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!

Using Modal Verbs to Express Possibility

24 Jul 2016

There are times when writers are uncertain about what will happen and need to refer to future events as possibilities or probabilities, not as future certainties.

Here, we'll briefly review the language used to show how 'probable' future events are, i.e. what is the chance that they will happen.

We can use certain modal verbs followed by the bare infinitive (i.e. the infinitive without 'to') to refer to the future. These modal verbs can be used in the active and passive voice.

May / Might + bare infinitive

May and might are used to express the uncertain possibility of an action in the future. May expresses stronger possibility than might.

Interest rates may increase in the next few months.
Interest rates might be increased in the next few months.

Could / Can + bare Infinitive

We use can and could to express future possibility when the possibility is related to suggestions, plans or projects.

The company's lawyers think it could take a long time to draw up the contract.
We are expanding overseas, so I could be sent to China or Taiwan in the next few months.

Can expresses stronger possibility than could. However as the can of possibility is easily confused with the can of ability, may/could are usually used to avoid confusion.

They can deliver tomorrow on time. (They are able to deliver on time)
They can deliver tomorrow on time. (It is possible for them to deliver on time)

Which meaning is intended? To avoid such confusion use may.

They may/could deliver tomorrow on time. (It is possible for them to deliver on time)
They may/could attend the meeting on Friday.

Could is also used to express a conditional possibility, i.e. the possibility of something happening or not depends on something else happening.

We could go to Macau next week, if you take Monday off work.
The company could expand if it had more capital.
 

Welcoming Business Visitors - Offering Help

17 Jul 2016

When welcoming a visitor to your office, you should offer to take their coat or umbrella (if they have one), offer them a seat, and offer them something to drink. There are a number of ways of making offers in English. The common ones start with these phrases:


Would you like ...?
Would you like me to ...?
Can I get you ...?

 

Let's look at how each of these phrases is used in context:

 


Would you like something to drink?
Would you like any coffee or tea?
Would you like a cold drink?
Would you like to take a seat?
Would you like a magazine to read while you wait?


Would you like me to take your umbrella?
Would you like me to get you a magazine to read?
Would you like me to get you a drink?


Can I get you any tea or coffee?
Can I get you some water?
Can I get you a cold drink?

 

Choose the most appropriate phrase to suit the context in which the offer is made.

 

 

Checklist for Writing Effective Emails

10 Jul 2016

Use the following checklist to ensure that your e-mail reflects your professionalism and increases your credibility within your company:

1. Company e-mail is the appropriate choice for this document
. The e-mail, which may reside in your system's memory and be accessible to people other than the intended reader:

  • Contains information that pertains only to your job responsibilities or to company-approved functions. You followed company guidelines for using e-mail for personal communications.
  • Contains no confidential or sensitive information. It could be made public or subpoenaed without embarrassment to your company or you, the writer.
  • Is not a way of avoiding talking to someone in person or by telephone. Don't let e-mail replace human interaction that builds relationships and allows you to observe or hear people's reactions to what you are saying.
  • Contains no reprimanding or emotional wording. Constructive criticism is received best in one-to-one, in-person coaching sessions.
  • Requires immediate response.
  • Is not information required by the reader for long-term reference.

2. The distribution list is appropriate:

  • All those who should receive the information have been copied. For example, you have not relied upon the primary reader to distribute the information to his/her direct reports if you require them to have the information.
  • Those who do not need to know the information have not been copied.

3. You have respected your reader's time and edited the e-mail for clarity. You:

  • Eliminated wordiness; eliminated any "streams of consciousness."
  • Used short words, sentences, and paragraphs.
  • Used precise, factual wording.
  • Translated technical jargon and acronyms as appropriate for the distribution list.
  • Deleted any unnecessary "document trail."

4. You have used professional presentation, tone, and courtesy. You:

  • Used a simple format that will convert well to all computer systems/programs.
  • Used upper- and lower-case letters rather than all capitals. Upper and lower case letters are easier to read; using all capitals seems like yelling. The rule of thumb is to put no more than eight words in all capitals; you have saved all capitals for emphasis or headings.
  • Have written the e-mail from your reader's point of view. Your wording is considerate and polite; it is objective and direct without being abrupt.
  • Used words that are appropriate for a business environment.

5. You have organized the e-mail strategically. You ensured accurate and complete content. You:

  • Provided a subject heading and opening purpose statement that predict the document's content.
  • Anticipated and answered your reader's questions, providing background information when it helps your reader understand your message.
  • Double-checked the accuracy of facts and figures.
  • Clearly and explicitly asked for action or described what you will do next.

6. You have proofread the e-mail. You:

  • Used correct, consistent punctuation.
  • Used your spell checker and double-checked the spelling of people's names and of company products and services.
  • Replaced "brief hand" abbreviations such as "w/" and "info" with standard spellings.
  • Ensured your precise use of all vocabulary, especially of any unfamiliar vocabulary gleaned from your computer's thesaurus.
  • Checked grammar (especially subject-verb agreement) and usage (for example, commonly confused words such as "there" and "their").
  • Checked sentence structure (especially to correct any fragments or run-on sentences).
 

Welcoming Business Visitors - Open and Closed Questions

03 Jul 2016

In English (as in most languages), we can ask either open-ended questions or closed questions.

Closed questions are questions which generally only require a yes/no answer. When you are asked a closed question, try to add some extra information to your answer; otherwise, conversations can quickly come to an end:


Did you enjoy your last trip to China?
Yes, I did. I had a really good time.

Would you like a glass of water?
Yes, please. It's very kind of you to offer.

Are you going to see the band at the Peace Hotel tonight?
No. I've been told they're not very good. What do you think of them?

Are you staying at the Hilton?
No. I'm actually staying at the Carlton Towers.

Open questions are questions, often using a WH- word, in which the speaker is asking for MORE information than just yes or no. Open questions are very useful in helping to develop a conversation. In a way, you are forcing the person you are speaking with to provide you with longer answers:

What did you enjoy most about your meal last night?

Where would you like to go while you're here?

Why are you only staying three days in Shanghai this time?

When welcoming visitors it's best to use a combination of open and closed questions. Perhaps start off by asking a few closed questions about your visitor's flight, hotel, etc. Then ask a few open questions to get your visitor to open up and speak more expansively about things.

 

Easily Confused Words

26 Jun 2016

There are many words that appear similar in English. In order to avoid mistakes you have to learn from your mistakes. Find out what the correct word is and then use both the correct and incorrect words in sentences so that you can remember the difference.

Here, we'll look at a number of pairs of words that are often confused due to the closeness of their appearance. Each word appears with an example sentence to clearly show how its use differs from the word(s) it is commonly confused with.

Past vs Passed

After studying very hard she past the examination. incorrect

After studying very hard she passed the examination. tick1

Here's why: 'Past' as a noun refers to the period before the present. 'Passed' the past tense of the verb to pass refers to the act of passing. It is important to note that 'Past' can also be used as an adjective, adverb or a preposition. See correct examples below:

The band passed and the crowd cheered. (verb)
There is no need to dwell, it's all in the past now. (noun)
The library is just past the church. (preposition)
The troops marched past. (adverb)
Mike did lots of exercise during the past year. (adjective)

Beside vs Besides

Hey, others beside you want to get through this checkout line. incorrect

Hey, others besides you want to get through this checkout line. tick1

Here's why: 'Beside' means to be at the side of. 'Besides' means in addition to, or moreover, as in the example above, where the idea is that others in addition to the person being reproached would like to get through the line. Other correct examples are:

The man who sat beside me at the concert kept yawning. How annoying!
Besides
Lynn, there will be four people going to the annual dinner this Saturday.
Please put the sofa down beside the chair, or maybe beside the table, or wait '" may be beside the window.

Continual vs Continuous

Libby's phone rang continuously until her father disconnected it. incorrect

Libby's phone rang continually until her father disconnected it. tick1

Here's why: There's a very subtle shade of difference here. 'Continuously' refers to something that goes on without any interruption whatsoever. 'Continually' refers to something, often annoying actions that recur at frequent intervals. In this case, the meaning is that many calls came in, possibly at short intervals. So 'continually' is correct. Other correct examples are:

Dave felt dizzy after doing exercise continuously for two hours.
She claimed she made continual efforts to reach him.
For weeks, the child begged her mother continually to buy her a new toy.

Respectful vs Respective

How can I be respective of your wishes when you won't tell me what they are? incorrect

How can I be respectful of your wishes when you won't tell me what they are? tick1

Here's why: 'Respective' is a term of separation or comparison, as in they went to their respective seats, and they were paid in accordance with their respective ranks. 'Respectful' means to be full of respect. So in this case, where respect for one's wishes is the issue, 'respectful' is the appropriate choice. Additional correct examples are:

The cat kept a respectful distance from the Great Dane.
Go to your respective corners, then come out swinging.
Was your tone respectful when you spoke to the Chairman of the committee?

 

Telephone Skills - Questioning

19 Jun 2016

A business telephone call is a dialogue - a two-way exchange of information. When you are not listening, you will probably either be explaining something or asking questions to get information.

Questioning as a Telephone Skill

Questioning is a systematic process that enables you to find out information. In business telephone calls, ask questions to accomplish two aims:

  1. To get the information you need.
  2. To verify or confirm information you've received.

Of course, you'll ask these questions in a conversational way and not make it sound like an interrogation. There are two types of questions often used in business telephone conversations, namely direct and indirect.

Direct Questions

Sometimes your telephone call will be designed to find out very specific pieces of information. In such calls, you need to ask a series of direct questions.

"What date have you selected for the regional meeting?" "Will Mr. Jones be able to make his 2 pm appointment?" "Does that time suit you?"

Direct questions are straight forward. They focus the conversation on a limited topic, and they obtain specific information.

Direct questions (sometimes called closed questions) can be answered with a few words, such as "yes" or "no".

Indirect Questions

In some telephone conversations, you need to find out more general information, share ideas or discuss opinions.  For these situations, you would ask a series of indirect questions.

"Why have you chosen to stay with your present supplier?" "What are your goals this year?" "How is your company organized?" "When last did you have an appointment with us?"

Indirect questions encourage general, wider-ranging responses.  They open up avenues for further thought and discussion.

Indirect questions (sometimes called open questions) cannot be answered with a word or two.  They are designed to get the other person to talk freely, at some length, and in his or her own way.

Using Direct and Indirect Questions

When is each question type most appropriate?

  • Direct questions are used when trying to find out specific information, come to an agreement, or confirm information received.
  • Indirect questions are used when trying to determine needs, uncover problems or understand issues or concerns.

Guidelines for Effective Questioning

Learning how to use questions effectively on the phone takes practice. Here are a few basic guidelines.

1. Select the appropriate questions.

Plan a general line of questioning before you make the call. Ideally, you'll identify the information you need, then prepare questions to get the conversation moving along. You cannot anticipate every question, but you can make an educated guess.

2. Listen to the answers to your questions.

Remember, questioning is one of the broader skills you use in a professional business conversation.  Don't tie yourself too tightly to a strict line of questioning.  Don't start forming your next question until you've listened to the answer to the last one.  Be sure you don't answer the questions yourself.

3. Timing is important.

In a telephone conversation, timing is everything.  Avoid interrupting the conversational flow with a question out of context, but take advantage of conversational opportunities when they arise.

4. Continue questioning to confirm or verify information.

Verifying is a special aspect of questioning. To verify, summarize what has been said (what you heard the other person say), then ask for confirmation with a question.  Here are some examples: Summarize: "So the appointment will be on Thursday at 2.30...." Confirm: "...is that correct?"

5. Avoid conducting an inquisition.

There is a very small difference between an intense question and answer telephone call, and an inquisition. If you ask too many questions without adding your own comments, your listener will feel as though he/she is being interrogated.  It's best to acknowledge each answer briefly or comment in a relevant way before asking another question.

6. Don't think too much about the types of questions.

Although it's useful to know and use the direct and indirect questions, don't concern yourself too much about the types themselves. After all, it is the answer, not the question that is the most important. Remember that your telephone contact may not respond in the way you expect. Don't panic if he/she replies with a one-word answer to your best indirect question!  Take note of the information and change your questions accordingly.

 

Using the Past Perfect Tense

12 Jun 2016

The past perfect tense is used to refer to actions that took place and were completed in the past. The past perfect is often used to emphasise that one action, event or condition ended before another past action, event, or condition began.

Each of the highlighted verbs in the following sentences is in the past perfect.

John arrived at 5:00 p.m. but Mr Turner had closed the shop

All the events in this sentence took place in the past, but the act of closing the shop takes place before John arrives at the shop.

After we found the restaurant that Anne had told us about, we ate dinner there every Friday.

Here the praise ("had told ") precedes the finding ("found") of the restaurant. Both actions took place sometime before the moment of speaking or writing.

Bill had used up all the paper so we placed a new order.

In this sentence, both actions take place in the past, but the using up of the paper ("had used up ") preceded the ordering of the new paper.

Common Usage Errors

A common error is to use the past perfect tense unnecessarily to refer to past events.

Yes, I had already given them my reply. incorrect

In the above example, the past perfect is used unnecessarily instead of the present perfect, perhaps because had given seems more 'past' than have given.

Here's another example of misuage of the past perfect:

Several years ago, we had sold fax machines, but we don't any more.incorrect

Here, the past simple sold is sufficient (even though we sold fax machines is before we don't any more) because you are not comparing the two past times.

TIP: It is best to avoid the past perfect tense unless you are sure how to use it. In fact it is not used very much in business writing.

 

Passing on Messages to Clients - Using Connectives

05 Jun 2016

Using Connectives

If your message has a number of parts and if the parts are linked, we can use simple connectives such as "and that," "but that," and "also," to show how the different points are related. Using connectives helps to clarify a message and make it easier to understand.

Note: "and that" and "also" show addition; "but that" shows contrast (+/-).

Lets look at some messages that include connectives:


Mr Wong wanted me to tell you that the goods were shipped from the factory to your new Beijing address but that the linens you requested have been delayed due to a customs problem and that they won't be shipped until next Wednesday.



Mr Lau asked me to remind you that the deadline to complete the work has been moved back to July 20. He also wanted me to tell you that Peter Trench would be replacing Bill Cousins as Chief Financial Officer on 1 July and that you should liaise with Mr Trench on all financial matters after that date.



Mr Johnson wanted you to know that all the equipment you installed at our factory is working perfectly but that we're still waiting to receive the machine manuals. He also asked if you could courier the manuals to him as soon as possible and that he wanted you to confirm when you would do this.

Note: we use "and that" and "but that" in place of "and" and "but" because we are reporting what someone else has said. We are using someone else's words.

 

Cut Out Wordy Phrases and Redundancy from your Writing

29 May 2016

Shorter is nearly always better. Short words are clearer than their wordy alternatives. When you have a number of wordy phrases in a letter, memo, email, etc., the document loses clarity. Short doesn't mean simple - it means that you've considered the language you are using carefully with your reader in mind.

Replace these wordy phrases with their concise alternatives.

WORDY PHRASES
CONCISE
after the conclusion of
after
at the present time
now
despite the fact that
although
has been proved to be
is
in the event that
if
in the near future
soon
in view of the fact that
because/since/as
is found to be
is
is in a position to
can
with reference to
about

You should also watch out for redundancies like these below. Don't repeat yourself!

REDUNDANT PHRASES
CONCISE
advance planning
planning
exactly identical
identical
forward progress
progress
joint cooperation
cooperation
necessary requirement
requirement
new breakthrough
breakthrough
postpone until later
postpone
 

Passing on Messages to Clients - Reporting Phrases

22 May 2016

Reporting Phrases

When passing on a message to a client we usually begin the message with an introductory phrase such as "Mr Rivers wanted me to let you know that..." or "Jack asked me to tell you that ..." to indicate that we are reporting a message from someone else. If the message has a number of parts, it is quite usual to introduce other details of the message in a similar way such as "He wants you to call..." "He asked me to remind you to ...." and "He wanted me to stress..." Using indirect phrases like these helps to soften the message, particularly if the language in the message is direct and commanding.

Let's look at two messages that make use of reporting phrases:


Mr Benson wanted you to know that the Archer account has cancelled their last two orders because of a customs problem. He wants you to call the Duty Ministry and see if you can track where the last two shipments are and then call Archer and see if you can get them to take those orders anyway. If they will only be another day or so, they may still take the goods. He wanted me to stress the urgency and that we get moving soon on this.



Ms Chambers asked me to let you know that the Thursday meeting has been moved to Friday morning at 10 a.m. And she also wanted me to tell you that they have shifted the meeting room from the 8th floor to the 9th. She asked me to remind you to bring six copies of your company's annual report.

 

Using Capital Letters in Your Writing

15 May 2016

International business suffers from a serious overuse and incorrect use of capital (uppercase) letters. Here are examples of incorrect capitalization.

incorrect Be sure to visit our Web Site.
incorrect All the Company Employees are to attend the meeting.
incorrect We are the largest Province in the country.
incorrect Our Bookkeeper paid the invoice.
incorrect She went to University in Japan.

Here are some guidelines for the use of capital letters:

Names of People

Ms Jennifer Karen Montgomery
Mrs Lisa Veronica Mallory
Mr Ming-Wa Nguyen

Family Title as Part of the Name

I wonder where Aunt Susan is. ("Aunt" is used as part of her name.)
I wonder where your aunt is. ("aunt" is NOT used as part of her name.)

Family Title Instead of the Name

I wonder why Mother is late today. ("Mother" is used as her name.)
I wonder why your mother is late today. ("mother" is NOT used as her name.)

Days of the Week

Monday, Wednesday, Saturday

Months of the Year

April, September, December

Holidays

Valentine's Day, Christmas, Chinese New Year, Divali, Tet

Note: the names of the seasons are NOT capitalized.

tick1 My favourite season is autumn.
incorrect My favourite season is Autumn.

Cities

Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, London, Paris

States / Provinces

Florida, California, Guangdong, Shenzhen

Buildings, Parks, Zoos

I visited the San Francisco Zoo on my vacation. ("Zoo" is used as part of the name.)
I visited the zoo on my vacation. ("zoo" is NOT used as part of the name.)

Languages, Countries, Nationalities

Spanish, English, Chinese
South Korea, the United States
German, French, Japanese

CAPITALIZED: We went to South Korea on vacation. ("South" is used as part of the name.)
LOWER CASE: We drove south on Harbour Drive. ("south" is NOT used as part of the name.)

Job Titles and Company Departments

Chief Executive Officer
Sales Manager
Administrative Assistant
the Accounts Department
the Research and Development Department

 

 

Having an Awareness of Tone

08 May 2016

When speaking or writing in a business context, it is very important to be aware of tone. Tone has to do with not the meaning of words but how they are said or written. For example, if you invited three close friends over to watch a football game, the language you might use with them would be very different than the language you might use if you met the Queen of England or a very well-known politician. The difference in the way you'd say things to the Queen and your friends is called tone.

Think for a minute about your native language. How might you say these sentences (in your native language) differently, depending on who you were with:

Give me that pen.
Stop talking and listen.
Sit down right now.

We make things more formal, of course, by adding words like "please" and "kindly". We also make it more formal by adding phrases such as "Could you....", " Would you mind...," "I was wondering if you could..." etc.

Sometimes tone has to do, then, with being more polite. Sometimes, though, it's not a matter of politeness, but of formality. Some words are just more formal than others. Consider the following list of words, for example, which are rather informal. On the right are words that are similar in meaning but reflect a more formal tone.

informal formal
really very
better improved
go depart
at first initially
lucky fortunate
empty depleted
ask enquire
next following
help assistance
need require
in the end finally
whole entire
wrong incorrect
chance opportunity
cheap inexpensive
not as good inferior
over and over again repeatedly
get obtain

Keep in mind that this is certainly not a complete list. While it's incorrect to say that the words on the left are impolite, they are less formal. That means you would almost never use these words in a formal business letter, but you wouldn't use the formal words on the right if you were spending time with your friends at home. Also note that in North American and British/Australian/South African business circles, it is usually fine to be somewhat informal when speaking; this is not the case when it comes to writing, however.

 

Problems with Prepositions

01 May 2016

 

Rule 1

You may end a sentence with a preposition. Just do not use extra prepositions when the meaning is clear without them.

tick1 That is something I cannot agree with.
tick1 How many of you can I count on?
tick1 Where did he go (to)?
tick1 Where did you get this (at)?
tick1 I will go later (on).
tick1 Take your shoes off (of) the bed.
tick1 You may not look out (of) the window.
tick1 Cut it (up) into small pieces.

Rule 2

Use on with expressions that indicate the time of an occurrence.

He was born on 23 December.
We will arrive on the fourth.

Rule 3

0f
should never be used in place of have.

tick1 I should have done it.
incorrect I should of done it.

Rule 4

Between
refers to two. Among is used for three or more.

Divide the money between the two of you.
Divide the money among the three of you.

Rule 5

Into
implies entrance, in does not.

Sally walked into the office.
Sally was waiting in the office.
Cut the cake into six slices. (The knife enters the cake.)
 

Making Difficult Requests

24 Apr 2016

When making requests, it's necessary to be polite. In most situations, the standard request phrases "Would you...?" or "Could you .....?" are acceptable. For example:


Could you take these cheques to the bank?
Could you please handle my calls while I'm out?
Would you speak to Jane about this, please?
Would you make a copy of this report for me, please?

However, in certain situations, where the request will trouble or inconvenience someone, it is a good idea to use a stronger, more polite request phrase. The most common phrase is "I'd appreciate if you/we could...." Here are some examples:


I'd appreciate it if you could check this document for errors when you have time.
I'd appreciate it if you could show Jim how to use the new auditing software.
I'd appreciate it if you could extend the deadline by a week.

If the request is very difficult, use the phrase "I'd really appreciate if it you/we could..." Listen to these examples:


I'd really appreciate it if you could complete our order by 30 June.
I'd really appreciate it if you could extend our credit by a further 30 days.
I'd really appreciate it if we could postpone our meeting until next week.

Note: we don't say "I'd very appreciate it if you could." Use "really" instead of "very."

The other common phrase for making difficult requests is "I would be grateful if you could..." This phrase is used in the same way as "I'd appreciate it if you could..." Listen to these examples:


I'd be grateful if you could check this document for errors when you have time.
I'd be grateful if you could show Jim how to use the new auditing software.
I'd be grateful if you could extend the deadline by a week.

And if the request is very troublesome for someone, use the phrase "I'd be really/very grateful if you could...." This phrase is used in the same way as "I'd really appreciate if you could..." as in these examples:


I'd be very grateful if you could complete our order by 30 June.
I'd be really grateful if you could extend our credit a further 30 days.
I'd be very grateful if we could postpone our meeting until next week.

Why do we have to be so polite?

This is probably a cultural thing. In Western culture, people expect politeness. If your request sounds more like a command, then you're likely to cause offence, and there's a good chance they'll say "no." If you make a request and indicate your appreciation, your request is much more likely to be granted. Of course, much depends on the context of the conversation you have and the relationship you have with the person you're speaking to.

 

Email Etiquette

17 Apr 2016

Emailing Someone who Doesn't Know You

There are a few important points to consider when writing email, especially when emailing someone who doesn't know you.

  • Include a meaningful subject heading; this helps clarify what your message is about and may also help the recipient prioritize reading your email.
  • Open your email with a greeting like 'Dear Mr Chan' or 'Dear Ms Tam.'
  • Use standard spelling, punctuation, and capitalization. DO NOT USE ALL CAPS. IT'S LIKE SHOUTING!
  • Write clear, short paragraphs and be direct and to the point. Don't write unnecessarily long emails.
  • Be friendly and polite, but don't make jokes or witty remarks.
Continuing Email Conversations

Once you have exchanged emails with a person on a given subject, it is probably OK to leave greetings out of your follow-up emails. Here are some other points to consider about continuing email conversations:

  • Try to respond within a reasonable time frame, though "reasonable" will depend on the recipient's expectations and the subject being discussed.
  • Trim back the old messages: most email clients will keep copying older messages to the bottom of an email. Delete older messages so as to keep your message size from getting too large, and to keep your messages looking clean.
  • If someone asks a lot of questions, it may be OK to embed your answers into the sender's message copied at the bottom of your email. However, if you're going to do this, be sure to say so at the top, and leave plenty of space, for example:
> Do you offer discounts for bulk orders?

Yes. 10% for orders of over 100 units.


> How long does delivery normally take?


Around 10 days from the date of an order.
 
Menu