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!

Use of Pronouns to Avoid Sexist Writing

31 Jan 2016

Pronouns like he, she, it, we, they, and you stand in for nouns and must therefore match the nouns they are replacing in number (singular or plural) and gender (male or female). If the noun is singular, the pronoun must be too.

incorrect Everyone needs to remove their belongings. (Everyone is singular; their is plural.)
tick1 Everyone needs to remove his or her belongings.

  • Don't use only 'his' to refer to a noun - this is regarded as sexist language!
  • In a short document with a single pronoun reference, we recommend that you use his or her in place of the noun.
  • In a longer document with multiple pronoun references, you could alternate between his and her throughout the document to avoid constant repetition. If that doesn't work for you, simply rewrite the sentence so you don't need to make the choice.

The above sentence could also be rewritten as:

tick1 You need to remove your belongings.
 
Changing the subject to a plural also works:
tick1 Employees need to remove their belongings.
 
 

Job Interview Tips - Part 2

24 Jan 2016

You've written a great CV (resume) and covering letter, and the company has asked you to attend an interview. You need to make sure that you make the right impression to get the job! Here are five more tips to help you succeed at the interview.

1. Check you understand what people say to you.

When you say ..., do you mean ...?
Could I just go over this point again?
Sorry, do you mean ...?

2. Use a range of vocabulary to present your achievements and experience.

I achieved sales growth of ...
I managed sales of ...
I increased sales by ...

3. Try to remember names and titles (or company positions) when you are introduced.

A good way of remembering names is to use them immediately after you hear them. So, if someone introduces you to "Deborah Jones, our Marketing Manager" you can say immediately "Pleased to meet you, Ms Jones."

Pleased to meet you, Ms Jones.

4. Be aware of your gestures and movements during the interview.

Nod your head to show you understand and agree with the other person. Keep eye contact with them and try not to use nervous gestures. Ask your friends to help you rehearse the interview - they can tell you if you appear nervous!

5. Make sure you know what will happen after the interview.

The interviewer could say things like:

So we will contact you in a couple of weeks.
We'll let you know at the beginning of next month.

 

Methodology for Learning New Vocabulary

17 Jan 2016

Here we suggest some methods you can use to learn new vocabulary.

When you see a new vocabulary item (new word), always ask these questions:

Is it positive, neutral or negative?

Beautiful is a positive word

Ugly is a negative word

Negotiate is not positive or negative, so it's neutral

Is it formal or informal (casual)?

Cool is a casual word

Negotiate is a formal word

Is it a vocabulary item or an Idiom?

What did you do? (uses vocabulary)

What did you get up to? (uses an idiom / idiomatic phrase)

Does the word have a prefix or suffix that you know? (may give you a hint)

Prefix: Unhappy, unfriendly ('un' often a negative prefix)

Suffix: Careless, thoughtless ('less' often a negative suffix)

If you see a new vocabulary item, such as 'undisciplined', you can take a guess that it may be a negative word from looking at the negative prefix, even if you do not know what the word means.

Is it a noun, adjective, verb or adverb?

Can the word be used only as a noun?

Can the word be used as both a verb and an adjective?

Can the word by used as an adverb?

Which context / situation should the word be used in?

'Negotiate' is a strong verb for formal business situations, such as negotiating a contract with a client.

'Negotiate' should not be used in social situations like two friends arguing over paying for drinks at KTV.

Create your own example, preferably about your life, to demonstrate (show) understanding of the new word; this makes it easier to remember

I negotiated my salary package with the HR Manager.

I negotiate the delivery date and price with our clients.

 

Job Interview Tips - Part 1

10 Jan 2016

You've written a great CV (resume) and covering letter, and the company has asked you to attend an interview. You need to make sure that you make the right impression to get the job! Here are five tips to help you succeed at the interview.

1. Use polite phrases.

Remember that if someone asks you "How do you do?" the correct response is "How do you do?"

When you meet someone for the first time, you can say "Pleased to meet you." If someone says this to you first, you can reply "Pleased to meet you, too" or "It's a pleasure to meet you, too."

If you didn't hear someone's name, you can say "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name."

Pleased to meet you.
Pleased to meet you, too.
It's a pleasure to meet you, too.
I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name.

2. Ask questions which you have already prepared.

You should have the opportunity to ask questions at the end of the interview. You can prepare some before the interview. This will help you research the vocabulary you need and it will make you look interested in the company and the job.

There are different types of questions. "Direct" questions use words like "who", "when" or "what" or have an auxiliary at the beginning of the question.

Who is the manager of the department?
When would the job start?
Do you have a company pension?
Can I also work from home?

 
You can also ask "indirect" questions to make what you say sound less demanding. Indirect questions start with an introduction:
 

I'd like to know if you offer private health care.
Could you tell me if you offer options?

 

3. Try to predict the questions and plan the answers.

Can you tell us more about your experience with ...
Oh yes. When I ...
What qualities can you bring to this post?
Well, I'm an organised person and I ..

 

4. Show you are listening.

As well as maintaining eye contact, you can use phrase such as "Mmm", "I see" or "OK" to show the other person you are paying attention.

5. Don't be afraid to ask for explanations if you don't understand something.

I'm not sure I understand completely the relationship between these two departments. Could you explain a little further, please?
I'm afraid I don't really understand the difference between these two contracts. Could you go over it again, please?
I'm sorry, but I didn't understand what you just said. Could you repeat it please?

 

Three Common Punctuation Problems

03 Jan 2016

Punctuation is important because those little marks are like signs along a roadway, helping your reader navigate your document. When you put punctuation in the wrong place, it can change the intended meaning of your sentence and send your reader in the wrong direction.

Here are three common punctuation problems.

1) Putting a Comma Before 'and' in a Series (or Omitting the Comma)

The company makes pocket calculators, electronic keypads, and pocket translators.
or
The company makes pocket calculators, electronic keypads and pocket translators.
 

Which is correct? Both are. Whether you use the serial comma is entirely up to you. The key is to be consistent. Make a decision and stick to it throughout your document. Inconsistency is the grammar mistake.

2) Using Two Spaces after a Period or Colon

The two-space rule is a hold-over from the days when printing presses and typewriters used letters that were all the same width. Today, computers compensate for the varying widths of letters and only one space after end punctuation is the preference.

3) Putting a Comma Between the Subject and the Verb

incorrect I suggest that Billy, Pete and Mary, attend the conference.
 
In this sentence, a comma splits the clause's subject Billy, Peter and Mary, from the verb attend.
 
tick1 I suggest that Billy, Peter and Mary attend the conference.
 
A comma after Peter would also be OK in the above sentence.
 

How to Give a Speech in English

27 Dec 2015

Every speech or presentation has two main aspects:

  • WHAT you say (content)

  • HOW you say it (delivery)

You obviously have a lot of control over the content, because you can plan out exactly what you want to say. But you can also do a lot to make sure your delivery is effective too. The advice that follows will help you deliver a powerful speech:
  • Remember that a listener usually only has one chance to understand what you are saying. So you must do everything you can to make it easy for him or her to follow your ideas.
  • The best way to do this is to "signpost" your speech. At the beginning, say how your speech will be divided up. During the speech, make it clear when one part has finished and the next part has started. (For example, "Now that I have explained some of the causes of air pollution, I want to tell you what we can do to reduce the problem.") At the end of your speech, make it clear that you are finished (e.g. by simply saying "Thank you!").
  • The most important parts of a speech are the beginning and the end. Think about a strong first sentence that will capture the attention of the listener. Be calm and confident; give the impression that you are well-prepared and have something interesting to say. End with a strong sentence: make people laugh or give them something provocative to think about.
  • Practise your speech before the big day. In particular it is useful to think about how and where you will stand/sit, and where you will put your materials before and after you have used them. Practise using your speech cards.
  • Speak loudly and clearly. Remember that your voice (your intonation) must do the job that punctuation does in your writing. Try not to speak too fast. Never just read full sentence notes - it is boring and makes your speech very difficult to follow.
  • Make sure you can be seen as well as heard. Don't hide behind your sheets or the overhead projector. It is important that every listener feels you are talking to him or her personally. Therefore look round the room and try to make eye contact with everyone in the audience at least once during your speech.
  • Be careful not to distract your listeners by swinging on a chair, tapping your feet etc.
  • It is useful to include visual material with your speech. For example, if you are talking about places, show a map. If you are using numbers, write them for all to see. (It's very difficult for listeners to keep large or many numbers in their head.)
  • If you are going to have audience participation be very clear exactly what you want from them. If you ask a question, be ready for strange answers, and expect to have to answer it yourself.
 

A Little" vs "Little" vs "A Few" vs "Few

20 Dec 2015


A Little

Use a little with uncountable nouns, e.g. a little help, a little progress, a little information, a little advice, etc.

A Few

Use a few with plural countable nouns, e.g. a few days, a few meetings, a few employees, a few sales, etc.

Little and Few

Little and few tend to be rather negative because they mean not much or not many, while a little and a few are more positive and mean some. For example:

incorrect We have few clients. (sounds negative)
tick1 We have a few clients (sounds more positive)

incorrect There is little time to complete this. (sounds negative)
tick1 We have a little time to complete this. (sounds more positive)

 

When you are speaking to someone, it is better to use not much/not many or only a little/few instead of little and fewLittle and few tend to sound more formal and are better used in writing. For example:

We haven't had many enquiries about our new product. (not many/informal/spoken)
We have had few enquiries about our new product.
(few/formal/written)

We haven't sold many properties in the past month. (not many/informal/spoken)
We have sold few properties in the past month.
(few/formal/written)

 

Making Polite Requests

13 Dec 2015

When you are asking someone to do something for you or trying to influence their actions, you can often show that you want to be polite by saying things in an indirect way:

  1. Help me file these documents (please). (Very Direct - more demand than request)
  2. (Please) will you help me file these documents? (Less Direct)
  3. Could you help me file these documents (please)? (Neutral)
  4. Do you think you could possibly help me file these documents? (Indirect)
  5. I was wondering if you could possibly help me file these documents? (Very Indirect)
    Generally speaking, the more indirect the expression you use, the more polite you will seem.  If you are too direct you may be considered impolite.  However, the more indirect expressions can sound "too polite".  When deciding which expressions are suitable for which situations it is useful to ask certain questions.
  • What is the relationship between the speaker and the listener? More direct expressions are often used between friends or when the speaker is in a position of authority.

  • How important is the action to the speaker? Usually, the more important the action, the more indirect the expression.

  • How much inconvenience will the action cause for the listener? If, for example, the listener is being asked to make a lot of effort or do something which they do not usually do, the speaker will probably use a more indirect expression.
 

General Grammar and Writing Tips

06 Dec 2015

Subject Headings and Titles

Regarding titles and subject headings for business documents, remember that the first and last words are always capitalized, as are all nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.

Prepositions of four or more letters (or five, depending on the style guide you use) are also capitalized.

"A," "an," and "the" are not capitalized unless they are the first word or follow a colon.

The coordinating conjunctions: "and," "or," "nor," "but," "for," "so," and "yet" are not capitalized unless they are the first word or follow a colon, but other "little" words, like "it," "be," and "is," are capitalized.

Comparative Adjectives

To make the comparative forms of one-syllable adjectives, add "-er" and "-est" rather than using the words "more" and "most." Examples: "purer" and "purest," not "more pure" and "most pure."

Phrases Starting with 'Including'

A phrase beginning with "including," which usually appears at the end of a sentence, is almost always set off from the rest of the sentence by a comma. Example: "Provide a detailed explanation, including projected costs and schedule."

Whether....or Not

Most of the time, the words "or not" are useless after the word "whether," as in the sentence "I can't tell whether or not the coast is clear." The sentence is perfectly clear without "or not." However, in the following sentence, "or not" is grammatically necessary: "The goal is to ensure that all participants benefit from the workshop— whether or not they attend all sessions."

A Lot

"A lot" is always written as two words. Many people write it as one word, perhaps because of words like "among," "about," and "along." As a subject, "a lot" is plural when it refers to a plural word ("A lot of people are waiting in line"), but it is singular when it refers to a singular word ("A lot of information was lost when the computer crashed").

Only

The word "only" should be placed immediately before the word it modifies. In speech, we rarely pay attention to this rule. In writing, we should. Example: "The chairman was given only one week to come up with a plan" (not "The chairman was only given one week to come up with a plan"). "Only" clearly emphasizes "one week."

 

Participating in Business Meetings

29 Nov 2015

In a business meeting, there are two situations in which people often run into difficulties. These are when you want to interrupt someone who is speaking, for whatever reason, and when you are asked to comment on something you don't want to comment on (either because you don't have enough information to give your opinion, or because you
don't wish to speak for your own reasons).

If you need to interrupt, here are some phrases you may find helpful (and remember to consider your timing when using them, too!):

 
Do you mind if I interrupt? I must just say that...
Just a minute...
May I add something here?
May I interrupt here?
May I just say something on that point?
 
Or use that wonderful word, "sorry":
 
 
Sorry, I must just point out that...
Sorry, could I interrupt a moment?
Sorry, but I must say that...
Sorry, could I just say something?
 
"Sorry" makes an interruption of a meeting a little more polite.

But to avoid making a comment on an issue, "I'm afraid" works better:

 
I'm afraid I can't comment at the moment... (then give a reason why: ...as I need to check on the latest information / ...as I'd like a little more clarification on this issue from Ms. Leung, etc.)
I'm afraid I'm not able to say. (+ reason)
I'm afraid I'd rather not go into detail here, if you don't mind.
 
Using "I'm afraid" is better here than "I'm sorry", as "I'm sorry" puts the blame on you and indicates that it is your fault, while "I'm afraid" just indicates that you may feel some regret, but it is not necessarily your fault.

Other options include:

 
Do you mind if we talk about that later?
Can we put it off until later?
I don't think there's any point in going into detail at this stage.
That information isn't available yet, but we could talk about it... (give date or time)
I'd rather not say. (simple and direct, but honest)
 

Punctuation – The Dash (-) and Brackets ()

22 Nov 2015

The Dash (-)

Use a dash to indicate a change of thought, or to highlight and give greater importance to additional information inserted in a sentence

All the officers - Jane, Susie, Brent, and Michael - will be attending the meeting.
All the officers will be attending the meeting - Jane, Suzie, Brent, and Michael.
Mary - who was busy dealing with a client - did not attend the sales seminar.

A dash can also be used to set off information at the end of a sentence.

We all signed the contract - finally.

Brackets (.....)

Use brackets ("parentheses" in US English) to lessen the impact of related information that is added to a sentence. The added information should not be as important as the information in the sentence.

Mary (she only joined the company last week) decided not to go to the company barbecue.

Note: Use commas instead of brackets to set apart information that is about as important as the information in the sentence itself.

Brackets are also used if you give a lengthy name of a company or document, and then give the abbreviation, for example, Employees Assistance Program (EAP). The brackets should enclose the abbreviated form when it first appears. You can then refer to the abbreviated form only, without brackets, throughout the rest of the letter. This is one way you can use abbreviations in your letter and be certain your reader knows their meaning.

 

Tips for Effective Negotiations

15 Nov 2015

Rapport

Try to establish a good rapport with your opposite number from the moment your first meet, whether or not you already know each other. Some general 'social talk' is a good ice-breaker in this respect.

Simplicity

Keep your language simple and clear. Take your time and use short words and sentences that you are comfortable with - there's no point in complicating a difficult task with difficult language.

Clarity

Don't be afraid to ask questions if there is anything you don't understand. It is vital to avoid any misunderstandings that might jeopardise the success of your negotiation.

Listening and Response

Listening attentively at every stage of your negotiation will help avoid misunderstanding and create a spirit of cooperation. Also respond to what your opposite is saying with words or phrases such as "I see what you mean" or "You have a point".

Review

Summarise and review your progress at regular intervals during the negotiation. This will give both parties a chance to check understanding and if necessary clarify and rectify any misunderstandings.

 

Should vs Ought to vs Must vs Have to

08 Nov 2015

The modal verbs should, ought to, have to and must are all used to show obligation. The tone and strength of the obligation can vary based upon which modal is being used.

Should vs Ought to (for mild obligation / strong advice)

Look at the following sentences:

You should go to hospital with that wound.
You ought to go to hospital with that wound.

In these two sentences the function of should and ought to are interchangeable. Both focus on a strong advisability, or in other words a mild obligation. You are obligated to care of yourself. Nowadays, the use of ought to has lessened and should is commonly used in its place.

Have to vs Must (for strong obligation / necessity)

Here are the same sentences using the modal verbs have to and must:

You have to go to hospital with that wound.
You must go to hospital with that wound.

Have to and must are considered stronger than should and ought to. Both modals carry the function of necessity, obligation or even advice, but mustHave to, is normally reserved for expressions related to the law. For example: If you own a car, you have to pay an annual road tax. On the other hand, must is normally reserved for giving orders that people are obligated to follow. Here are some further examples of more typical usage of have to and must: is considered the strongest modal.

You have to pay income tax.
You have to pass your driving test before you can drive alone.
You have to show your passport when you pass through immigration.

You must get to work by 9am.
You must get this report finished by 30 June.
You must attend the meeting.

 

Explaining Procedures – Sequence Words and Phrases

01 Nov 2015

To help you with explaining procedures, you can use certain words to show a sequence of events.

To explain the order in which certain things are done

First ...
First of all ...
Initially...
Next ...
The next thing you have to do is...
Then ...
After that...
After you (have done that / do that) ...
Finally ...
...And then finally...
Lastly...
Afterwards...

To add a further point

Make sure you (don't forget to)...
Oh, and by the way, don't forget to...
Oh, and be careful not to ...
Make sure you.../ Make sure you don't...

To check that the other person is following you, or has understood

OK, so is that clear?
Does that make sense?
So there we are / that's it. Do you have any questions?

 

Open Punctuation /Full Blocked Layout Style

25 Oct 2015

In the past, writing and laying out a business letter was a pretty complex process. Not only did you have to be careful where you put your punctuation in the non-body sections of the letter, but certain parts of the letter itself needed to be indented, i.e. moved a number of spaces to the right. Putting a letter together like this took a lot of time.

Nowadays, business writers prefer simplicity over complexity. The punctuation and layout style preferred is the one that is the easiest and quickest to create. And it's the one that takes up the least thought.

Writers today tend to use OPEN PUNCTUATION and FULL BLOCKED LAYOUT STYLE.

Open Punctuation

In an Open Punctuation Style letter there is:

  • No punctuation at the end of lines in the inside address
  • No punctuation following the salutation and complimentary closing
  • No punctuation following references, enclosures, copies, etc.

Full Blocked Layout Style

When using a full blocked layout style in a business letter there is:

  • No indentation of the salutation and complimentary closing
  • No indentation in the paragraphs of the letter
  • No indentation to the date, reference, enclosures, copies, etc.

In this style, the only part of the letter that is centred is the company letterhead.

Sample Letter

Here's an example of a business letter with open punctuation and full blocked layout style.

Sunshine Holidays
124 High Street
Bury St Edmunds
Suffolk
I
P29 7HG

Our Ref SLS/RWT

2 April 20xx

Mr K Francis
29 Darlington Mews
Bury St Edmunds
Suffolk
1P29 5JA

Dear Mr Francis

HOLIDAY ENQUIRY

Thank you for your recent enquiry. Please find enclosed our holiday brochure containing weekend breaks in Rome.

We are very proud of our weekend breaks and feel sure you will find just what you are looking for.

If you would like to make a booking, or require any further information, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Yours sincerely


John Jackson
Manager

Enc

cc Susan James

 
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