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!

Enquiring about a Job by Telephone

28 Aug 2016

When you are Telephoning an Employer

Have with you:

  • Paper
  • Pen
  • Diary or Calendar
  • The advert and any reference number for the job
  • The name of the person you want to speak to, or the extension number you require

When the Phone is Answered

It is unlikely you will get through right away to the person you want to speak to. Often, calls are answered by a receptionist who will then transfer your call. So, when phoning you should ask for:

  • A person by name
  • Or a department
  • Or an extension number

Check you are speaking to the person you want. When the receptionist transfers your call, check you've got the right person:

Is that Peter Jenkinson?

Say why you are calling. This part really is worth preparing. Decide what you're going to say before you telephone.

Explain briefly:

  • The vacancy you are interested in
  • How you came to know of it

Be Prepared - with a 'personal telephone check card'. The other person may want to hear something about you. They may only want your name and address in order to send you information, such as an application form, but, be ready to talk about yourself.

In some cases you may have the chance to ask questions. You may want to store these on the back of your Personal Telephone Check Card.

Here are a few examples of questions you might want to ask:

What does the job involve?
When would I be required to start work?
What are the hours of work?
Is weekend work required?
Do you expect staff to work shifts?
What is the starting salary?
Is there any overtime?
What are the prospects of promotion?

Remember, it's most unlikely you would need to ask all of these questions or even get the chance to! What you ask will depend on what information is already in the advertisement and on the way the phone call develops.

Listen Carefully

  • Give the other person time to speak.
  • Listen carefully to what they say and take notes in case you forget e.g. time, place of interview.
  • Don't be afraid to ask the person to repeat something if you don't catch what has been said, or to spell out names which are unusual.

Telephone Problems

Think how you would cope with the following problems. There are some suggestions for you to consider.

  • A bad phone line: "I'm sorry, it's a very bad line. Could you please repeat that?"
  • Getting cut off: Don't be put off - phone back and explain you must have been cut off.
  • The person you want to leave a message with is not there or unavailable: "Could you tell Mr Jenkinson I phoned. My name is William Chiang. I'll phone again. Do you know when he will be free?"
  • Mishearing something: Always check what has been said. By repeating the key points back to the person you are speaking to, anything you've misheard can be clarified and confirmed.
  • Spelling a name: If the line is bad and you are trying to spell a name, use the international alphabet, e.g. A for Alfred; B for Benjamin, C for Charles, etc.

Confirm Details

At the end of the conversation, confirm anything you have agreed. (Read this back to the employer to make sure).

  • Correct address for attendance at interview.
  • Date and time of appointment and directions for location of interview.
  • If you don't already know it, get the name of the person you have spoken to.
  • Thank the person for his or her time.
 

Punctuation Tip: Colon vs. Semicolon

21 Aug 2016

punctuation

Both the colon (:) and the semicolon (;) are used quite commonly in business writing; however, there is often a lot of confusion about  which one to use and when to use them. To avoid confusing you further, here we will just look at the main use of each.

A colon is most commonly used to introduce a list (often after 'for example', 'namely', 'i.e'. 'as follows' 'as in the  following' etc.). Look at these examples:

The quotation has been divided into the following sections: course development, tuition and pre/post-course testing.

The Human Resources Department is comprised of two sections, namely: the Personnel Department and the Training Department.


We offer several types of investment opportunities, for example: income bonds, unit trusts and foreign currency.

However, if the items in a list following the colon are long or contain commas, they ought to be separated from each other using  semicolons. This helps to make the sentence clearer and easier to read. For example:

Please send this letter to the following companies: Hon, Wang and Staunton Ltd.; Baxter-Mackenzie; and Zerox Co. Ltd.

The business writing seminar will cover three main areas: clear, concise and modern English; structure, layout and organisation of business texts; and, business writing styles.

 

 

 

 

Interviewing in English

14 Aug 2016

Interviewing is an important task that shows your ability to ask relevant questions and identify key skills in prospective employees. Conducting an interview efficiently is a critical task, since hiring the wrong person can cost your company a lot of time and money. Often, there are standard interview styles and formats which can be used to conduct interviews, but you should also remember that conversation is spontaneous and can lead in different directions. It is always better to think ahead and to prepare questions for different scenarios.

Some key points to remember are:

  • Keep each interviewee's details in mind and ask questions that are relevant to their backgrounds and qualifications, and that are built around the job description.
  • Remain friendly and alert at all times.
  • Keep your tone pleasant and interested, but impersonal.
  • Use key words and phrases from the interviewee's responses to lead the conversation forward.
  • Remember that body language and visual cues are often as important as what is said.
  • Examine the interviewee's resume carefully to ensure that you ask relevant questions.
  • Take brief notes on the candidate's responses so that you don't forget anything important that they have said.
 

Study Skills to Improve Your English

07 Aug 2016

Below we suggest some basic study skills to help you improve all aspects of your English.

Listening

  • listen for the general idea
  • listen for important details
  • listen for grammatical forms
  • listen to tapes or radio programs about your personal interests
  • check your progress with comprehension questions

Reading

  • read quickly for the general idea (skimming)
  • read silently without moving your mouth
  • read carefully for important details
  • notice word order and grammatical patterns while reading
  • find the most important words and highlight only these words
  • read about your personal interests in English
  • check your progress with comprehension questions

Vocabulary

  • repeat new words by speaking and writing
  • gesture while repeating a new action verb
  • list new words by topic
  • read dictionary entries thoughtfully
  • check dictionaries for all the meanings of a word
  • check other similar-sounding or similarly-spelled words
  • write hard-to-remember words on cards
  • sort vocabulary cards into topics
  • sort vocabulary cards alphabetically
  • sort vocabulary cards by how well you know the words
  • think about ways you can use a new word in your life
  • make an example sentence to use a new word
  • speak or write your new words in real communication
  • chart words by meanings – with similar and opposite meanings
  • cut apart long compound words and identify prefixes, roots and suffixes
  • study variant forms of prefixes, roots and suffixes

Pronunciation

  • test your hearing of similar but distinct English sounds
  • use a mirror to see if your tongue and lips are in the correct position
  • repeat difficult phrases to exercise your mouth muscles
  • copy English speech rhythm with a drum or nonsense syllables
  • check your progress by dictation to a native speaker

Grammar

  • compare the charts and explanations of one grammar point in different books
  • compare English word order and grammar forms with your language
  • use computer grammar practice for quick feedback
  • listen for grammar
  • practice grammar in speaking
  • check progress with grammar tests

Speaking

  • rehearse model recorded conversations
  • relax to develop fluency
  • meet people who use English for conversation
  • use English at certain times with friends or family members
  • arrange a conversation practice group
  • give a little speech about something of personal importance

Writing

  • study spelling rules
  • learn cursive writing or italic calligraphy
  • write your personal story in English
  • write letters to a pen pal
  • write a letter to a newspaper or politician
  • write stories and practice irregular past tense forms
  • write a report after reading something interesting
  • translate something from your language then compare your English with a native speaker's translation to study word order and communication style.
 

Taking Telephone Messages

31 Jul 2016

Taking telephone messages well is a skill that saves time for both the caller and the receiver.

If you need to take a message for someone, get as much information as possible. Always include:

  • The date and time of the call.
  • The full name of the person calling (ask for correct spelling).
  • The company the caller is from.
  • The phone number and time available for callback.
  • The purpose of the call.

Give enough information to the caller so they know what to expect, such as when the person they are trying to reach will return.

When taking a message, avoid saying, “I’ll have him call you back when he returns.” It would be better to say, “I’ll make sure he gets your message when he returns.”

Bear the following points in mind when leaving a telephone message

  • Don't speak too fast!
  • Pronounce and spell your name clearly.
  • Slow down when saying your telephone number and pause somewhere in the sequence of providing your number.
  • Give your company name, title and reason for calling.
  • Let them know when to call you back.

 

 

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.

 
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