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