What this blog is for and about

I also offer personally-tailored, individualized English conversation practice (including etiquette) and coaching in writing techniques. Finally, I edit texts such as magazines, business proposals, memorandums, emails so they are presented in English which does not embarrass you or your organization. For further details, please mail me at: language.etiquette@gmail.com

Remember: all pictures can be expanded to full page size by clicking on them.


15 October 2012

Brief boobs #9: Felix Baumgartner “goes through” the sound barrier, and reminds me of the importance of word-order in English

Reading today about Felix Baumgartner’s amazing free-fall skydiving record and that fact that he “went through” the sound barrier doing so, reminded me of a strange school-master I once had. He was a young, charming, neatly-dressed, mannerly and wealthy but curiously unmarried German immigrant from South-West Africa called Peter Baumgartner. Though he taught us history, his English was none too good, and I am ashamed to say his pupils mocked him unmercifully for it. His pronunciation could be suspect too. I remember wondering for many minutes what “Peppls in a drort” meant. It was, in fact: “People in a drought.”
     In connection with the Baumgartners and their love of going through things, I well remember the occasion when he made one of the classic mistakes in English of not associating a subordinate clause clearly enough with the noun he wished it to qualify. (In Russian this is hard to do as case endings signify what applies to what. In English it is position in the sentence that is usually crucial.)
     One day, he took up his stick of chalk and wrote on the blackboard a brief chronology of something I can no longer remember. Naturally, while he had his back to us, chaos broke out in the room. When he had finished writing, he turned to face the class and in his usual pleading, reasonable way asked us to settle down. Once we had done so, he pointed to what he had written and said more confidently, “Now, boys! Votch ze board vile I go through it.”
     Chaos again, this time in the form of hysterical laughter. Herr Baumgartner looked round the room, bewildered in his polite German way by the appalling manners of fifteen scions of the local Anglo-Saxon plutocracy. Such can be the price of disrespect for the rules about word-order in English!


  1. What is the correct way of saying what he really wanted to say?

  2. There are many ways, but one of the simplest would be to say: "Watch the board while I go through the chronology."

  3. Dear Ian,

    Could you please clarify if the phrase "went throungh the sound barrier" is correct or not ? Or it is better to say "to break the sound barrier" or simply "exceed sound speed". Whait is the best way for a native speaker ?

    Thanks in advance,

  4. Dear Vadim,

    Both "went through" and "break" are correct verbs in connection with the sound barrier. You can also say to "exceed the speed of sound" (not "sound speed").

    Of course, Peter Baumgartner would have had to have "broken" the blackboard in order to have "gone through" it (as a burglar would with a window pane). But since the blackboard in question was mounted on a very solid brick wall, I doubt if he would have survived the attempt. It would have been his head which would have been broken.

    Best wishes,


    1. Thank You wery much.

      I've understood the example with your teacher but was not sure that the usage of "sound barrier" was correct.

      It is very interesting following you. Actually it is difficult to find a mistake like those you mention in your articles. When we read in foreign language - the main efforts are put on understanding the main idea. We put less attention on details if a topic is clear at all. And your articles help me to become more confident in English.

      Thanks again,

  5. Ian,
    To add to your tales of Mr. Baumgartner's woes, we had a teacher who made similar faux pas. His two favorite sayings when someone spoke in his lesson were:
    "Every time I open my mouth some fool puts his foot in it" and
    "Every time I open my mouth some idiot speaks."
    It is tempting to say that he was right on both occasions, but that would be too unkind. Although it wasn't that far from the truth.........