Commanding English


So you’re the principal of an English-language high school in Stockholm, Sweden. And you decide to put some serious money into an advertising campaign in the city’s subway. Now, you want to express what we in Sweden call att behärska engelska, “learning English really well”.

And that’s when the idea hits you: “I’m gonna say it in home-made mistranslated Swenglish! That’ll give everybody a really good impression of my school, and they’ll send their kids here in frickin’ droves!”

“Commanding English — Those Who Dare, Win.”


  1. #1 Pär
    November 20, 2008

    Doesn’t seem to be too unusual a mistake. Here, here, and here, for instance.

  2. #2 Martin R
    November 20, 2008

    I take it you mean “Dose’nt seem too be an allfor unusual misstake”.

  3. #3 kevin
    November 20, 2008

    Um, I don’t get it. You don’t like the “commanding english” part? Odd phrase, but no worse than plenty of corporate-speak. Is there poor spelling in there? The photo is so blurry I can’t make out a thing. And I don’t speak Swedish, unfortunately.

  4. #4 Martin R
    November 20, 2008

    They’re trying to say “learning English really well” or “gaining a good command of English”. Their phrase “commanding English” actually means either “giving orders to the English language” or “a style of English suited to the giving of orders”.

  5. #5 kevin
    November 20, 2008

    Martin: I’m sorry. Is that like how “commanding lead” means “giving orders to a lead” or “a style of lead suited to the giving of orders”?

    I checked 3 random online dictionaries and, interestingly, found lots of variation. But none of them said anything about giving orders.

  6. #6 Martin R
    November 20, 2008

    As far as I can tell, “a commanding lead” is an idiomatic expression whose parts can’t be taken apart and used any which way. Here, “commanding” is an adjective. Judging from context, the ad copy I quoted means “commanding English” as a gerund, that is “to command English”. And you can’t really. You can only have a strong or weak command of it.

  7. #7 llewelly
    November 20, 2008

    Commanding English — Those Who Dare, Win.

    He probably copied that line from an American ad.

  8. #8 Christina
    November 20, 2008

    Naw, it’s from the Swedish Police Union, SPF, whose slogan was “Vill, vågar, vinner” (He who wants to /and/ dares to, wins) when they wanted a big raise back in the 80’s…LOL. Martin just reminded me of a little known golden rule for non-Swedes: Never get in a pissing match over grammar with a Swedish archaeologist. To be come one, one first has to learn to dismantle several languages into miniscule bits and pieces, and then put them back together again. I think the idea is that if we can disassemble and then re-assemble broken languages, surely we can do the same to broken pottery and skeletons…

  9. #9 JuliaL
    November 20, 2008

    Their phrase “commanding English” actually means either “giving orders to the English language” or “a style of English suited to the giving of orders”.

    That’s one meaning of “command,” yes, the older, more widespread meaning.

    Another meaning of “command” is found in sentences like “He has an excellant command of English.” The phrase “commanding English” has come to mean just what you indicate is intended here: “learning English” to the point of mastery/command.

    It’s the same grammatical structure as “Learning English — Those who dare, win.” So “Commanding English — Those who dare, win” makes good sense; it means that those who dare to carry on the learning process to the point of essential completion will be the ones who win.

    It’s true that the phrase “commanding a language” is now used mostly in educational contexts, but in your example it is, after all, a school being advertised. It’s an expanded use/meaning of “commanding,” not a wrong one.

  10. #10 Martin R
    November 21, 2008

    Highly uncommon recent development, then. The expression “commanding English” has only 3100 Google hits including sites written by people who do not actually have any reasonable command of English.

  11. #11 Akhôrahil
    November 21, 2008

    “Who dares wins” is, of course, the motto of the SAS.

    British SAS, not Scandinavian.

  12. #12 MartinC
    November 21, 2008

    I’m a native English speaker living here in Stockholm and the only thing that jumps out at me from this ad is the fact that it’s using a somewhat awkward version of the British SAS motto. The “Commanding English” part isn’t a problem.

  13. #13 Martin R
    November 21, 2008

    This just proves that your years in Sweden have eroded your English to such an extent that you now speak Swenglish. (-;

  14. #14 chris y
    November 21, 2008

    “Acquire a command of English”, would however be perfectly idiomatic. What grates is that they’re grasping for the correct phrase and getting it wrong.

  15. #15 MartinC
    November 21, 2008

    “This just proves that your years in Sweden have eroded your English to such an extent that you now speak Swenglish. (-;”
    It’s more likely my experience of mangled Japanese English makes everything else rather mild in comparison.

  16. #16 Martin R
    November 21, 2008

    Sounds sexy. Too bad my Chinese wife speaks perfect English. (-;

  17. #17 MartinC
    November 21, 2008

    My wife’s English is fine (apart from the occasional mixing up of L’s and R’s). I was referring to the use of English phrases in Japanese advertising.
    There’s a few examples detailed here…

  18. #18 Gregory Earl
    November 21, 2008

    As Pär points out in the very first comment to this thread, the phrase “Commanding English” is used by American universities — in exactly the same sense as in this Swedish ad, and not in the crazily implausible sense that the blog author suggests. “Giving orders to the English language” and “a style of English suited to the giving of orders” — anyone who thinks that those are obvious paraphrases of “Commanding English” needs to work on their English.

  19. #19 Thinker
    November 21, 2008

    While I agree that the “Commanding English” part is a bit awkward, I wouldn’t call it wrong. For example, the University of Minnesota have a program to help non-native speakers of English master the language at an academic level, and it is called exactly that: “Commanding English”.

    Of course, you could make that the case that since they’re from Minnesota, they’re Swedish at some level as well…

  20. #20 David Marjanovi?
    November 21, 2008

    Of course, you could make that the case that since they’re from Minnesota, they’re Swedish at some level as well…

    Such phenomena exist in certain places in the USA, in any case. There are places where they say “can you go with” instead of “can you come with me” — that’s a literal translation from German.

    BTW, this is another case where English is in splendid isolation from the rest of Europe. In German, we use beherrschen with languages, too.

  21. #21 Joshua Zelinsky
    November 21, 2008

    Native to the North-East of the United States here. If I saw this add on a bus here in Boston I would not have thought anything of it. The idiom is not what I would use but not grammatically or really idiomatically bad.

  22. #22 Blake Stacey
    November 21, 2008

    If I saw this on a bus here in Boston, I would have been momentarily puzzled. We’ve got a fair number of learn-a-language advertisements (“Instant Swahili!” and so forth), so I’d probably at least entertain the notion that it was an Engrish-style joke on the genre.

    (I’m not a native to this country: I grew up in Alabama and was raised by British TV.)

  23. #23 chancelikely
    November 21, 2008

    As a native speaker of American English, I can tell you that it certainly sounds no weirder than the sometimes tortured English used in seminar titles and advertising slogans.

    If I saw that on a bus in Detroit, I wouldn’t think “Those crazy foreigners”, I would think “Those guys should have found a better advertising firm”.

  24. #24 blf
    November 22, 2008

    It’s not a language school at all. It’s a front. It’s really a recruitment ad for the crack SNS (Special Norse Services) suicide bombing team. So the real question is, who are they planning on blowing up next? Hyper-secret evidence suggests it’s either the Easter Bunny or a certain Very Big Squid in New Zealand, both of which are known to speak English.


  25. #25 DianaGainer
    November 26, 2008

    As a certified teacher of English to speakers of other languages, I give that phrase a C-. It’s barely passing — now that I know what it means. If it hadn’t been explained, I wouldn’t have understood it. That’s why it’s a C MINUS. So the person who thunk up the phrase didn’t command his English very well. And I’d rephrase it: “Take command of English: He who dares, wins!” When you pluralize it, you make it non-sexist, but you take all the drive out too, unfortunately. And if you do that, the daring falls off. Then nobody wins anything but a booby prize. At least, that’s the way it works in my class.

  26. #26 Gregory Earl
    November 27, 2008

    DianaGainer, give that C- to the many American universitites who use this phrase. The fact that this phrase is routinely used by English native speakers has been pointed out repeatedly in the comment thread. If your EFL teaching skills match your reading skills, I pity your students.

  27. #27 Kaleberg
    November 29, 2008

    Commanding as an adjective means powerful, impelling or hard to resist as in “He gave a commanding performance.” or “She has a commanding presence.” It clearly comes from the meaning of command involving giving orders but emphasizes the target’s pull, rather than their ability to push.

    “Commanding English” is a play on words, since it can have a number of meanings. The point of the ad is that having a commanding command of English can be quite commanding.

  28. #28 Kaleberg
    November 29, 2008

    Change that “their ability to push” to “the ability to push”. It’s late. My English has went.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.