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German YouTube Produces The Most Widely-Seen Denglish Fail in Human History

As many of you know, Germany's music royalties organization, GEMA, has been locked in conflict with YouTube for years now:

According to a German court in Hamburg, Google's subsidiary YouTube could be held liable for damages when it hosts copyrighted videos without the copyright holder's permission. As a result, music videos for major label artists on YouTube, as well as many videos containing background music, are censored in Germany since the end of March 2009 after the previous agreement had expired and negotiations for a new license agreement were stopped. On 30 June 2015, Google won a partial victory against GEMA in a state court in Munich, which ruled that they could not be held liable for such damages.

This is the English-language version of the message you get when you try to watch a blocked video:


Along with hopeless confusion about until/by ("I'll have that report on your desk until 5, boss!"), mismarked relative clauses are quintessential Denglish errors. Oxford, refresh our memories:

A relative clause is one that’s connected to the main clause of the sentence by a word such as who, whom, which, that, or whose. For example:

It reminded him of the house that he used to live in.

The items, which are believed to be family heirlooms, included a grandfather clock worth around £3,000.

There are two types of relative clause: restrictive (or defining) relative clauses and non-restrictive (or non-defining) relative clauses. The difference between them is as follows:

  • A restrictive relative clause provides essential information about the noun to which it refers. It cannot be left out of the sentence without affecting the meaning. The highlighted section of the first sentence above is a restrictive relative clause. If it was left out, the sentence would not make sense:

It reminded him of the house. [which house?]

  • A non-restrictive relative clause provides information that can be left out without affecting the meaning or structure of the sentence. The highlighted section of the second sentence above is a non-restrictive relative clause. If it was left out, the sentence would still make perfect sense:

The items included a grandfather clock worth around £3,000.

You do not need to put a comma before restrictive relative clauses. On the other hand, non-restrictive relative clauses should be separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma or commas. For example:

A list of contents would have made it easier to steer through the book, which also lacks a map.

Bill, who had fallen asleep on the sofa, suddenly roused himself.

Now we see what's wrong with the GEMA message. The phrase "for which we could not agree on on conditions of use with GEMA" (which itself caused a fight between GEMA and YouTube, since GEMA thought it unfairly made them out to be the villain) is a restrictive relative clause, like "that he used to live in" in the Oxford example. Therefore, it should not be marked off with a comma.

But virtually all relative clauses in German are marked off with commas. So Germans frequently insert too many commas when they write or edit English. Any translator will tell you of epic, 79-email battles with German clients who think they know English and who insist on re-inserting commas. This usually culminates in an email from the translator which says "I'm really going to have to put my foot down about this. The comma must go, and it's not a style issue, it changes the meaning of the sentence. Trust me." but which really means: I AM A FUCKING PROFESSIONAL TRANSLATOR WHOM YOU HIRED TO TRANSLATE THIS FUCKING DOCUMENT BECAUSE I AM A NATIVE FUCKING SPEAKER OF ENGLISH. YOU ARE NOT. I AM RIGHT AND YOU ARE WRONG. IF YOU REINSERT ONE MORE FUCKING COMMA, I WILL FUCKING STRANGLE YOU.

The meaning of the GEMA warning is obviously incomplete without the clause about the GEMA conditions. Without that clause, the warning simply says you can't see the video "because it could contain music". The marking of the clause with commas tells an English speaker that the phrase "for which we could not agree on conditions of use with GEMA" is a non-restrictive clause, which would mean that it applies to all music in general: i.e., that GEMA and YouTube sat down to negotiate an agreement about all music ever created and failed to do so. With the comma removed, the sentence now correctly states that you're seeing the warning because GEMA and YouTube could not agree on terms for the music in this specific video.

It seems incredible, but YouTube obviously did not have this warning, which has probably been seen literally billions of times, checked by a native English speaker. I can just imagine some pompous, gel-haired German YouTube executive insisting it was correct, and zis konversation iss over!