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!

Using Capital Letters in Your Writing

01 Jul 2018

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

24 Jun 2018

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

17 Jun 2018

 

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

10 Jun 2018

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

03 Jun 2018

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.
 

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.
 

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.

 

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.

 

Test

05 Dec 2011
test  

Speaking Tips

07 Nov 2010

In this week's tip, we'll give you a couple of useful speaking advice.

Keeping a Conversation Going

What can you say when you want to encourage people to keep talking to you?

Try making a comment or asking a question it shows the other person you're interested in what they're saying.

Here are some examples of what you can say:

  • Making Comments

    'No' to show surprise

    'I don't believe it' to show surprise

    'Wow' to show admiration and surprise

    'That's incredible / That's amazing / That's unbelievable' to show great interest in the subject of conversation.

  • Asking Questions

    'Really?' - to show surprise

    'And you?' when someone asks you how you are.

    'Did you?' can be used to encourage someone to tell their story. For example, 'I saw her with him last night', 'Did you', 'They looked like they were getting on really well with each other and '.'

Agreeing with People

In English conversations, people often say that they agree or disagree with each other. There are many ways of agreeing and disagreeing and the one you use depends on how strongly you agree or disagree. Here's a list of common expressions:

'I think you're right.'

'I agree with you.'

'I feel the same way as you about it.'

If you want to agree more strongly, you can use these expressions:

'I couldn't agree with you more.'

'You're absolutely right.'

 
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