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.

 
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