Business English Tip of the Week

business-english-tipsEvery week we publish a business English tip concerning different aspects of business English. Topic areas include writing, speaking, listening, grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, exams as well as general English. To receive 'Business English Tip of the Week' by email, just subscribe to our newsletter. You can choose whether to receive the newsletter weekly or monthly. Simply click on the link on the right to subscribe. It's free!

Opening a Business Meeting

28 May 2017

Small Talk

Whether you are holding the meeting or attending the meeting, it is polite to make small talk while you wait for the meeting to start. You should discuss things unrelated to the meeting, such as weather, family, or weekend plans. Here's a short sample dialogue:

Jane:

Hi Jack. How are you?

Jack:

Great, thanks, and you?

Jane:

Well, I'm good now that the warm weather has finally arrived.

Jack:

I know what you mean. I thought winter was never going to end.

Jane:

Have you dusted off your golf clubs yet?

Jack:

Funny you should ask. I'm heading out with my brother-in-law for the first round of the year on Saturday.

Welcome

Once everyone has arrived, the chairperson, or whoever is in charge of the meeting, should formally welcome everyone to the meeting and thank the attendees for coming.

  • Well, since everyone is here, we should get started.
  • Hello, everyone. Thank you for coming today.
  • I think we'll begin now. First I'd like to welcome you all.
  • Thank you all for coming at such short notice.
  • I really appreciate you all for attending today.
  • We have a lot to cover today, so we really should begin.

Here's a sample welcome from the chairperson of a meeting:

I think we'll begin now. First I'd like to welcome you all and thank everyone for coming, especially at such short notice. I know you are all very busy and it's difficult to take time away from your daily tasks for meetings.
 

Using Articles (a/an/the)

21 May 2017

The following tips provide the basic rules for using articles (a/an/the). Over the next week, refer to the tips whenever you read a business document, a magazine article, a web page, etc. Locate a few nouns in the reading and use the tips to analyze the article usage.

Using articles correctly is a skill that develops over time through lots of reading, writing, speaking and listening. Think about the rules below and bear them in mind when reading and listening to the language around you. Soon you will find you don’t have to think about the rules anymore. Usage will become natural to you.

General Usage Rules

Noun

a/an

the

no article

countable
& plural

a letter
an invoice

the letter
the invoice

NOT
ALLOWED

countable
& plural

NOT
ALLOWED

the letters
the invoices

letters
invoices

uncountable

NOT ALLOWED

the information

information

Use of the Indefinite Article (a/an)

  • Use a or an when it is the first time we mention or talk about something.
  • Use a or an with singular, countable nouns.

Could you let me have an envelope?

I purchased a fax machine yesterday.

There is a letter for you.

Use of the Definite Article (the)

  • Use the when the reader is clear about what is being referred to.

Please close the door.

Further to the meeting of 4 December……

We sent the file you requested to the Sales Department.

  • Use the when the noun has been mentioned already.
I have received a letter from a customer complaining about a sales person in our Mongkok branch. The customer said that the salesperson was rude to her when she tried to ask a question. I will pass the letter onto you.
  • Use the when it is clear there is only one of something.
The General Manager came to our office yesterday.

Zero Article

We can omit articles when generalising about plural countable nouns and also with uncountable nouns.

The Customer Service Department handles complaints. (all and any complaints)

Staff who do not observe company regulations will receive warnings. (all staff; all company regulations)

Production will begin in May. (uncountable noun)

 

Useful Phrases for Business Meetings

14 May 2017

Here, we're going to introduce you to a few useful phrases for 1) watching the time, and 2) regaining focus in a business meeting.

Watching the Time

One of the most difficult things about holding an effective meeting is staying within the time limits. A good agenda will outline how long each item should take. A good chairperson will do his or her best to stay within the limits. Here are some expressions that can be used to keep the meeting flowing at the appropriate pace.

I think we've spent enough time on this topic.
We're running short on time, so let's move on.
We're running behind schedule, so we'll have to skip the next item.
We only have fifteen minutes remaining and there's a lot left to cover.
If we don't move on, we'll run right into lunch.
We've spent too long on this issue, so we'll leave it for now.
We'll have to come back to this at a later time.
We could spend all day discussing this, but we have to get to the next item.

Regaining Focus

It is easy to get off topic when you get a number of people in the same room. It is the chairperson's responsibility to keep the discussion focused. Here are some expressions to keep the meeting centred on the items as they appear on the agenda.

Let's stick to the task at hand, shall we?
I think we're steering off topic a bit with this.
I'm afraid we've strayed from the matter at hand.
You can discuss this among yourselves at another time.
We've lost sight of the point here.
This matter is not on today's agenda.
Let's save this for another meeting.
Getting back to item number 5.
Now where were we? Oh yes, let's vote.

 

Avoiding Problem Words and Phrases

07 May 2017

In this week's Business English tip, we'll point out a few words and phrases which are best avoided in business writing. Remember that your aim is to get your message across to your reader clearly and concisely. Try to use language which will not cause confusion.

And also

This is often redundant. Use and on its own and omit also.

As to whether

The single word whether means the same thing as as to whether.

Basically, essentially, totally

These words seldom add anything useful to a sentence. Try the sentence without them and, almost always, you will see the sentence improve.

Being that or being as

These words are a non-standard substitute for because or since . For example, we can write Being that they were old customers, we gave them special credit terms as Because they were old customers, we gave them special credit terms.

Due to the fact that

Using this phrase is a sure sign that your sentence is in trouble. Did you mean because or since?

Equally as

Something can be equally important or as important as, but not equally as important.

He/she

He/she or is a convention created to avoid sexist writing, but it doesn't work very well and it becomes annoying if it appears often. Use he or she or use the plural (where appropriate) so you can avoid the sexist problem altogether.

Firstly, secondly, thirdly, etc.

Number things with first, second, third, etc. and not with these adverbial forms.

Got

Many writers regard got as an ugly word, and they have a point. If you can avoid it in writing, do so. For example: I have got to must begin studying right away. And: I have got two meetings this afternoon.

Kind of or sort of

These are OK in informal situations, but in more formal documents use somewhat, rather or quite instead. For example: We were kind of rather pleased with the results.

 

Controlling a Telephone Call with a Native Speaker

30 Apr 2017

One of the biggest problems is speed. Native speakers, especially business people, tend to speak very quickly on the telephone. As a non-native speaker, you need to develop techniques which will allow you to take control of the call. Here are some practical tips:

 
  • Immediately ask the person to speak slowly

Could you speak more slowly, please?
Would you mind speaking more slowly, please?
Would you slow down a little, please?

  • When taking note of a name or important information, repeat each piece of information as the person speaks.

So, you say you can give us a discount of 10%?
OK, you are willing to extend the warranty to 30 days, right?
Your telephone number is 2718 3892 and your email address is.....
Let me just confirm that. Your name is Andy Hogg and your company is called ‘Gtech Ltd’.
Let me just repeat what you have said.
I’d just like to confirm what you’ve just told me.

This is an especially effective tool. By repeating each important piece of information, or each number or letter, you automatically slow the speaker down.
  • Do not say you have understood if you have not. Ask the person to repeat until you have understood.

I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying.
I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.
I sorry, but I don’t follow you.
Would you mind going over that again for me?
Could you say that again, please?
Could you repeat that, please?
Could you explain what you mean?

Remember that the other person needs to make himself/herself understood and it is in his/her interest to make sure that you have understood. If you ask a person to explain more than twice they will usually slow down.
  • If the person does not slow down begin speaking your own language!
A sentence or two of another language spoken quickly will remind the person that they are fortunate because THEY do not need to speak a different language to communicate. Used carefully, this exercise in humbling the other speaker can be very effective. Just be sure to use it with colleagues and not with a boss!
 

Knowing When to Use the Passive Voice

23 Apr 2017

If you use a grammar-check feature, your sentences probably get flagged at times for a fault called “Passive Voice.” This flag is typically accompanied by advice to “Consider rewriting with an active voice verb.”

Is this fault serious? No! In fact, our grammar-checker has already flagged three of our sentences at the beginning of this Business Writing Tip, and we aren’t worried a bit.

We aren’t worried, but we do pay attention. That’s because there is a lot of good advice about limiting the use of passive verbs. For instance, we are told to change:

“The surface should be primed” (passive) to “Prime the surface” (active). This change makes sense. Readers need precise instructions.

“Your gift is appreciated” (passive) to “We appreciate your gift” (active). This is another fine suggestion. “Is appreciated” sounds impersonal, whereas “We appreciate” feels warm.

When we make these changes, we are replacing wordy, vague phrases with concise, direct words. That’s excellent.

But there are four places where passive verbs fit just right:


1. When you don’t know who performed the action.

Passive:

Her car was stolen twice.

Not:

Someone stole her car twice.

2. When it doesn’t matter who performs the action.

Passive:

The boards are pre-cut.

Not:

A worker pre-cuts the boards.

3. When we want to avoid blaming someone.

Passive:

The drawings were lost.

Not:

Andy lost the drawings.

4. When we want to soften a directive.

Passive:

This paragraph could be shortened.

Not:

Shorten this paragraph.

Passive verbs are perfect in these four instances. Likewise, the passive verbs in our opening sentences also work well (“get flagged” and “is typically accompanied”).

Know where passives verbs belong, and you won’t be intimidated by your grammar-check software again. Our grammar-checker just flagged the previous sentence, but we know the passive verb there suits our purpose and sounds just right!

 

How to Start a Conversation

16 Apr 2017

Start out by asking the person questions that are easy to answer.

A good balance is around two or three closed questions, that have short answers, and then one open question, where they have to think and talk more. Early on, it is often better even with open questions to keep them simple and easy.

Tips

  • Ask them something about themselves.
  • If you do not know their name, then start there.
  • Compliment them about their appearance. Ask them where they got that nice suit, watch, hat or whatever.
  • Comment on their good mood, ask them why they are looking a bit down. Say they look distracted and ask why.
  • Ask if they have family, the names of their children, how old they are, how they are doing in school and so on.
  • Ask about their occupation, their careers and plans for the future.
  • Ask about hobbies, interests and what they do with their spare time.
  • Pay attention when they give you an answer. Show interest not only in the answer but in them as a person as well
  • And when they tell you something, show interest in it. Follow up with more questions.

Conversation Starters

  • General starters

Hi, I'm Paul.

Sorry, I didn't catch your name.

I like your dress. Where did you get it?

Nice hat!

You look worried.

What's the matter? You look down.

Is there anything wrong? You seem distracted.

  • The weather (especially in climates where it changes often).

Nice day, isn't it?

Beautiful day, isn't it?

Can you believe all of this rain we've been having?

It looks like it's going to snow.

We couldn't ask for a nicer day, could we?

How about this weather?

  • Recent news (though be careful to avoid politics and religion with people you don't know very well).

Did you catch the news today?

Did you hear about that fire on Fourth St?

What do you think about this rail strike?

I read in the paper today that the Sears Mall is closing.

I heard on the radio today that they are finally going to start building the new bridge.

How about United? Do you think they're going to win tonight?

  • Family (siblings, where they live, etc.)

Do you have any children?

Do you come from a big family?

Do you have any brothers or sisters?

Do your family live close by?

Do your children go to the local school?

  • History (what school they went to, where they have lived, etc.)

Are you from around here?

You're not from around here, are you?

Have you lived here long?

Are you from London?

Where are you from?

How long do you plan to live here?

Where did you live before coming to Singapore?

Did you go to school around here?

Which school did you go to?

How do you find living in Singapore?
  • Work (what they do, people at work, etc.)

Looking forward to the weekend?

Have you worked here long?

I can't believe how busy we are today, can you?

You look like you could use a cup of coffee.

What do you think of the new computers?

  • Holidays

Are you going away anywhere this summer?

Do you have any plans to go away somewhere?

Are you doing anything special at the weekend?

Taking a vacation this year?
  • Hobbies and sports

Are you interested in football?

Which sport to you like best?

My passion is golf. What about you?

Are you a member of any clubs?

How do you spend your free time?

Are you going to the game tonight?

Great win for United on Saturday.

What's your favorite sport?

 

 

Bulleted Lists in Business Writing

09 Apr 2017

You can use numbers or bullet points in your vertical lists. Vertical lists are a great way of presenting more complex information clearly. Here we're just going to show you three types of bulleted lists. The differences between the three types lie in the way the lists are punctuated.

Type 1

The following conditions are necessary for fully-funded training:

  • This is your first training course.
  • Your employer signs the enclosed form.
  • You have a clean driving licence.

The initial phrase is a complete sentence but ends with a colon (:) to show that a list follows. Each point in the list is a complete sentence, so it starts with a capital letter and ends with a full stop.

Type 2

The fees include:

  • course material
  • preparation time
  • travelling expenses.

The initial phrase is a complete sentence but ends with a colon (:) to show that a list follows. Each point in the list is short (a phrase) and so the points do not start with a capital letter and only the last point has a full stop.

Type 3

The courses are designed for trainees who:

  • have a degree in accountancy;
  • need work experience; and
  • live in the London area.

The initial phrase is a complete sentence but ends with a colon (:) to show that a list follows. Each point in the list is part of a continuous sentence. The points do not start with capital letters and there is a semi-colon (;) separating each point. Before the last point there is 'and' to show that it is part of a continuous sentence.

With this type of list, be careful that the points coming after the introduction are grammatically consistent. Take a look at the following example of a grammatically inconsistent list.

Incorrect Version:

The people:

  • who live in London;
  • who are over 25; and
  • have a degree;

are eligible.

This list is incorrect because you need another 'who' in the third point to make a grammatically consistent sentence.

Correct Version:

The people who:

  • live in London;
  • are over 25; and
  • have a degree;

are eligible.

This list is correct because "who live", "who are" and "who have" are all plural endings to match 'people'. The list is grammatically consistent.

 

Showing Empathy in Business Situations

02 Apr 2017

In the key expressions box below, you'll find a number of standard phrases that you might find useful for showing empathy in business situations. Click on the audio link to listen to the expressions.

 

FUNCTIONS

KEY EXPRESSIONS

Reflecting - Reflecting on how you can see what someone is feeling:

I can see that you're really upset about this.
You seem to be upset.
You seem upset.
You don't seem to be very happy at the moment.
You seem to have made your decision already.
 

Legitimizing - Putting yourself in the other person's situation:

I'd be upset, too.
I can understand why you would be upset about that.
I can definitely see why that would be frustrating.
I'm sure that irritated you!
I can understand your concerns, but.
I understand that.
I can see how hearing those comments might annoy you.
It's not very nice to hear comments like that, is it?
I can understand your feeling betrayed by my not talking to you directly.
I can definitely see why that would upset you.
 

Supporting - Offering to help in a specific way:

I'll be here if you have any questions.
If you are unhappy here, I am here to discuss it with you.
 

Partnership-building - Offering to work together as a team to solve a problem

Maybe we can focus on,,,,
Let's see what we can do to resolve this problem together.
 

Respecting - Expressing admiration for how another person is coping with a situation

You don't seem to be too upset about this.

You are dealing with this very well.

 

Using Precise Active Verbs

26 Mar 2017

Strengthen word choice at the word and sentence level by adding precise verbs. Avoid non-specific verbs and the overuse of is, are, was, were, I or we. Always look for verbs that are masked as nouns. Convert the noun back to a verb by using its root and rewrite the sentence.

Example

John Smith will contact you at 11.30 p.m.

Revised

John smith will send you an e-mail at 11.30 p.m.

Revised

John Smith will visit you at 11.30 p.m.

 

Example

We must consider this problem.

Revised

We must resolve this problem.

 

Example

The report is a summary of previous research on drinking.

Revised

The report summarises research on drinking.

 

Example

The copy editor made an improvement to the draft.

Revised

The copy editor improved the draft.

 

Example

John is responsible for the distribution of the daily marketing report.

Revised

John distributes the daily marketing report.

 

Example

Improvement of the invoicing system will be performed by Jane Smith.

Revised

Jane Smith will improve the invoicing system.

 

Example

Candidate interviewing and employment is done by Human Resources.

Revised

Human Resources interviews and employs all candidates.

 

Example

All credit card approval is done by Jane Smith.

Revised

Jane Smith approves credit cards.

 

Expressing Opinions and Agreement

19 Mar 2017

In the key expressions box below, you'll find a number of standard phrases that you might find useful for expressing opinions and agreement in business situations. Click on the audio link to listen to the expressions.

 

 

FUNCTIONS

KEY EXPRESSIONS

ASKING FOR OPINIONS

What do you think about...?
What's your opinion of...?
Do you think that...?
Tell me what you think about...
How do you feel about...?
 

EXPRESSING OPINIONS

I think that...
I don't think that ....
In my opinion...
In my view...
It's my belief that...
I reckon that...
I don't reckon that ...
I feel that...
I don't feel that ...
I believe that ...
I don't believe that ...
If you ask me, I think/feel/reckon that...
As far as I'm concerned...
 

CHECKING AN OPINION

Do you think so?
Do you feel that?
Is that what you think?
Do you really believe that?
 

AGREEING

I think you're right.
I agree with you.
You're right.
 

STRONG AGREEMENT

I couldn't agree with you more.
You're absolutely right.
I agree entirely.
I totally agree.
I completely agree with you.
 

AGREEMENT IN PART

I agree with you up to a point, but...
That's quite true, but...
I agree with you in principle, but...
 

DISAGREEMENT

Note that when you disagree with someone, you can often sound more polite by using a phrase such as 'I'm afraid...'

I'm not sure I agree with you.
(I'm afraid) I don't agree.
(I'm afraid) I disagree.
(I'm afraid) I can't agree with you.
(I'm afraid) I don't share your opinion.
 

DISAGREEING STRONGLY

I don't agree at all.
I totally disagree.
I couldn't agree with you less.
 

Confusing Words - "Allow" vs "Permit" vs "Let" vs "Enable"

12 Mar 2017

These four verbs are all similar, but have different shades of meaning and use.

Allow and permit can be followed by an object, and optionally, a verb or another object:

Until recently, the club would not allow women to enter.
Until recently, the club would not permit women to enter.

Let needs a different construction; the object is followed by an infinitive without to:

Until recently, the club would not let women enter.
Please let me know urgently.

Note the use of allow to politely introduce something you want to say:

Allow me to point out that ...
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is ...

If you allow for problems, extra expenses etc. you include extra time or money to be able to deal with them:

If you are self-employed, do not forget to allow for tax and national insurance.

To enable means 'to make something possible'; Allow also has this meaning as in:

During the 19th Century road and rail transport allowed/enabled commerce to expand.

Enable is often preferable if there is no idea of 'permission':

A rights issue enabled the company to raise extra capital.
A word processor enables a secretary to type faster than on a typewriter.

Note that these verbs must be followed by a personal object before an infinitive. We cannot say:

Our round-the-clock service enables/permits/allows to satisfy demand.

The correct version is:

Our round-the-clock service enables/permits/allows us to satisfy demand.
 

Handling Difficult Requests

05 Mar 2017

In the key expressions box below, you'll find a number of standard phrases that you might find useful for handling difficult requests at work. Click on the audio link to listen to the expressions.

 

 

 

FUNCTIONS

KEY EXPRESSIONS

SAYING WHY YOU'RE CALLING

The reason I'm calling is:
I was calling to ask a favour:..
I'm calling to ask if you could:..
I'm calling because we need some help......
 

EXPLAINING THE PROBLEM

The situation is this....
Here's the problem.....
Let me explain the situation......
 

REFUSING A REQUEST

I'm afraid that's not possible.
I'm sorry but we just can't do that.
I wish we could help you, but:..
I'm sorry, but I'm not in a position to do that.
 

STATING YOUR POSITION

I understand your situation, but we really must request:..
Our company policy is to:..
It's not our company policy to.....
We always demand .....
We never allow.....
 

MAKING A POLITE REQUEST

Would it be possible to.:?
We were wondering if you could possibly.:?
Would you be able to:.?
Could you please.....?
We'd appreciate it if you could.....
We'd be grateful if you could.....
 

SUGGESTING A COMPROMISE

How about if we......?
What (about if we...?
If we were to ....... would you....?
We'd also be willing to.....
How would you feel if we...?
Why don't we/you:...?
 

AGREEING TO A REQUEST

We could probably accept that.
We might be able to agree to that.
We could agree to that on condition that......
I suppose we could accept that.
That is a possibility, but I'd have to check with....
 

Include One idea per Sentence

26 Feb 2017

Have you ever received a letter or email where the sentences go on and on, one after the other in a stream, with only commas to separate them? These sentences often contain a number of points, some of which might be related. This makes them difficult to read and understand. Here's an example of an email we received from one of our subscribers:

I am working as a manager in Dubai, the communication with our customers is in English, therefore I have to send email, letters, etc., you know, but the problem is I want to learn more how to write, I feel that I am very bad in writing, so I need your help in this, how can I develop myself, I learn from your site but I need more if possible, thanks in advance for your help, I look forward to hearing from you.

With one idea in each clear, concise sentence, the message might read like this:

I work as an manager in Dubai. The communication with our customers "" email, letters, etc. "" is in English. The problem is that I am very bad in writing. I want to learn how to write better, and I need your help in this. Although I learn from your site, I need more if possible. How can I develop myself?

I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you for your help.

We did include more than one idea in two sentences so the message would not sound choppy. But they were closely related ideas.

So, the message here is: include only one idea in each sentence. Sometimes, it's acceptable to include two ideas in a sentence but only if they are closely related.

 

Ending a Conversation Politely

19 Feb 2017

In the key expressions box below, you'll find a number of standard phrases that you might find useful for ending a conversation politely. Click on the audio link to listen to the expressions.

 

 

FUNCTIONS

KEY EXPRESSIONS

BEGINNING
(you hint to end a conversation)

A: Well, it was great meeting you.
B: Yes, it was nice.
A: Well, I'm glad we had a chance to talk.
B: Me, too!
A: It sure has been nice seeing you.
B: Yeah, I enjoyed it!
 

MIDDLE
(you have to go soon)

A: I'll be sure to call you.
B: That'd be great.
A: I'll send you an email next week.
B: OK. I'll look forward to that.
A: I hope to hear from you soon.
B: Yes, me too.
 

END
(you really have a chance to leave now)

A: Bye for now.
B: Bye!
A: I'll talk to you later.
B: OK. Until then.
A: See you again soon.
B: See you.
A: Take care.
B: You, too. Bye.
A: Keep in touch.
B: I will. Bye.
 
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