Business English Tip of the Week

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Making Polite Requests

23 Feb 2020

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:

  1. Help me file these documents (please). (Very Direct - more demand than request)
  2. (Please) will you help me file these documents? (Less Direct)
  3. Could you help me file these documents (please)? (Neutral)
  4. Do you think you could possibly help me file these documents? (Indirect)
  5. 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.
  • 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.

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

  • 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 ()

16 Feb 2020

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

09 Feb 2020

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

02 Feb 2020

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.

 
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