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!

How to Start a Conversation

02 Jun 2019

Start out by asking the person questions that are easy to answer.

A good balance is around two or three closed questions, that have short answers, and then one open question, where they have to think and talk more. Early on, it is often better even with open questions to keep them simple and easy.

Tips

  • Ask them something about themselves.
  • If you do not know their name, then start there.
  • Compliment them about their appearance. Ask them where they got that nice suit, watch, hat or whatever.
  • Comment on their good mood, ask them why they are looking a bit down. Say they look distracted and ask why.
  • Ask if they have family, the names of their children, how old they are, how they are doing in school and so on.
  • Ask about their occupation, their careers and plans for the future.
  • Ask about hobbies, interests and what they do with their spare time.
  • Pay attention when they give you an answer. Show interest not only in the answer but in them as a person as well
  • And when they tell you something, show interest in it. Follow up with more questions.

Conversation Starters

  • General starters

Hi, I'm Paul.

Sorry, I didn't catch your name.

I like your dress. Where did you get it?

Nice hat!

You look worried.

What's the matter? You look down.

Is there anything wrong? You seem distracted.

  • The weather (especially in climates where it changes often).

Nice day, isn't it?

Beautiful day, isn't it?

Can you believe all of this rain we've been having?

It looks like it's going to snow.

We couldn't ask for a nicer day, could we?

How about this weather?

  • Recent news (though be careful to avoid politics and religion with people you don't know very well).

Did you catch the news today?

Did you hear about that fire on Fourth St?

What do you think about this rail strike?

I read in the paper today that the Sears Mall is closing.

I heard on the radio today that they are finally going to start building the new bridge.

How about United? Do you think they're going to win tonight?

  • Family (siblings, where they live, etc.)

Do you have any children?

Do you come from a big family?

Do you have any brothers or sisters?

Do your family live close by?

Do your children go to the local school?

  • History (what school they went to, where they have lived, etc.)

Are you from around here?

You're not from around here, are you?

Have you lived here long?

Are you from London?

Where are you from?

How long do you plan to live here?

Where did you live before coming to Singapore?

Did you go to school around here?

Which school did you go to?

How do you find living in Singapore?
  • Work (what they do, people at work, etc.)

Looking forward to the weekend?

Have you worked here long?

I can't believe how busy we are today, can you?

You look like you could use a cup of coffee.

What do you think of the new computers?

  • Holidays

Are you going away anywhere this summer?

Do you have any plans to go away somewhere?

Are you doing anything special at the weekend?

Taking a vacation this year?
  • Hobbies and sports

Are you interested in football?

Which sport to you like best?

My passion is golf. What about you?

Are you a member of any clubs?

How do you spend your free time?

Are you going to the game tonight?

Great win for United on Saturday.

What's your favorite sport?

 

 

Knowing When to Use the Passive Voice

26 May 2019

If you use a grammar-check feature, your sentences probably get flagged at times for a fault called “Passive Voice.” This flag is typically accompanied by advice to “Consider rewriting with an active voice verb.”

Is this fault serious? No! In fact, our grammar-checker has already flagged three of our sentences at the beginning of this Business Writing Tip, and we aren’t worried a bit.

We aren’t worried, but we do pay attention. That’s because there is a lot of good advice about limiting the use of passive verbs. For instance, we are told to change:

“The surface should be primed” (passive) to “Prime the surface” (active). This change makes sense. Readers need precise instructions.

“Your gift is appreciated” (passive) to “We appreciate your gift” (active). This is another fine suggestion. “Is appreciated” sounds impersonal, whereas “We appreciate” feels warm.

When we make these changes, we are replacing wordy, vague phrases with concise, direct words. That’s excellent.

But there are four places where passive verbs fit just right:


1. When you don’t know who performed the action.

Passive:

Her car was stolen twice.

Not:

Someone stole her car twice.

2. When it doesn’t matter who performs the action.

Passive:

The boards are pre-cut.

Not:

A worker pre-cuts the boards.

3. When we want to avoid blaming someone.

Passive:

The drawings were lost.

Not:

Andy lost the drawings.

4. When we want to soften a directive.

Passive:

This paragraph could be shortened.

Not:

Shorten this paragraph.

Passive verbs are perfect in these four instances. Likewise, the passive verbs in our opening sentences also work well (“get flagged” and “is typically accompanied”).

Know where passives verbs belong, and you won’t be intimidated by your grammar-check software again. Our grammar-checker just flagged the previous sentence, but we know the passive verb there suits our purpose and sounds just right!

 

Controlling a Telephone Call with a Native Speaker

19 May 2019

One of the biggest problems is speed. Native speakers, especially business people, tend to speak very quickly on the telephone. As a non-native speaker, you need to develop techniques which will allow you to take control of the call. Here are some practical tips:

 
  • Immediately ask the person to speak slowly

Could you speak more slowly, please?
Would you mind speaking more slowly, please?
Would you slow down a little, please?

  • When taking note of a name or important information, repeat each piece of information as the person speaks.

So, you say you can give us a discount of 10%?
OK, you are willing to extend the warranty to 30 days, right?
Your telephone number is 2718 3892 and your email address is.....
Let me just confirm that. Your name is Andy Hogg and your company is called ‘Gtech Ltd’.
Let me just repeat what you have said.
I’d just like to confirm what you’ve just told me.

This is an especially effective tool. By repeating each important piece of information, or each number or letter, you automatically slow the speaker down.
  • Do not say you have understood if you have not. Ask the person to repeat until you have understood.

I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying.
I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.
I sorry, but I don’t follow you.
Would you mind going over that again for me?
Could you say that again, please?
Could you repeat that, please?
Could you explain what you mean?

Remember that the other person needs to make himself/herself understood and it is in his/her interest to make sure that you have understood. If you ask a person to explain more than twice they will usually slow down.
  • If the person does not slow down begin speaking your own language!
A sentence or two of another language spoken quickly will remind the person that they are fortunate because THEY do not need to speak a different language to communicate. Used carefully, this exercise in humbling the other speaker can be very effective. Just be sure to use it with colleagues and not with a boss!
 

Showing Empathy in Business Situations

12 May 2019

In the key expressions box below, you'll find a number of standard phrases that you might find useful for showing empathy in business situations. Click on the audio link to listen to the expressions.

 

FUNCTIONS

KEY EXPRESSIONS

Reflecting - Reflecting on how you can see what someone is feeling:

I can see that you're really upset about this.
You seem to be upset.
You seem upset.
You don't seem to be very happy at the moment.
You seem to have made your decision already.
 

Legitimizing - Putting yourself in the other person's situation:

I'd be upset, too.
I can understand why you would be upset about that.
I can definitely see why that would be frustrating.
I'm sure that irritated you!
I can understand your concerns, but.
I understand that.
I can see how hearing those comments might annoy you.
It's not very nice to hear comments like that, is it?
I can understand your feeling betrayed by my not talking to you directly.
I can definitely see why that would upset you.
 

Supporting - Offering to help in a specific way:

I'll be here if you have any questions.
If you are unhappy here, I am here to discuss it with you.
 

Partnership-building - Offering to work together as a team to solve a problem

Maybe we can focus on,,,,
Let's see what we can do to resolve this problem together.
 

Respecting - Expressing admiration for how another person is coping with a situation

You don't seem to be too upset about this.

You are dealing with this very well.

 

Using Precise Active Verbs

05 May 2019

Strengthen word choice at the word and sentence level by adding precise verbs. Avoid non-specific verbs and the overuse of is, are, was, were, I or we. Always look for verbs that are masked as nouns. Convert the noun back to a verb by using its root and rewrite the sentence.

Example

John Smith will contact you at 11.30 p.m.

Revised

John smith will send you an e-mail at 11.30 p.m.

Revised

John Smith will visit you at 11.30 p.m.

 

Example

We must consider this problem.

Revised

We must resolve this problem.

 

Example

The report is a summary of previous research on drinking.

Revised

The report summarises research on drinking.

 

Example

The copy editor made an improvement to the draft.

Revised

The copy editor improved the draft.

 

Example

John is responsible for the distribution of the daily marketing report.

Revised

John distributes the daily marketing report.

 

Example

Improvement of the invoicing system will be performed by Jane Smith.

Revised

Jane Smith will improve the invoicing system.

 

Example

Candidate interviewing and employment is done by Human Resources.

Revised

Human Resources interviews and employs all candidates.

 

Example

All credit card approval is done by Jane Smith.

Revised

Jane Smith approves credit cards.

 

Include One idea per Sentence

28 Apr 2019

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.

 

Expressing Opinions and Agreement

21 Apr 2019

In the key expressions box below, you'll find a number of standard phrases that you might find useful for expressing opinions and agreement in business situations. Click on the audio link to listen to the expressions.

 

 

FUNCTIONS

KEY EXPRESSIONS

ASKING FOR OPINIONS

What do you think about...?
What's your opinion of...?
Do you think that...?
Tell me what you think about...
How do you feel about...?
 

EXPRESSING OPINIONS

I think that...
I don't think that ....
In my opinion...
In my view...
It's my belief that...
I reckon that...
I don't reckon that ...
I feel that...
I don't feel that ...
I believe that ...
I don't believe that ...
If you ask me, I think/feel/reckon that...
As far as I'm concerned...
 

CHECKING AN OPINION

Do you think so?
Do you feel that?
Is that what you think?
Do you really believe that?
 

AGREEING

I think you're right.
I agree with you.
You're right.
 

STRONG AGREEMENT

I couldn't agree with you more.
You're absolutely right.
I agree entirely.
I totally agree.
I completely agree with you.
 

AGREEMENT IN PART

I agree with you up to a point, but...
That's quite true, but...
I agree with you in principle, but...
 

DISAGREEMENT

Note that when you disagree with someone, you can often sound more polite by using a phrase such as 'I'm afraid...'

I'm not sure I agree with you.
(I'm afraid) I don't agree.
(I'm afraid) I disagree.
(I'm afraid) I can't agree with you.
(I'm afraid) I don't share your opinion.
 

DISAGREEING STRONGLY

I don't agree at all.
I totally disagree.
I couldn't agree with you less.
 

Confusing Words - "Allow" vs "Permit" vs "Let" vs "Enable"

14 Apr 2019

These four verbs are all similar, but have different shades of meaning and use.

Allow and permit can be followed by an object, and optionally, a verb or another object:

Until recently, the club would not allow women to enter.
Until recently, the club would not permit women to enter.

Let needs a different construction; the object is followed by an infinitive without to:

Until recently, the club would not let women enter.
Please let me know urgently.

Note the use of allow to politely introduce something you want to say:

Allow me to point out that ...
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is ...

If you allow for problems, extra expenses etc. you include extra time or money to be able to deal with them:

If you are self-employed, do not forget to allow for tax and national insurance.

To enable means 'to make something possible'; Allow also has this meaning as in:

During the 19th Century road and rail transport allowed/enabled commerce to expand.

Enable is often preferable if there is no idea of 'permission':

A rights issue enabled the company to raise extra capital.
A word processor enables a secretary to type faster than on a typewriter.

Note that these verbs must be followed by a personal object before an infinitive. We cannot say:

Our round-the-clock service enables/permits/allows to satisfy demand.

The correct version is:

Our round-the-clock service enables/permits/allows us to satisfy demand.
 

Handling Difficult Requests

07 Apr 2019

In the key expressions box below, you'll find a number of standard phrases that you might find useful for handling difficult requests at work. Click on the audio link to listen to the expressions.

 

 

 

FUNCTIONS

KEY EXPRESSIONS

SAYING WHY YOU'RE CALLING

The reason I'm calling is:
I was calling to ask a favour:..
I'm calling to ask if you could:..
I'm calling because we need some help......
 

EXPLAINING THE PROBLEM

The situation is this....
Here's the problem.....
Let me explain the situation......
 

REFUSING A REQUEST

I'm afraid that's not possible.
I'm sorry but we just can't do that.
I wish we could help you, but:..
I'm sorry, but I'm not in a position to do that.
 

STATING YOUR POSITION

I understand your situation, but we really must request:..
Our company policy is to:..
It's not our company policy to.....
We always demand .....
We never allow.....
 

MAKING A POLITE REQUEST

Would it be possible to.:?
We were wondering if you could possibly.:?
Would you be able to:.?
Could you please.....?
We'd appreciate it if you could.....
We'd be grateful if you could.....
 

SUGGESTING A COMPROMISE

How about if we......?
What (about if we...?
If we were to ....... would you....?
We'd also be willing to.....
How would you feel if we...?
Why don't we/you:...?
 

AGREEING TO A REQUEST

We could probably accept that.
We might be able to agree to that.
We could agree to that on condition that......
I suppose we could accept that.
That is a possibility, but I'd have to check with....
 

Ending a Conversation Politely

31 Mar 2019

In the key expressions box below, you'll find a number of standard phrases that you might find useful for ending a conversation politely. Click on the audio link to listen to the expressions.

 

 

FUNCTIONS

KEY EXPRESSIONS

BEGINNING
(you hint to end a conversation)

A: Well, it was great meeting you.
B: Yes, it was nice.
A: Well, I'm glad we had a chance to talk.
B: Me, too!
A: It sure has been nice seeing you.
B: Yeah, I enjoyed it!
 

MIDDLE
(you have to go soon)

A: I'll be sure to call you.
B: That'd be great.
A: I'll send you an email next week.
B: OK. I'll look forward to that.
A: I hope to hear from you soon.
B: Yes, me too.
 

END
(you really have a chance to leave now)

A: Bye for now.
B: Bye!
A: I'll talk to you later.
B: OK. Until then.
A: See you again soon.
B: See you.
A: Take care.
B: You, too. Bye.
A: Keep in touch.
B: I will. Bye.
 

Overused Words

24 Mar 2019

Overused words are words such as nice, got and OK which some people use to refer to many things. For example:

  • Nice
It was really nice of you to send me such nice birthday greetings. I had a nice birthday party. The weather was nice, the food was nice and all the guests were also very nice.
  • Got

John got up early this morning. He got to the bakery to get some croissants. When he got there, he found that he'd got no money on him.

  • OK
OK, may I make a request? OK. Here are some ideas that I think would be OK for the upcoming marketing plan. So, if it is OK with you, I'd like you to tell me which particular one is OK to go with. OK?

Overused words should be avoided because you can usually another word that is more precise and closer to the meaning you intended. Compare the sentence above with those below:

  • Words to replace nice
It was really kind of you to send me such sincere birthday greetings. I had an enjoyable birthday party. The weather was pleasant, the food was delicious and all the guests were very friendly.
  • Words to replace got
John woke up early this morning. He walked to the bakery to buy some croissants. When he arrived, he found that he had no money on him.
  • Words to replace OK
Right, may I make a request? Very well! Here are some ideas that I think would be effective for the upcoming marketing plan. So, if it is agreeable with you, I'd like you to tell me which particular one is suitable to go with. All right?

So using vague words like nice, got and OK could be considered lazy in certain contexts. Think about what you really mean and try to use more precise language.

 

Giving Presentations - Survival English

17 Mar 2019

If you get your facts wrong.

I am terribly sorry. What I meant to say was this.
Sorry. What I meant is this.

If you have been going too fast and your audience is having trouble keeping up with you.

Let me just recap on that.
I want to recap briefly on what I have been saying.

If you have forgotten to make a point.

Sorry, I should just mention one other thing.
If I can just go back to the previous point, there is something else that I forgot to mention.

If you have been too complicated and want to simplify what you said.

So, basically, what I am saying is this.
So, basically, the point I am trying to get across is this.

If you realize that what you are saying makes no sense.

Sorry, perhaps I did not make that quite clear.
Let me rephrase that to make it quite clear.

If you cannot remember the term in English.

Sorry, what is the word I am looking for?
Sorry, my mind has gone blank. How do you say 'escargot' in English?

If you are short of time.

So just to give you the main points.
As we are short of time, this is just a quick summary of the main points.
 

Using Prepositions of Place

10 Mar 2019

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 meaning.

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

About (approximate position)

I have left the file lying about somewhere.

Around

The accounts department is around the corner.

At (place)

He spent Saturday afternoon at work.
He's staying at the Sheraton Hotel.
I'll meet you at the airport.

At (direction)

We have aimed our campaign at young professionals.

By (close to)

The warehouse is by the main post-office.
The new airport is located by the harbour.

From (source)

This car was imported from Japan.
Where did you get this software from?

In (three-dimensional space)

Los Angeles is in California
The money is kept in the safe.

On (two-dimensional line or surface)

The file is on the desk.
The notice is on the wall.
California is on the Pacific coast.

Through (direction between two points in space)

It can take a long time to clear goods through customs.
Once we're through the city, we'll be able to drive faster.

To (movement, destination)

I have to go to Singapore next week.
The taxi will take you to the airport.
I will bring you to the conference tomorrow.
 

Complimenting Someone at Work

03 Mar 2019

In the key expressions box below, you'll find a number of standard phrases that you might find useful for complimenting someone at work. Click on the audio link to listen to the expressions.



FUNCTIONS

KEY EXPRESSIONS

MEN COMPLIMENTING MEN
(on their clothes)

I really like that shirt.
That's a nice jacket.
I like your shoes.
That tie (really) suits you.
It looks good on you.
It (really) suits you.
 

WOMEN COMPLIMENTING WOMEN
(on their clothes and accessories)

Your bag is so cute.
Your dress is beautiful.
It looks great on you.
It really suits you.
It's lovely.
I love that bag.
It looks great with your.....
That's a lovely necklace you're wearing.
 

WOMEN COMPLIMENTING WOMEN
(on their hair, figure, appearance)

You look really fabulous today.
I love your (new) hairstyle.
Have you lost weight?
Are you on a diet?
You've lost loads of weight.
You look so slim.
 

BOSS COMPLIMENTING SUBORDINATE
(on a job well done or performance)

You did a (really) great job on....
I'm impressed.
I was impressed with....
I'm (really) pleased with...
Your presentation was excellent.
Keep up the good work.
 

COLLEAGUES COMPLIMENTING COLLEAGUES
(on success)

I just wanted to congratulate you on .....
I'd (personally) like to thank everyone for....
Congratulations!
Congratulations on your promotion.
I (just) wanted to let you know that I liked your.....
 

RESPONDING TO COMPLIMENTS

Thanks a lot.
Thanks
Well, thanks.
Thank you so much.
Yes, I love it..
Thanks for noticing.
I appreciate that.
Thanks for your comments.
Thanks for letting me know.
Thanks. That means a lot to me.
 

Achieving Emphasis in Business Writing

24 Feb 2019

Using Emphatic Words

The simplest way to emphasise something is to tell readers directly that what follows is important by using such words and phrases as especially, particularly, crucially, most importantly, and above all.

Repetition of Key Words

Emphasis by repetition of key words can be especially effective in a series, as in the following example:

See your good times come to colour in minutes: pictures protected by an elegant finish, pictures you can take with an instant flash, pictures that can be made into beautiful enlargements.

Breaking the Pattern

When a pattern is established through repetition and then broken, the varied part will be emphasised, as in the following example:

Murtz Rent-a-car is first in reliability, first in service, and last in customer complaints.

Inverting the Normal Sentence Structure

Besides disrupting an expectation set up by the context, you can also emphasise part of a sentence by departing from the basic structural patterns of the language. The inversion of the standard subject-verb-object pattern in the first sentence below into an object-subject-verb pattern in the second places emphasis on the out-of-sequence term, fifty dollars.

I'd make fifty dollars in just two hours on a busy night at the restaurant.
Fifty dollars I'd make in just two hours on a busy night at the restaurant.

Beginning and End Positions

The beginning and end positions of sentences are more emphatic than the middle section. Likewise, the main clause of a complex sentence receives more emphasis than subordinate clauses. Therefore, you should put words that you wish to emphasise near the beginnings and endings of sentences and should never hide important elements in subordinate clauses. Consider the following example:

No one can deny that the computer has had a great effect upon the business world.
Undeniably, the effect of the computer upon the business world has been great.

In the first version of this sentence, "No one can deny" and "on the business world" are in the most emphasised positions. In addition, the writer has embedded the most important ideas in a subordinate clause: "that the computer has had a great effect." The edited version places the most important ideas in the main clause and in the initial and terminal slots of the sentence, creating a more engaging prose style.

 
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