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!

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?

 

General Advice to Improve Your Writing

10 Sep 2017

In this week's tip, we'll give you some useful advice on how to improve your writing.

  • Time spent on planning your communications will pay dividends. Make a rough draft of what you want to write or say, so that you can experiment with various versions. Remember that language is important because the words you choose convey your attitudes as well as information. The impression you want to convey is one of helpfulness and efficiency.
  • Get to the point from the beginning. Cut the small talk and make a good impression by being crisp and business like. Make it clear from the start exactly what you want to discuss. Letters that do not do this waste the readers’ time and may end up in the waste bin. Presentations that do not grip their audience by focusing their attention quickly risk losing that attention.
  • Use straightforward language rather than jargon. People prefer to be treated as human beings, not computers! Technical language has its place, but it is impersonal and should be used only when necessary. Remember that business is promoted by personal warmth as much as profit.
  • Use sentences that are short and to the point, not sentences that ramble on and cannot quite decide what they want to say or how to say it - like this one!
  • Steer clear of the passive voice, since it is an indirect way of speaking and creates distance between you and your audience or reader. For example, if you say, “We will attend to your order promptly,” that promotes more confidence than if you say, “Your order will be attended to soonest.” This lacks the personal touch and may give the impression that you do not want to accept responsibility at work.
  • It is very important that you think about the audience you are writing or speaking to and make a real effort to communicate with them. If you are speaking to people, you need to be flexible and aware of their reaction, so that you can change the way you are speaking if they are not responding to you positively. If you are writing to a business associate and you have a mental picture of him or her, you will write more clearly and directly. Your letter will reach out to them and engage their attention.
  • Incorrect spelling makes a poor impression. If you are unsure about the spelling of any words you have used it is worth the trouble of running a spell check on your computer. However, computer dictionaries are often limited and therefore many technical terms may still need to be checked manually. A more serious shortcoming is that the computer accepts any word it knows regardless of whether it has the meaning you intended. If you write, “Make a tough draft,” but meant “rough”, your computer will not pick this up. This is one reason why it is better to have your documents checked by professionals.
  • Correct grammar is as important as spelling. Some word processors now have grammar checkers that operate in the same way as spell checkers. These can be used as a last resort, but they are still very basic (stupid!) and miss many mistakes. Moreover, they query many constructions that are perfectly in order. This wastes your time and it would be better to have someone with good grammar have a look at your work.
  • Finally, always read carefully through a talk or business document to check for typographical and other errors. Are the facts and dates accurate? Reading aloud is a good idea, because you can hear how the communication sounds: the ear provides a crosscheck for what the eye may have missed.
 

Reading Tips

27 Aug 2017

Tip 1

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.

Tip 2

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.

Tip 3

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.

Tip 4

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

Tip 5

Read what interests YOU. Choose a magazine or book about a subject that you like.

THINGS TO READ

Newspapers

You can find English-language newspapers in all large cities around the world. Newspapers are interesting because they are about real life and the news. BUT they are not easy to read. Try reading newspapers if your level is intermediate or above.

Magazines

Some magazines are published weekly, some monthly. You can find English language magazines in many large cities around the world. If you cannot find the magazine you want in your town, you may be able to order it for delivery. Many magazines have pictures which can help your understanding. You will need an intermediate level for most magazines, but a pre-intermediate level may be ok for some magazines.

There are magazines on every subject:

  • Politics
  • Sport
  • Homes
  • Cars
  • Music
  • Romance
  • Travel
  • Language

Books

Books are divided mainly into:

  • Non-fiction (history, biography, travel, cooking etc)
  • Fiction (stories and novels)

Some books are easier to read than others. It often depends on the author. Agatha Christie, for example, wrote in an easier style and with simpler vocabulary than Stephen King. You can buy books in specialised English-language bookshops in large cities around the world. You may also be able to find some English-language books in libraries.

Short Stories

Short stories can be a good choice when learning a language because they are...short. It's like reading a whole book in a few pages. You have all the excitement of a story in a book, but you only have to read 5,000 or 10,000 words. So you can quite quickly finish the story and feel that you have achieved something. Short stories are published in magazines, in books of short stories, and on the Internet.

Graded Readers

Readers are books that are specially published to be easy to read. They are short and with simple vocabulary. They are usually available at different levels, so you should be able to find the right level for you. Many readers are stories by famous authors in simple form. This is an excellent way for you to start practising reading.

Cornflakes Packets

By "Cornflakes Packets", we mean any product you can buy that has English writing on or with it. If you buy a box of chocolates, or a new camera, why not read the description or instructions in English? There are many such examples, and they all give you an opportunity to read real English:

  • airline tickets
  • cans or packets of food
  • bottles of drink
  • CD and DVDs
  • user guides for videos, computers...

Good luck with your reading. It will help you make a lot of Progress!

 

Passing on Messages to Clients - Using Connectives

05 Jun 2016

Using Connectives

If your message has a number of parts and if the parts are linked, we can use simple connectives such as "and that," "but that," and "also," to show how the different points are related. Using connectives helps to clarify a message and make it easier to understand.

Note: "and that" and "also" show addition; "but that" shows contrast (+/-).

Lets look at some messages that include connectives:


Mr Wong wanted me to tell you that the goods were shipped from the factory to your new Beijing address but that the linens you requested have been delayed due to a customs problem and that they won't be shipped until next Wednesday.



Mr Lau asked me to remind you that the deadline to complete the work has been moved back to July 20. He also wanted me to tell you that Peter Trench would be replacing Bill Cousins as Chief Financial Officer on 1 July and that you should liaise with Mr Trench on all financial matters after that date.



Mr Johnson wanted you to know that all the equipment you installed at our factory is working perfectly but that we're still waiting to receive the machine manuals. He also asked if you could courier the manuals to him as soon as possible and that he wanted you to confirm when you would do this.

Note: we use "and that" and "but that" in place of "and" and "but" because we are reporting what someone else has said. We are using someone else's words.

 

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.

 

Making Polite Requests

13 Dec 2015

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.
 

Open Punctuation /Full Blocked Layout Style

25 Oct 2015

In the past, writing and laying out a business letter was a pretty complex process. Not only did you have to be careful where you put your punctuation in the non-body sections of the letter, but certain parts of the letter itself needed to be indented, i.e. moved a number of spaces to the right. Putting a letter together like this took a lot of time.

Nowadays, business writers prefer simplicity over complexity. The punctuation and layout style preferred is the one that is the easiest and quickest to create. And it's the one that takes up the least thought.

Writers today tend to use OPEN PUNCTUATION and FULL BLOCKED LAYOUT STYLE.

Open Punctuation

In an Open Punctuation Style letter there is:

  • No punctuation at the end of lines in the inside address
  • No punctuation following the salutation and complimentary closing
  • No punctuation following references, enclosures, copies, etc.

Full Blocked Layout Style

When using a full blocked layout style in a business letter there is:

  • No indentation of the salutation and complimentary closing
  • No indentation in the paragraphs of the letter
  • No indentation to the date, reference, enclosures, copies, etc.

In this style, the only part of the letter that is centred is the company letterhead.

Sample Letter

Here's an example of a business letter with open punctuation and full blocked layout style.

Sunshine Holidays
124 High Street
Bury St Edmunds
Suffolk
I
P29 7HG

Our Ref SLS/RWT

2 April 20xx

Mr K Francis
29 Darlington Mews
Bury St Edmunds
Suffolk
1P29 5JA

Dear Mr Francis

HOLIDAY ENQUIRY

Thank you for your recent enquiry. Please find enclosed our holiday brochure containing weekend breaks in Rome.

We are very proud of our weekend breaks and feel sure you will find just what you are looking for.

If you would like to make a booking, or require any further information, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Yours sincerely


John Jackson
Manager

Enc

cc Susan James

 

How to Address Someone in English

17 May 2013

English learners often feel confused about how to address people properly. Many feel uncomfortable asking the question, "What should I call you?" Even native English people find this question awkward. For example, many women don't know how to address their boyfriend's mother. On the other hand, some parents don't know what to call their children's teacher.

Why is "What should I call you?" such a difficult question to ask? Perhaps it's because you are asking the other person to provide their status or position in the world in relationship to yours. This position may involve age, job, education, religion and even marital status.

Since English is a language, rather than a culture, it is difficult to teach English learners exactly how to address people. There will always be some people and some professions that require more formality than others. Addressing people in writing has different rules and formalities than in speaking.

Asking the Question

If you are unsure of what to call someone, it's best to use a formal address or simply ask one of these questions:

What should I call you?
What should I call your mother?
What should I call you manager?
Can I call you Richard
Is it okay if I call you Deano? [the nickname you've heard others use]
What's your name? (use in a casual situation like a party or classroom where first names are used)

Answering the Question

Please, call me Jane. [first name].
You can call me Wedgy. [nickname].
Call me Dan if you like. [short form]

 

Questioning Someone About Their Company

03 May 2013

In this week's business English tip, we'll show you three different ways in which you can ask someone about the company they work for.

You can question someone about their company in a number of ways. Let’s look at three different questions types.

Closed Questions

Closed questions in the present simple tense usually begin with phrases like ‘do you,’ ‘have you,’ or ‘are you.’ These questions elicit ‘yes’/’no’ answers, and refer to the company’s present situation. Let’s look at a few examples of closed questions in the present simple tense:

Do you have any regional offices in Asia?
Have you got an office in Germany?
Do you have any plans to establish operations in China?
Do you target the telecommunications industry as well?
Does your company cater to the international market too?
Do you have any clients in France?
Are you planning to set up an office here?

NOTE: Closed questions are useful when you want specific information. If you are answering a closed question, however, answering with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is generally insufficient. You will also be expected to provide additional information.

Open Ended Questions

Open ended questions usually begin with the five ‘wh’ question words (who, what, when, where, why) or ‘how’. They give the other person the chance to expand their answer. Let’s look at some examples of open questions:

Who founded your company?
When did the company launch its overseas operations?
What does the personnel management department do?
Where did you set up your first office?
Why did the company decide to shut down its Boston office?
How long did it take for your company to establish itself in the market?
What are your company’s plans for the future?
How are you planning to fund these new operations?

Indirect Questions / Question Statements

In the early stages of a conversation, or when asking something sensitive, it is a good idea to use indirect questions or question statements. Such questions generally start with phrases such as ‘I was wondering,’ ‘Could you tell me,’ and ‘I’d like to know.’ Here are some examples:

Could you tell me about your experiences with former clients? (Indirect Question)
I’d like to know how long it would take you to respond to a complaint from a customer. (Question Statement)
I was wondering if the product has had good sales in the international market. (Question Statement)
Could you tell me if your company is an equal opportunities employer? (Indirect Question)
Could you tell me what your policy is on refunds for customers? (Indirect Question)

Remember to choose your question type carefully to get the right information that you are looking for. Closed questions tell the other person that you’re looking for a quick answer, while open questions ask for detailed answers. Indirect questions are polite questions and should be used when it is appropriate to be more polite.

 

Communication Problems in English

03 Feb 2013

In this week's tip, we'll provide you with some advice on what to say if you can't understand or hear someone clearly.

If you don't understand what someone says:

If you are speaking to someone and you don't understand the meaning of what they say, you could say:

I’m not sure what you mean. Could you rephrase that, please?

If you ask someone to rephrase something, you are asking them to express the same meaning using different words. This is a useful phrase since you might not have understood because of the language they've used.

You could also use these phrases to clarify the meaning of what’s been said:

Could you explain what you mean?
What do you mean?
I’m sorry I don’t understand.
Could you explain what you mean by….?
Could you clarify what you mean when you say….?

If you can't hear what someone says:

If you can't hear what someone has said, try these phrases:

Sorry, I didn’t hear the last part of what you said.
Sorry, I didn’t catch the last part of what you said.
Could you say that again please?
Could you please repeat that?
Would you mind repeating that?
Would you mind talking a little slower, because my English is not fluent yet?
Sorry, could you speak up a little, please?
Would you mind speaking a little louder, please?

If someone can't hear what you've said:

Sometimes people may not understand what you are saying if you make a grammar mistake or use vocabulary in the wrong way. In these situations, you can say:

Let me rephrase that.
Let me try and say that again in a different way.
I’m trying to say that….
I wanted to say that….
Let me try to explain.

 
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