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!

Developing Your Vocabulary

22 Apr 2018

Buy a good monolingual dictionary.

Read as much English as you can . Read anything that interests you, in any format available to you. If you find newspapers or literature difficult, try reading 'graded readers', which are simplified books.

Select carefully the words or phrases you look up in a dictionary . It's frustrating to look up every word that you don't understand. Only look up those words that you think are important, such as:

  • Words or phrases that occur often
  • Words or phrases that are essential for understanding a sentence.

You can often get the general meaning of the sentence without having to use a dictionary, so save yourself some work!

From the words or phrases that you look up , decide which ones are vital for you to understand and use. For example, words that you need for your job or study, or words that occur often.

Use your dictionary to get the essential information about these words and phrases (grammar, stress, pronunciation and meaning), then make an effort to practice these words. Write down the new word in a sentence of your own, and try to use the word as often as possible, until you are sure that you remember it.

When you look up a new word, make sure you know which words you can use with it. For example, you do a test, but you make an effort.

When you find a new word, check to see if you can use it in other ways. English is a flexible language - nouns, verbs and adjectives can often be made from each other. For example, to apply for a job, a letter of application, the applicant for the job, and so on.

Keep a vocabulary book with you. You can use it while you are reading, or watching television or a film. You can also refer to it when you have some spare time to help you revise new words and expressions.

 

Improving your Listening

15 Apr 2018

Does this situation seem familiar to you? Your English is progressing well, the grammar is now familiar, the reading comprehension is no problem, you are communicating quite fluently, but: Listening is STILL a problem!

First of all, remember that you are not alone. Listening comprehension is probably the most difficult task for almost all learners of English as a foreign language. The most important thing is to practice listening as often as possible.

The next step is to find listening resources that you are really interested in on the radio, television and the Internet.

Listening strategies

Once you have started to listen to English on a regular basis, you may still feel that your listening is not improving. What should you do? Here is some advice:

  • First, accept the fact that you are not going to understand everything.
  • Don't worry that you can't understand every little word spoken.
  • Don't translate into your own language.
  • Listen for the general idea of the conversations. Don't focus on detail until you have understood the main ideas.

I remember the problems I had in understanding spoken French when I first went to France. At first, when I could hardly understand a word, I tried to translate everything into English. This approach usually resulted in confusion. Then, after the first six months, I discovered two important facts: Firstly, translating creates a barrier between the listener and the speaker; Secondly, most people repeat what they say. By remaining calm and focused, I noticed that I could often understand what the speaker had said.

Translating creates a barrier between yourself and the person who is speaking

While you are listening to another person speaking English, the temptation is to immediately translate into your own language. This becomes stronger when you hear a word or expression you don't understand. However, when you translate into your own language, you are taking the focus of your attention away from the speaker and on to the translation process in your head. This situation leads to less, not more, understanding.

Most people repeat themselves

When people speak in their own language, do they repeat themselves? I don't mean word for word; I mean the general idea. If they are like most people I have met, they probably do. That means that whenever you listen to someone speaking, it is very likely that they will repeat what they have said, giving you a second, third or even fourth chance to understand the main message.

By remaining calm, allowing yourself to not understand, and not translating while listening, your brain is free to concentrate on the most important thing: Understanding English in English.

 

Becoming a Better Language Learner

08 Apr 2018

So, you want to improve your English? At your age and level of language learning, there are some things you can't change. For example, you can't change:

  • the language learning ability that you were born with;
  • your ability to tell the difference between different sounds and your ability to make sounds;
  • your ability to remember words and phrases.

However, there are many things you CAN do, and the first and most important thing is to try to change your attitudes about using and speaking English. For example, you can try:

  • not to be embarrassed about making mistakes;
  • to be more outgoing and make more effort to socialise with other people;;
  • to ask questions when you do not understand something;
  • to greet your English speaking colleagues rather than crossing the room or corridor to avoid them;
  • to get into the habit of asking other bilingual speakers the question, "How do you say __________ in English?" or 'What does ___________ mean?";
  • to make opportunities to practice your English (and not just wait for them to come along or expect others to make them for you);
  • to commend yourself for every extra effort you make to use your English;
  • to have fun with your English instead of just studying and worrying about it;
  • to stop saying either to yourself or others, "Oh dear, my English is poor. It will never improve!" It will improve, but only if you use it!

In your efforts to improve your English, it may be helpful for you to understand what the differences are between the Not-So-Good Language Learner and the Good Language Learner.

The Not-So-Good Language Learner:

  1. Doesn't try to say anything he or she doesn't know how to say;
  2. Avoids making mistakes so as not to appear foolish;
  3. Pays little attention to language form, and fails to note language patterns;
  4. Pays little attention to his or her own speech or the speech of others;
  5. Relies too much on grammar;
  6. Doesn't try to guess at meanings;
  7. Doesn't practice.

The Good Language Learner:

  1. Tries hard to communicate, to get his or her message across;
  2. Is willing to make mistakes, even to appear foolish;
  3. Pays attention to language form and looks for patterns in the language;
  4. Monitors his or her own speech and the speech of others, checking for mistakes and deviations from intended meaning;
  5. Pays attention to meaning, knowing that grammar and the surface forms of speech are not in themselves enough to understand the message;
  6. Is willing to make guesses;
  7. Practices.
 

Using the International Alphabet

01 Apr 2018

When talking on the phone, you may have difficulty with clearly communicating the spelling of your name, or understanding an important word spoken by the person you are calling. In these situations, it is a good idea to use the International Alphabet:

Play the audio file below to listen to the alphabet:

A for  Alpha

B for  Bravo

C for  Charlie

D for  Delta

E for  Echo

F for  Foxtrot

G for  Golf

H for  Hotel

I for  India

J for  Juliet

K for  Kilo

L for  Lima

M for  Mike

N for  November

O for  Oscar

P for  Papa

Q for  Quebec

R for  Romeo

S for  Sierra

T for  Tango

U for  Uniform

V for  Victor

W for  Whisky

X for  X-ray

Y for  Yankee

Z for  Zulu

So if your name is Zhane, you would say:

"My first name is Zhane. That's Z for Zulu; H for Hotel; A for Alpha; N for November; E for Echo - Zhane."

Keep the international alphabet with you when you make a phone call, or better still try to memorise it!

 

Reading Advice

25 Mar 2018

Right now you are reading English. That means that you are using your brain in a very active way. Reading is a very active process. It is true that the writer does a lot of work, but the reader also has to work hard. When you read a text, you have to do some or all of these:

  • imagine a scene in your head
  • understand clearly what the writer is trying to say
  • agree or disagree with the writer

When you learn a language, listening, speaking and writing are important, but reading can also be very helpful. There are many advantages associated with reading, including:

Learning Vocabulary In Context
  • You will usually encounter new words when you read. If there are too many new words for you, then the level is too high and you should read something simpler. But if there are, say, a maximum of five new words per page, you will learn this vocabulary easily. You may not even need to use a dictionary because you can guess the meaning from the rest of the text (from the context). Not only do you learn new words, but you see them being used naturally.
A Model For Writing
  • When you read, it gives you a good example for writing. Texts that you read show you structures and expressions that you can use when you write.
Seeing "Correctly Structured" English
  • When people write, they usually use "correct" English with a proper grammatical structure. This is not always true when people speak. So, by reading you see and learn grammatical English naturally.
Working At Your Own Speed
  • You can read as fast or as slowly as you like. You can read ten pages in 30 minutes, or take one hour to explore just one page. It doesn't matter. The choice is yours. You cannot easily do this when speaking or listening. This is one of the big advantages of reading because different people work at different speeds.
Personal Interest
  • If you choose something to read that you like, it can actually be interesting and enjoyable. For example, if you like to read about football in your own language, why not read about football in English? You will get information about football and improve your English at the same time.
READING TIPS
  • Try to read at the right level. Read something that you can (more or less) understand. If you need to stop every three words to look in a dictionary, it is not interesting for you and you will soon be discouraged.
  • Make a note of new vocabulary. If there are four or five new words on a page, write them in your vocabulary book. But you don't have to write them while you read. Instead, try to guess their meaning as you read; mark them with a pen; then come back when you have finished reading to check in a dictionary and add them to your vocabulary book.
  • Try to read regularly. For example, read for a short time once a day. Fifteen minutes every day is better than two hours every Sunday. Fix a time to read and keep to it. For example, you could read for fifteen minutes when you go to bed, or when you get up, or at lunchtime.
  • Be organised. Have everything ready:
    • something to read
    • a marker to highlight difficult words
    • a dictionary
    • your vocabulary book
    • a pen to write down the new words
  • Read what interests YOU. Choose a magazine or book about a subject that you like.
 

Use of Pronouns to Avoid Sexist Writing

18 Mar 2018

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

11 Mar 2018

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

04 Mar 2018

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

25 Feb 2018

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

18 Feb 2018

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

11 Feb 2018

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

04 Feb 2018


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)

 

Telephone Answering Tips

28 Jan 2018

Telephone answering skills are very important for businesses. The telephone is still the main point of contact with customers for most companies. And the way you answer your company's phone will form your customer's first impression of your business. These telephone answering tips will ensure that callers know they're dealing with a professional business:

Answer all incoming phone calls before the third ring.

When you answer the phone, be warm and enthusiastic. Your voice at the end of the telephone line is sometimes the only impression of your company a caller will get.

When answering the phone, welcome callers politely and identify yourself and your organization. Say, for instance:

Good morning. Cypress Technologies. Susan speaking. How may I help you?

No one should ever have to ask if they've reached such and such a business.

Enunciate clearly, keep your voice volume moderate, and speak slowly and clearly when answering the phone, so your caller can understand you easily.

Control your language when answering the phone. Don't use slang or jargon. Instead of saying, "OK", or "No problem", for instance, say "Certainly", "Very well", or "All right". If you're a person who uses fillers when you speak, such as "uh huh", "um", or phrases such as "like" or "you know", train yourself carefully not to use these when you speak on the phone.

Train your voice and vocabulary to be positive when phone answering, even on a "down" day. For example, rather than saying, "I don't know", say:

Let me find out about that for you.

Take telephone messages completely and accurately. If there's something you don't understand or can't spell, such as a person's surname, ask the caller to repeat it or spell it for you. Then make sure the message gets to the intended recipient.

Answer all your messages within one business day.

Always ask the caller if it's all right to put him/her on hold before doing so, and don't leave the caller on hold for very long. Provide callers on hold with progress reports every 30 to 45 seconds. Offer them choices if possible, such as:

That line is still busy. Will you continue to hold or should I have xxx call you back?

 

General Grammar and Writing Tips

21 Jan 2018

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."

 

Making Polite Requests: Different Requests for Different Situations

14 Jan 2018

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:

Help me file these documents please. (Very Direct - more demand than request)

Please will you help me file these documents? (Less Direct)

Could you help me file these documents please? (Even Less Direct)

Do you think you could possibly help me file these documents? (Indirect)

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.

  1. 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.
  1. How important is the action to the speaker? Usually, the more important the action, the more indirect the expression.
  1. 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.
 
 
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