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!

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.
 

Improving Your Listening Comprehension

10 Apr 2016

Don't Be Afraid of Errors, Guess Meaning, Speak Often

  • Accept your mistakes. Everyone learns language by making errors -- lots of errors. We try out new sounds, new words, new phrases, and new grammar; we see how the language feels and how others react.
  • Guess at meaning when you listen. You'll probably guess correctly most of the time!
  • Speak English as often as possible. Listen to other people; listen to television, the radio, and films.
Study and Practice All Aspects of English
  • Speak with everyone who will talk with you. Your listening comprehension and vocabulary will improve a lot, as will your ability to speak comfortably and quickly.
  • Continual study is necessary, too. Your accurate English grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation help you make English-speaking friends.
  • Study and practice saying useful phrases until you can say them well and say them confidently. Carry around a little notebook and study while you're in a queue, on public transport or just walking around. Rather than focus on isolated words, write down and practice phrases, expressions, common idioms, and parts of useful dialogues that you need in formal and informal situations.
  • Practice pronunciation -- not just individual sounds, but putting sounds and words together.
  • Keep studying grammar. Grammar isn't separate from listening and speaking -- language is grammar.
Find Opportunities to Practice
  • Be brave. Talk to your native-speaker colleagues or customers at work. Talk to your friends in English. Talk to your children in English.
  • Talk to yourself in your room. Create situations in your mind. For example, pretend you're at the library and need help.
  • Read a newspaper article and then, without looking, summarize the article aloud to yourself.
  • Keep a talking diary. Record your thoughts in English each night before you go to sleep.
 

Comparison of Adjectives

03 Apr 2016

When you were at school you were probably drilled in the comparison of adjectives: interesting, more interesting, most interesting; fair, fairer, fairest, etc.

The two examples above are of regular comparative forms. However, a common problem is not knowing when to use -er-, -est- or -more- + adj., -most- + adj.

Actually, there is a very simple rule to help you remember which comparative form to use. Count the number of syllables in an adjective. Syllables are the sounds which make up a word. For example:

big has one sound or syllable,
cle ver
has two syllables,
a rro gant
has three syllables and
in tell i gent
has four syllables.

Adjectives which contain one or two syllables follow the -er-, -est-, form. For example: big, bigger, biggest; and clever, cleverer, cleverest.

Adjectives which contain more than two syllables follow the -more-, -most- form. For example: arrogant, more arrogant, most arrogant; intelligent, more intelligent, most intelligent.

That's an easy rule to remember!

 

Differences Between British and American English

27 Mar 2016

While there are certainly many more varieties of English, American and British English are the two varieties that are taught in most English Foreign Language (EFL) lessons. Generally, it is agreed that no one version is "correct" however, there are certainly preferences in use.

Here are just a couple of differences between the two main varieties of English:

Consistency of Spelling

The most important rule is to try to be consistent in your usage. If you decide that you want to use American English spellings then be consistent in your spelling. For example:

The color of the orange is also its flavour.

Color is American spelling and flavour is British. Here are the sentences with consistent British and American spellings:

The colour of the orange is also its flavour.
The color of the orange is also its flavor.

Use of the Present Perfect

In British English the present perfect is used to express an action that has occurred in the recent past that has an effect on the present moment. For example:

I've lost my key. Can you help me look for it?

In American English the following is also possible:

I lost my key. Can you help me look for it?

In British English the above would be considered incorrect. However, both forms are generally accepted in standard American English. Other differences involving the use of the present perfect in British English and simple past in American English include already, just and yet.

British English:

I've just had lunch.
I've already seen that proposal.
Have you finished that report yet?

American English:

I just had lunch. OR I've just had lunch.
I already saw that proposal. OR I've already seen that proposal.
Did your finish that report yet? OR Have you finished that report yet?
 

Avoid Using Too Many Negatives

20 Mar 2016

If you want to annoy a reader, use negative words. Not only are negative words annoying, but research shows that it takes the brain longer to understand a negative statement than a positive one. They cause confusion!

In writing, negatives include 'un-' words like 'unnecessary' and 'unless'; verbs with negative associations like 'avoid' and 'cease'; as well as the obvious ones like 'not', 'no', 'except', 'less than' and 'not more than'. When readers are faced with a negative, they must first imagine the positive alternative then mentally cancel it out.

A single negative is unlikely to cause problems, though many an election voter has paused confronted with the polling booth challenge:

Vote for not more than one candidate. (unclear)
Vote for one candidate only. (clear)

But when two, three or more negatives are gathered together in the same sentence, meaning may become unclear, as in this note from a lawyer to his client, an underwriter:

Underwriters are, we consider, free to form the view that James Brothers have not yet proved to their satisfaction that the short-landed bags were not discharged from the ship, and were not lost in transit between Hong Kong and Singapore, when they were not covered by this insurance policy.

The above sentence is very confusing due to the number of negative words!

Here are some examples of how to rewrite negative sentences more positively:

We will not help unless you give us a special mention.
We will help if you give us a special mention

The corporation will not pay unless employees also contribute.
The corporation will pay only if employees contribute.

Your credit will not be extended until you pay us what you owe.
We will extend you credit if you pay what you owe.
We would be happy to extend your credit once we receive payment for what you owe.

We are not open on Saturdays or Sundays.
We are open from Monday to Friday.

We were not prepared for your request.
Your request caught us by surprise.

 

Business Presentation Tips

13 Mar 2016

Above all, know your audience and match what you say to their needs. Creating your presentation with your audience in mind, will assure that your audience will follow you. If your presentation doesn't appeal to your audience - no matter how well you have developed your presentation - your presentation will fall on deaf ears.

This leads us to the next rule: Know your material thoroughly. Your material needs to be second nature to you. Practice and rehearse your presentation with friends, in front of a mirror, and with colleagues. If you are speaking in a second language, make sure that you record yourself and listen a number of times before going to practice with a native speaker (if possible).

Remember that you are an actor when presenting. Make sure that not only your physical appearance is appropriate to the occasion, but also the tone you use is well chosen. If your topic is serious, be solemn. However, it's always a good idea to begin your presentation with an ice-breaker.

Don't worry about making friends, rather lead the audience through your materials in a calm and relaxed manner.

Speak slowly and clearly, and remember to address everyone in the audience - even the person the farthest away from you.

To achieve the above goals follow these tips when giving your presentation:

  • Speak with conviction. Believe what you are saying and you will persuade your audience.
  • Do not read from notes. Referring to notes is fine, but do so only briefly.
  • Maintain eye contact with your audience. Making direct eye contact with individuals will help them feel as if they are participating in your presentation.
  • Bring handouts. Don't just use a PowerPoint presentation. Provide audience members with handouts of the most important materials so they can keep your most important take always in mind.
  • Know when to stop. This cannot be underestimated. You need to make your case, but continuing for too long will only ensure that the audience forgets what you have said.
 

Developing Your Vocabulary

06 Mar 2016

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

28 Feb 2016

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

21 Feb 2016

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

14 Feb 2016

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!

 
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