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Are these three sentences interchangeable? I know that I can say "English and German have many words in common", but what about these sentences?

1) "There are many common words in English and German."

2) "English and German have many common words."

3) "There are many common words between English and German."

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5 Answers 5

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"There are many common words in English and German."
"English and German have many common words."

This is how I would interpret both of those sentences:

  • English has many common words, such as the, is, at, have, I, go, but, and and.
  • German has many common words, too, such as die, der, und, ich, habe and das.

That interpretation is not the same as:

"English and German have many words in common"

which I would assume refer to words such as gold, hammer, hand, sandwich, vitamin, and zebra.

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  • Thanks. But I have seen native speakers use these structures instead of the structure in "English and German have many words in common", haven't you? May 16, 2018 at 21:20
  • @DereMemo - Lots of structures get used by native speakers. The important question is not, "Are these structures used?" but, "How are such structures interpreted?" and, "What do these structures mean?"
    – J.R.
    May 16, 2018 at 21:41
  • I don't feel like the first two are interpreted that way. Of course, ipsis litteris, such understanding is possible considering the ambiguity going on in those; but dialogues don't elapse literally, rather lots of assumptions are made in order to make communication more dynamic and avoid needless questions. Everybody knows that languages have common words (used frequently), it is obvious that English uses the, is, at a lot; same for German with die, der, aus; therefore, the first two sentences will also be intepreted as the third.
    – user72770
    May 16, 2018 at 23:12
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    +1. The contrast could also be expressed as the difference between There are many common words in English and German and there are many words common to English and German.
    – choster
    May 17, 2018 at 0:10
  • +1 that's how exactly I'd understand! :) Good examples. Common words are different than 'in common.'
    – Maulik V
    May 17, 2018 at 1:40
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The phrase "in English and German" is an adverbial phrase that modifies the adjective "common", so it needs to be next to "common". Putting it next to "words" makes it modify "words", which is not the meaning intended. Phrasing that would have the same meaning include "There are many words common to English and German" and "English and German have many words in common."

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To add on to J.R.'s answer: The problem here is, I think, the juxtaposition of "common" and "words". The most frequent and obvious interpretation of this pairing is ordinary words, not shared words.

Compare this with something like:

This anatomical structure has a common functionality between the two species, but the underlying physiological mechanism is very different.

Here the pairing of "common" and "function" is more likely to be interpreted as similar function.

This is probably why you've seen native speakers use the word "common" to mean "in common", but in these cases you have to be careful with your exact wording in order to avoid confusion.

Both English and German share a common vocabulary, although differences in pronunciation and conjugation sometimes make this difficult to hear in ordinary speech.

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  • Is this sentence correct: "We have common taste in music."? May 17, 2018 at 10:57
  • Yes, or "we have a common taste in music." or "we have common tastes in music". You can say someone has common tastes as an insult, but since that's kind an old-fashioned upper-class sneer (rare these days, outside of period fiction), and unlikely when speaking about yourself, most people will assume you mean shared not plebeian.
    – Andrew
    May 17, 2018 at 14:56
  • Thanks. But why can I say these while I can't say the sentences in my first post? To me, it looks like there is no difference between them. May 17, 2018 at 15:41
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    @DereMemo Again, with words that have multiple meanings like "common", the expected meaning can vary with the word it modifies. Without additional context, "common words" means ordinary words, not shared words; however "common tastes" means shared tastes. We're getting into the subtle nuances of English, which -- just like any other language -- can get pretty deep. It's less about rules as much as how the words are used.
    – Andrew
    May 17, 2018 at 16:57
  • @DereMemo Take as a similar example the adjective hot. If I say "a hot stove" you know I mean high temperature, but if I say "a hot pepper" you know I mean spicy. To avoid confusion, sometimes you have to choose words carefully, e.g. a heated pepper.
    – Andrew
    May 17, 2018 at 17:02
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“Common” in English has two different meanings: “Ordinary” or “lowly”, and “shared”. Sentences where the intended meaning is not obvious can be valid English, but usually you want a sentence that will be understood correctly by everyone. “Common between” quite clearly means “shared”. And “in common” means shared as well.

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many common words is synonymous with words in common, but the latter is clearer, since common words could mean words in frequent use.

There are many common words between... is not idiomatic.

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  • And "many common words" could mean many words that are common in the sense of plain or ordinary, not shared.
    – Robusto
    May 16, 2018 at 20:48
  • Thanks. Can't we use "between"? I found sentences which were written by native English speakers on the internet. This is one of them: "It all really depends on the common tastes between me and the other person!". So is that sentence wrong? If the sentence "There are many common words between..." is wrong, that should be wrong too. May 16, 2018 at 20:54
  • @DereMemo: Speech is like running. Every physically normal person can run, but not everyone has good form when they do so. They get to where they're going, that's all. May 16, 2018 at 20:56
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    But you said that it was not idiomatic. Being idiomatic or not has to do with usage. So if it is used, it is not non-idiomatic then, is it? May 16, 2018 at 21:09
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    @DereMemo: cite them. And the idiomatic has everything to do with usage. May 16, 2018 at 22:03

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