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!

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.
 
 

Punctuation – The Dash (-) and Brackets ()

07 Jan 2018

The Dash (-)

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

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

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

We all signed the contract - finally.

Brackets (.....)

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

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

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

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

 

Participating in Business Meetings

31 Dec 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Other options include:

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

Should vs Ought to vs Must vs Have to

24 Dec 2017

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

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

Look at the following sentences:

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

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

Have to vs Must (for strong obligation / necessity)

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tips for Effective Negotiations

17 Dec 2017

Rapport

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

Simplicity

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

Clarity

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

Listening and Response

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

Review

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

 

Include One Idea per Sentence

10 Dec 2017

Have you ever received a letter or email where the sentences go on and on, one after the other in a stream, with only commas to separate them? These sentences often contain a number of points, some of which might be related. This makes them difficult to read and understand. Here's an example of an email we received from one of our subscribers:

I am working as a manager in Dubai, the communication with our customers is in English, therefore I have to send email, letters, etc., you know, but the problem is I want to learn more how to write, I feel that I am very bad in writing, so I need your help in this, how can I develop myself, I learn from your site but I need more if possible, thanks in advance for your help, I look forward to hearing from you.

With one idea in each clear, concise sentence, the message might read like this:

I work as an manager in Dubai. The communication with our customers "" email, letters, etc. "" is in English. The problem is that I am very bad in writing. I want to learn how to write better, and I need your help in this. Although I learn from your site, I need more if possible. How can I develop myself?

I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you for your help.

We did include more than one idea in two sentences so the message would not sound choppy. But they were closely related ideas.

So, the message here is: include only one idea in each sentence. Sometimes, it's acceptable to include two ideas in a sentence but only if they are closely related.

 

Explaining Procedures – Sequence Words and Phrases

03 Dec 2017

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

To explain the order in which certain things are done

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

To add a further point

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

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

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

 

Speaking English on the Telephone

19 Nov 2017

If you have to talk on the phone in English, don't be afraid! The fear of talking on the phone in a second language will disappear if you practice often. The most difficult part about using the phone in a language that is not your own is the fact that you cannot see the other person's eyes, mouth, and body language. Although you might not be aware of it, in face-to-face conversation you lip-read and watch for smiles, frowns, and moving hands, all of which can help in understanding meaning.

In addition, it is true that telephone interaction is perhaps not taught enough in ESL classrooms, nor is textbook treatment of telephone conversation adequate. These deficiencies pose a serious problem for ESL learners, given how much everyone relies on the telephone in everyday life. Telephone talk appears to be one area in which ESL learners are particularly sensitive, since they frequently state that it is difficult to talk on the telephone and they either avoid or limit such interactions.

Here are a few tips for speaking English on the telephone:

Speak Slowly and Clearly

Listening to someone speaking in a second language over the telephone can be very challenging because you cannot see the person you are trying to hear. However, it may be even more difficult for the person you are talking with to understand you. You may not realize that your pronunciation isn't clear because your teacher and fellow students know and understand you. Pay special attention to your weak areas (such as "r's" and "l's" or "b's" and "v's") when you are on the phone. If you are nervous about using the phone in English, you may notice yourself speaking very quickly. Practice or write down what you are going to say and take a few deep breaths before you make a phone call.

Make Sure you Understand the Other Speaker

Don't pretend to understand everything you hear over the telephone. Even native speakers ask each other to repeat and confirm information from time to time. This is especially important if you are taking a message for someone else. Learn the appropriate expressions that English speakers use when they don't hear something properly. Don't be afraid to remind the person to slow down more than once. Keep your telephone in an area that is away from other noise distractions such as a radio or television.

Ask another student to practice talking on the phone with you. You might choose one night a week and take turns phoning each other at a certain time. Try to talk for at least fifteen minutes. You can talk socially, or role play different scenarios in a business environment. If you don't have access to a telephone, you can practice by setting two chairs up back to back. The most important thing about practicing telephone English is that you aren't able to see each other's mouths. It is amazing how much people lip-read without realizing.

Use Businesses and Recordings

There are many ways to get free telephone English practice. After business hours, you can call and listen to recorded messages. Write down what you hear the first time, and then call back and check to see if your notes are accurate. Use the phone in your everyday life. Call for a pizza delivery instead of going out to eat. Call a salon to book a hair appointment. You can even phone the movie theatre to ask for the listings instead of using the newspaper. Some large cities have free recordings you can call for information such as your daily horoscope or the weather (make sure that you aren't going to get charged for these numbers first). Some products have free phone numbers on the packaging that you can call for information. Think of a question you might want to ask and call the free number! For example, call the number on the back of the cereal box and ask for coupons. You will have to give your name and address. Make sure you have a pen handy so that you can repeat the information and check your comprehension.

Learn Telephone Etiquette (manners)

The way that you speak to your best friend on the phone is very different to the way you should speak to someone in a business setting. Many ESL speakers make the mistake of being too direct on the telephone. It is possible that the person on the other line will think that you are being rude on purpose if you don't use formal language in certain situations. Sometimes just one word such as "could" or "may" is necessary in order to sound polite. You should use the same modal verbs you would use in a formal "face-to-face" situation. Take the time to learn how to answer the phone and say goodbye in a polite manner, as well as all the various ways one can start and end a conversation casually.

Practice Dates and Numbers

You should practice saying dates and numbers aloud. You and a friend can write out a list of dates and numbers and take turns reading them over the phone to each other. Record what you hear. Exchange notes the next day and check your answers.

 

Using Prepositions with Times and Dates

12 Nov 2017

Prepositions are used to relate things or people to various ways of time, place, direction and distance. It is difficult to use prepositions correctly as most of them have a variety of uses and meanings.

Reading through the examples below will help you to become more familiar with the uses and meanings of prepositions of time and dates.

Use at + a particular time

at ten o'clock
at half-past eleven
at 2.30 p.m.
at the time of his resignation at that moment

(But not in the following: 'What time is it?' 'It's eight fifteen.')

Periods of the day

No preposition with this ... or tonight

I'm busy this morning / this afternoon / this evening / tonight.

No preposition with yesterday ... or last/next ...

She spoke to me yesterday afternoon.
I had a call from him last week.
The meeting has been rescheduled for next Tuesday.

But notice: at night

The power supply is switched off at night.

Use on + a particular day/date

I sent the information on Monday morning.
Our new office opens on the 15th.
Deborah works late on Wednesdays and Fridays.
We close the office early on Christmas Eve.

On time, in time, by the time; at the end of, by the end of, in the end

These phrases seem similar but have different meanings. Look at the examples below:

My plane to Beijing arrived on time. (It came at the scheduled time.)
I was in time for my meeting. (I arrived before the meeting started.)
The report was finished by the time the clients arrived in Hong Kong. (Finished before something else happened.)
Gerald is leaving at the end of May. (Around 30 or 31 May.)
Gerald is leaving by the end of May. (Any date before 31 May.)

In the end means 'finally/as a final result'

There were a lot of problems with the contract, so in the end we didn't sign it.
 
 

Improving your Intonation in English

05 Nov 2017

In past tips we have looked at the pronunciation of individual sounds and at word and sentence stress. The most noticeable feature of a foreign language, however, is often intonation and rhythm. Some languages are described as sounding "like music", other languages as being "flat" and without "melody". If the pronunciation of individual sounds can be compared with the individual notes in a piece of music, the intonation can be compared with the melody or tune.

All languages have their own intonation patterns. Why is intonation important? Intonation conveys both meaning and attitude, so when a non-native speaker gets the intonation wrong, s/he can be misunderstood or sometimes misinterpreted as sounding rude or demanding when this is not intended.

If a non-native speaker is almost fluent in the English language, intonation is often the only way in which one can tell that s/he is foreign. Moreover, if a foreign speaker is advanced in terms of grammar, vocabulary, etc., native speakers will make fewer allowances for intonation problems than they would with speakers who are obviously at a more elementary level.

For example, if an advanced level speaker unintentionally sounds rude or demanding, the listeners will assume that s/he means it.

What can we do to improve intonation?

Listen to as much spoken English as possible (on CD if you are unable to listen to native speakers) and be aware of where the voice rises and falls. When you listen, try to consider the attitude and feelings being conveyed. One word, for example, can be said in several different ways, depending on the meaning you wish to convey.

Are there any rules?

Yes, there are some. For example, most open questions (those beginning with "when", "where", "who", "which", what", "why" and "how" end with a falling tone and most closed questions (those requiring a "yes" or "no" answer) end with a rising tone.

 

Increasing Specific Vocabulary

29 Oct 2017

Improving vocabulary skills requires constant attention. Here, we'll give you a few tips for increasing vocabulary in specific subject areas through the use of a vocabulary tree.

  1. Choose a subject area that interests you.

  2. Write a short introduction to the subject trying to use as many vocabulary words concerning the subject as possible.

  3. Using your introduction, arrange the principle ideas concerning the subject into a vocabulary tree.

  4. To create a vocabulary tree, put the subject at the centre of a piece of paper.

  5. Around the central subject, put the principle areas relating to the subject. For example - verbs, nouns, descriptive adjectives, etc.

  6. In each of these categories, write the appropriate vocabulary. If you need to, add sub-categories.

  7. Create the same vocabulary tree in your native language.

  8. Your native language tree will be much more detailed. Use this native language tree as a reference point to look up new words and fill in your English tree.

  9. Rewrite your introduction concerning the subject taking advantage of the new vocabulary learned.

  10. To make this vocabulary active, practice reading your introduction aloud until you can present it by memory.

  11. Ask a friend or colleague to listen to your presentation and ask you questions about the subject.
 

Telephone Courtesy

22 Oct 2017

When you answer the telephone in a business, you are interacting with a customer. Every telephone call you make at work gives you an opportunity to strengthen a customer relationship.

You also use the telephone in a business for other reasons too. After all, you may use the telephone to talk to customers at work, but you also talk to colleagues and co-workers on the phone, and they're not customers.

There are really two kinds of customers - external and internal. External ones are the people who call your company to buy products and services. The external customer's call demands your best telephone manners.

When you work with other people or you coordinate with other departments or divisions, you are interacting with internal customers. If a colleague calls needing data from you to prepare a report, that person is really your internal customer. Internal telephone calls deserve the same level of courtesy you'd normally use with real customers.

Telephone courtesy should become a habit. Whether you're interacting with external or internal customers, courtesy is always your best telephone strategy.

FOCUS ON TELEPHONE COURTESY

Draw on your telephone experiences - both as a customer and as a businessperson - to answer the questions below. Then consider each of the related telephone tips.

1. When you place a call, how many rings do you allow before you assume the party is not going to answer?

TIP
You should allow from 4 to 6 rings before you assume the person you are calling is not going to answer.

2. When the telephone rings, how quickly do you answer?

TIP
When you receive a call, answer on the first or second ring. In business, the ring of the telephone is not simply an interruption. Answering the telephone is an integral part of your job.

3. Have you ever been lost when someone tried to transfer your call?

TIP
Call transfers are very common. Be sure you know the proper process on your system. Customers who are lost in transfer may become lost business as well.

4. When making a business call, do you like being put on hold? When you're on hold, have you ever felt abandoned or left hanging?

TIP
Most people don't like being on hold. Be sure you ask the party if he/she wants to hold. Then check back every 30 seconds to confirm that hold or offer to take a message. Never leave a caller on hold.

5. Have you ever been on the telephone when the other party dropped the receiver or accidentally banged it on the desktop?

TIP
It is an unpleasant surprise. Be especially careful in handling the receiver. Your telephone partner will appreciate it.

6. How do you feel when talking on the telephone to someone who is eating or drinking during the conversation?

TIP
Don't eat, drink or chew gum during a conversation. Such sounds are not always pleasant.

7. What impression do you get when the other person fumbles around looking for a pad or pencil?

TIP
You probably imagined the person was not organized or was not very businesslike. Since you always want to make a positive telephone impression, be ready for action.

8. When someone says he/she will call back at a specific time - but doesn't, how do you feel?

TIP
Telephone tag means two parties try to get in touch by leaving phone messages and attempting callbacks. It's become an annoying fact of business life. If you promise to call back at a certain time, make that call. Likewise, if you've promised to be available at a certain time to receive a call, be there.

9. Suppose you receive a call and are disconnected. Who takes the initiative to resume the call?

TIP
The person who made the original call makes the second call to resume an interrupted conversation. The person who received the original call should hang up immediately when the call is disrupted to enable the other party to call back.
 

Using Tag Questions

15 Oct 2017

Tag questions are small questions added to the end of a statement, for example:

That is a dog, isn't it?

The Structure of Tags

Here are a range of tag questions:

..., won't you?
..., can't you?
..., shouldn't you?
..., don't they?
..., isn't it?
..., won't it?

Note the structural elements:

  • The first element contains a verb, often 'to be' or 'to do', and is often a repetition of the verb used in the statement.
  • The verb is made negative, in the short form.
  • The second element is a pronoun.

Using Tag Questions

Use tag questions to emphasize and encourage the other person to agree with you. They turn a strong statement into a question that is difficult to disagree with.

Gaining Agreement

Make a strong statement and add a tag question:

They will finish, won't they?
I am the best person for the job, aren't I?
This is the best way to do it, isn't it?
She's the best person for the job, isn't she?
There aren't enough seats for the meeting, are there?
We should buy this equipment as soon as possible, shouldn't we?

Gaining Compliance

Start with what you want the other person to do, and then end with a tag such as 'won't you' or 'can't you'.

You won't let me know, will you?
You will come to the dance, won't you?
You can do this today, can't you?
You can't force him to do it, can you?
 

Leaving Telephone Messages

08 Oct 2017

Projecting a professional image over the phone is important for building a good working relationship with colleagues, clients or customers.

Here, we present you with a number of useful language structures for leaving a message over the telephone.

The language required for leaving messages can be categorized into the following sections:

Asking for someone

Can/Could/May I speak to...?
I'd like to speak to....
Could you put me through to...¦?
Could I have extension 211, please?
May I speak to someone in the Accounts Department, please?

 

Asking when someone is back

When do you expect him back?  
Do you know when he'll be back in the office?   
What time will she be back?

Asking to leave a message

May/Can/Could I leave a message?
Could you take a message, please?

Explaining the reason for calling

I'm calling about...
The reason I'm calling is to + infinitive
It's about + noun phrase/gerund

Leaving a message containing information only

Could you tell her that...?

 

Leaving a message requesting action

Could you ask him to...?

Other useful expressions

I would appreciate it if you could inform him as soon as possible. It is rather urgent.
I'll be out the rest of the day. Could you ask him to call me tomorrow?
Actually, is there anyone else I can speak to regarding this matter?

 

 
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