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LANGUAGE PAGES: Welcome to the language pages!

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Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 11/2018 vom 24.10.2018

Over the next more than a dozen pages, we give you the opportunity to practise grammar and vocabulary in an up-to-date context. Why not start off with our new column below that takes a lighthearted look at English in popular culture.

ENGLISH EXPLAINED: Houston, we have a problem

Hollywood loves true stories, but isn’t shy about tweaking them. Our columnist wonders where the problem is… was… has been.


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In the summer of 1995, two of my friends and I went to see Apollo 13, a ...

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... dramatization of the Apollo 13 space mission and a popular movie at the time. For some reason, the three of us were the only people in the theater and, instead of paying attention to the film, we decided to fool around. We chased each other around the seats, played hide-and-seek, and even went behind the screen.

Only years later did I realize what a great movie Apollo 13 was. It shows the power of the human spirit and the extent of human ingenuity. And I will never forget that one famous line: “Houston, we have a problem.” It is uttered moments after one of the spaceship’s oxygen tanks explodes, and it is probably one of the most memorable lines in Hollywood history. However, “Houston, we have a problem” was not the line that was said in real life, at least not exactly.

How do I know this? Well, recently, I downl oaded an audio program called “The Complete Greatest Speeches and Moments Ever,” which gave me the chance to hear the real-life distress call that Apollo 13 made to ground control in Houston right after the oxygen tank exploded. As it turns out, the astronaut who made the transmission, Jack Swigert, didn’t say, “Houston, we have a problem.” What he actually said was, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” So why did Hollywood change the line? The simple answer was to make it sound more urgent.

You see, Swigert used the present perfect, which, among other things, is used to describe actions that happened in the immediate past and that have an impact on the current moment. When he told the NASA Mission Control Center, “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” he meant precisely: “Houston, a problem happened a few moments before we got on the radio with you. This problem is now affecting us.”

Swigert presents the situation in a way that is typical of people who are working in a high-pressure environment and are specially trained to manage difficult (in this case, potentially life-threatening) situations. There is certainly a sense that something needs to be done, but he is calming himself, his crew, and ground control, and giving the impression that things are kind of under control. Hollywood, however, just wants suspense: We have a problem! Now! Deal with it!

Personally, I think the real-life line is better, simply because it conveys more information. Hollywood, of course, is interested only in dramatic effect. And it worked. My friends and I did fool around during the movie, but only further on in the plot. When that explosion happened and Swigert spoke his famous line, we were sitting firmly in our seats.

CHAD SMITH Originally from New York City, Chad Smith is a freelance journalist and English teacher who now lives in Hamburg.

Fotos: privat, urfinguss, Nerthuz, goktugg/iStock.com