A common mistake

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Michael Rank sent in this notice banning the picking of mushrooms at Chobham Common, Surrey, said to be the largest nature reserve in the southeast of England:

The English notice is translated into Polish, Chinese, Italian, and French.  I suppose their choice of languages was directed at speakers of those languages whom they thought were most likely to pick the wild mushrooms in this Nature Reserve.

I won't go through each of the four translations to determine their accuracy, and I won't even pick holes in the Chinese, which has several, but will focus on one that is particularly intriguing.  Namely, the Chinese translates "common" as gòngtóngxìng 共同性, meaning something like "commonality" or "shared nature" –- an abstract noun.  Because "common" is preceded by a preposition and a definite article, it has to be a noun, not an adjective, which is most often the case in English.  The preposition is "on", which calls for a locative noun, but — so far as I know — there is no locative noun meaning "common" in Chinese.  The translator, wanting to stick with the idea of "common" in Chinese, kept the usual adjectival term gòngtóng 共同 ("common") and turned it into an abstract noun by adding the suffix -xìng 性, which is comparable to -ity and -ness in English.

The use of "common" as a noun to mean "A tract of land, usually in a centrally located spot, belonging to or used by a community as a whole: a band concert on the village common" (AHD) is rare in American English.  I can think of "Boston Common" and several other New England commons in this sense, but outside of New England my impression is that most Americans would not be aware of this usage.  I suspect that the same situation obtains for most other world Englishes, including Chinese English.  This is not a usage that would be taught in typical English classes in China, and I doubt that there is a fixed translation for "common" in the sense of "tract of land… belonging to or used by a community as a whole".  Nor would this usage be represented in many medium-sized or smaller dictionaries.

I'm not sure how idiomatic the Polish ("w sprawie wspólnego") and Italian ("in comune") translations are either, but note that the French version gets around the problem by not translating "on the common" at all (it's not essential, and the Chinese translation could have done the same).


  1. Agnieszka said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 1:41 am

    The Polish is completely non-idiomatic for "the common" and contains many other mistakes. I can't think of what Polish phrase would be a reasonable translation here. The verb they used for "to gather" is non-idiomatic and incorrectly inflected (and is the verb that google translate gives you). Then the second sentence doesn't agree in number with the first. These are not esoteric mistakes and make me think that they didn't have a native speaker read the sign.

  2. cliff arroyo said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 2:30 am

    "I'm not sure how idiomatic the Polish ("w sprawie wspólnego") "

    It isn't and doesn't make sense, literally might be "about [that person or thing] in common"

    I'm not a native speaker but I think the most idiomatic in Polish would be something like

    "Zakaz zbierania grzybow na terenie parku"

    Prohibition of collecting mushrooms on the area of the park.

    Polish people tend to not buffer prohibitions with polite expressions. If they did it might be "Prosimy nie zbierać " -"We request to not collect"

    Proszę is literally "I request" though often used more impersonally.

  3. cliff arroyo said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 2:32 am

    oops "Prosimy nie zbierać" should be "Prosimy o nie zbieranie"

  4. Alyssa said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 2:40 am

    I think most Americans would be aware of this meaning of the word, though it's certainly rare. I grew up on the west coast (where commons are completely non-existent) but I learned it well enough to know that it's "commons" and not "common" in my dialect (or at least that the two are interchangeable).

    In any case, the obvious thing for the translator to do is to use their language's word for "park", since a commons is a type of park.

  5. Biscia said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 3:17 am

    The Italian sounds like they're asking you not to pick mushrooms in the town hall.

  6. A. said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 3:23 am

    In Italian "funghi in comune" would mean "shared mushrooms" (or "mushrooms in the town hall").

  7. AntC said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 3:26 am

    "Tragedy of the Commons" is a well-known economic theory — or rather, myth.

    It was an American Garrett Hardin who popularised the term last century.

    How is that term translated?

  8. Keith said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 4:17 am

    The Polish looks like it was naively copied from the EURLEX database.
    Directive 2006/112/EC on the common system of value added tax
    dyrektywy 2006/112/WE w sprawie wspólnego systemu podatku od wartości dodanej
    Leo tells me that the Italian translation of the German word Allmende would be bene comune

  9. Spectator said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 4:39 am

    The french translation :
    "Merci de ne pas cueuillir les champignons"
    has a rather common spelling mistake in it : it's "cueillir".
    It would feel a bit off to specify where you can't pick the mushrooms in french. The most usual way to phrase this interdiction is :
    "Cueillette des champignons interdite"
    (Picking of the mushrooms forbidden)

    The italian "comune" is the right word (and it comes from the same latin word that gave its sense to the english "common" we have here), but it should be "nella comune".

  10. unekdoud said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 5:22 am

    On the bright side, none of these translations involve another sense of the word, which I would expect to be more common.

  11. Mr Punch said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 6:03 am

    In New England, a "common" is a town green – a park in the center of town formerly open to grazing. "Commons," in its most common usage, is a general dining area in (usually) an educational institution.

  12. DMT said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 6:19 am

    No comments on the singular verb following "fungi"? Did this become acceptable at some point while I wasn't paying attention?

  13. DMT said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 6:20 am

    ("…fungi is an important food source…")

  14. tk said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 7:00 am

    AntC wrote "'Tragedy of the Commons' is a well-known economic theory — or rather, myth.' "

    Myth, as used by Bronislaw Malinowski, is a “charter for behavior,” a justification for action. As such, the “truth value” of the Myth is irrelevant, it is the ensuing action that is of importance. In this case–please don't (over-)pick the 'shrooms — its use as analytic metaphor would be justified.

  15. ajay said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 9:46 am

    "Commons," in its most common usage, is a general dining area in (usually) an educational institution.

    Interesting – I've never come across this usage before except in the phrase "on short commons" meaning "limited food supplies". I think the BrE equivalent would be "Hall" or just something generic like "canteen".

  16. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 10:19 am

    I will agree that the relevant sense of "common" is very much a regionalism in the US (not even covering all of New England, e.g. New Haven, founded barely a decade after Boston, has a "Green" rather than a "Common"). I don't have a good handle on what percentage of AmEng speakers would recognize the BrEng usage, the same way an American might have a passive understanding that "lorry = truck" or "bonnet/boot = hood/trunk, in the context of an automobile." But certainly some would. I learned lots of BrEng lexemes from reading books by British authors and/or with British settings, and may have first become aware of the relevant sense of "common" as a fairly young child reading the Wombles stories, since the Wombles live underneath Wimbledon Common. That said, if the "common" here with the no-mushroom-picking sign is really a large tract of land rural area rather than situated in the middle of a town/village with buildings all around it, it's not within my core understanding of that sense of the word.

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 10:22 am

    Separately, since the "academic" register of AmEng is so heavily Anglophilia-driven, I would have assumed "commons" for dining hall got its start in the US as an affected Oxbridgism. But that's an assumption I've never investigated empirically, so I could well be wrong.

  18. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 10:49 am

    But going back to the puzzle presented … you would think the risk in a Chinese (or Polish etc) translation commissioned by a government agency in an Anglophone country for signage purposes would be insufficient knowledge of the relevant target language, not insufficient knowledge of the relevant variety/register of English used for the signage. So that a native Sinophone whose ESL education had occurred outside the UK might not know the relevant sense of "common" seems somewhat less likely than a translation produced by a UK native perfectly familiar with the relevant sense of "common" but whose school-learned L2 Mandarin was insufficient to realize that the Mandarin text produced was puzzling in Mandarin, doesn't it?

  19. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 10:51 am

    Ajay: In my limited experience, "Commons" is used mostly in the names of eating halls at certain colleges. At a college that didn't name the cafeterias that way, I don't think most people would use the word.

  20. Anthony said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 10:54 am

    Hutchinson Commons on the University of Chicago campus closely mimics Oxford.


  21. empty said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 11:00 am

    The town where I live (in Massachusetts) has a Common Street, as does the neighboring town. These streets line up end to end, though imperfectly, at the town line. Each of them has its other end at or near a town center, but in neither case at a plot of land currently called a Common. I always wonder whether one of the streets is named after the other.

  22. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 11:25 am

    'Commons' for food has Oxbridge roots, but as I understand it doesn't designate the place (that's 'Hall') but the food that is served. The term is no longer in regular use, though a student who does not have a scholarship can still be called a commoner; this does not mean, as one might think 'an ordinary person', but one who lives on commons.

  23. Peter Taylor said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 2:10 pm

    In evidence supporting Andrew (not the same one)'s information about commons, The Gentleman's Magazine of 1795 contains a letter which begins (p107):

    Your Cantab. oracle, p. 22, is somewhat out as to sizars; in St. John's college, the most numerous of any in Britain, there are indeed serving sizars; but, in general, they are so called because they have no commons; each buys his dinner separately of the cooks according to the bill of fare provided for such sale by those cooks.

    For those who, as I was, are puzzled by this etymological explanation of sizars, the letter to which this one responds notes that

    In general, a size is a small plateful of any eatable: and, at dinner, to size is to order for yourself any little luxury that may chance to tempt you, in addition to the general fare, for which you are expected to pay the cook at the end of term.

  24. rdb said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 6:23 pm

    As far as I remember, at least at Yale, "commons" is only used to refer to a dining hall in the set phrase "Freshman Commons", a large dining hall where all freshmen may go as an alternative to the dining hall in their assigned college. Apart from that, they're all called plain old dining halls.

  25. Martha said,

    July 25, 2016 @ 8:24 pm

    The only "commons" I've encountered was the one in my high school (in the PNW), which was a place where you could hang out before/after school, or during lunch. Although you were allowed to eat lunch there, it was definitely not a cafeteria (we had an actual cafeteria).

    So I have always had the same intuition as Alyssa, that a "commons" is the same as a "common," at least in the sense of a park/shared space.

  26. Michael Rank said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 12:20 pm

    J.W. Brewer – Chobham Common is indeed a large tract of land in a rural area, not situated in the middle of a town/village with buildings all around it, and that’s not unusual for a British common.
    And the word “commons” for dining hall is unknown in UK even though some Americans may think it’s frightfully British.

  27. Michael Rank said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 4:44 pm

    J.W. Brewer – I also meant to say that in Br Eng an area of grass in the middle of a village is a “(village) green”. Unlike a common it will almost certainly be mowed (or mown – Br Eng⁈) and probably also include some flower beds. A green is (much) smaller than a common.
    Also, a Google search suggests that a frequent use of 共同性 is in the expression 共同性斜视, strabismus, cross-eye, or in Br Eng “squint.” I’m not clear how 共同性 comes into it.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 26, 2016 @ 5:25 pm

    I expect it varies. In London these days Wimbledon Common is over a thousand acres, but Stoke Newington Common is less than six acres. In New England, New Haven Green (16 acres) is meaningfully smaller than Boston Common (50 acres), but I'm not sure that size is the primary historical reason for the difference in naming. I guess in England a "green" was either not historically used as a "common" (in the specific sense of anyone living nearby being welcome to let their livestock graze there rather than being confined to privately-owned pasturage) or at least not primarily noted for that use?

  29. Jim Jimson said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 7:48 am

    Ithaca, New York's car-free downtown area is referred to as the Commons, so some New Yorkers and Cornellians would have that as a reference point.


  30. Ted said,

    July 29, 2016 @ 3:06 pm

    Note that, while the Kinks are the village green preservation society, the photographs were taken in Hampstead Heath (which is not a village green but is apparently a common, although I've never heard it referred to as such).

  31. January First-of-May said,

    July 30, 2016 @ 11:25 am

    Incidentally, is it common (no pun intended) to say "fungi" on this sort of notices? I'd expect "mushrooms" to be more vernacular.
    Also, instead of "fungi is" in the second sentence, I'd expect, if not "mushrooms are", then at least "fungi are".

    I won't be surprised if whoever made the English version of this sign was not a native speaker of English either.

    @Keith – stuff like that is what Google Translate will probably be working with, so yes, the source you cited is indeed a likely origin for the (mis)translation; or for all I know it could be the regular (perhaps slightly more bureaucratic) Polish for "on the common" meaning "about the usual" (it doesn't sound like that rare of a construction, so it could appear elsewhere as well).

  32. Michael Rank said,

    July 30, 2016 @ 11:52 am

    “Fungi” is fine in Br Eng when it refers to a wide range of species rather than only the field mushroom Agaricus campestris.

  33. Barry said,

    August 1, 2016 @ 7:01 pm

    I was a commoner at Oxford (matriculated in 1981) and, never heard "commons" used to mean "Hall", never realised the derivation of commoner (as supplied by Andrew (not the same one)), but can believe it.

  34. Nicki said,

    August 4, 2016 @ 7:45 am

    Could common be better translated into Chinese as 公地?

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