Introduction to Business English/Theory

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Characteristics of Business English[edit | edit source]

Sense of purpose[edit | edit source]

The most important characteristic of exchanges in the context of business meetings, telephone calls, and discussions is a sense of purpose. Language is used to achieve an end, and its successful use is seen in terms of a successful outcome to the business transaction or event. Users of Business English need to speak English primarily so that they can achieve more in their jobs. Business is competitive: competition exists between companies and also within companies, between employees striving to better their careers. It follows that performance objectives take priority over educational objectives or language learning for its own sake. For example, a German company in Seoul may have a long-term objective to establish good trading relations, and their representative’s use of English is geared to that end. A French telecommunications project manager in India needs to know English to communicate with his technical teams on the site, who arc all Indian. A Swedish pharmaceutical product manager needs to give clear presentations of recent product development to subsidiaries in Europe and the Far East. In each of these examples, the use of language has an implied element of risk: mistakes and misunderstandings could cost the company dearly.[1]

Much of the language needed by businesspeople (apart from social language) will be transactional: getting what you want and persuading others to agree with the course of action you propose. The language will frequently be objective rather than subjective and personal. For example, in discussions and meetings, it will be more appropriate to evaluate facts from an objective standpoint (‘This is a positive point’, ‘On the other hand the disadvantage is ...’) rather than expressing personal feelings and opinions.[1]

Social aspects[edit | edit source]

International business people have a need to make contact with others whom they have never met before, or know only slightly. Meetings are often short because businesspeople are always pressed for time. There is a need for an internationally accepted way of doing things so that people from different cultures, and with different mother tongues, can quickly feel more comfortable with one another.[1]

Social contacts are often highly ritualized. Formulaic language is used (in greetings and introductions, for example) in the context of a routine pattern of exchanges. A certain style is generally adopted which is polite but also short and direct (taking into consideration the need to be economical with time). Although some situations may require more than this (for example, keeping a conversation going over lunch), the style and content of social interactions will be typified by a desire to build a good relationship while avoiding over-familiarity. [1]

Clear communication[edit | edit source]

Information has to be conveyed with minimum risk of misunderstanding, and the time for processing (both by the speaker and by the listener) needs to be short. Therefore there is a preference for clear, logical, thought emphasized by the kinds of words that indicate the logical process (for example, ‘as a result’, ‘for this reason’, ‘in order to’). There is often a need to be concise—particularly when communicating by fax or telephone—and certain familiar concepts may be expressed in word dusters to avoid circumlocution (for example, ‘cash with order’, ‘just in time delivery’). Certain terms have evolved to save time in referring to concepts which people in business are familiar with (for example, ‘primary industry’, ‘parent company’).[1]

Use of words and basic grammar structure[edit | edit source]

When you speak to people, you do not usually think carefully of the words that you are going to say to them, you just say the words as ideas come into your head. However, when you write to someone, you will probably agree that you usually spend more time thinking about the words that you are going to write on the paper. This is because you want to make sure that the person who is reading your written communication will understand it. When you are speaking to someone, you can have instant feedback from that person which tells you if he or she has understood your message. If a writer does not make his message clear the first time, the person reading the message cannot ask the writer immediately what he or she means.[2]

It is very important to choose exactly the right words for every written message you send. Even for English-speaking people, the same message can be interpreted differently by different readers. This tells you that you can never be absolutely certain that your message is going to be interpreted the way you want it to be.

But the good news is that you can very much increase your chances of your written message being understood by using the right words and writing techniques. In this chapter, you will learn to use common English words to the best effect. You will also learn not to use words that will not benefit your written communications. [2]

No Place in Business English[edit | edit source]

You will be glad to know that some forms of English have no place in business communication, and we will be looking at these later. Perhaps you spent much time and effort at school, college or university trying to improve your English by learning and using idioms, cliches, jargon, buzz-words, and slang, thinking that by learning such forms of English you would sound much more like an English speaker. In general speech, yes, the above forms of English would indeed make you sound very much like an English speaker, providing your grammar and pronuncia­tion were good! But these forms of speech are to be avoided in any business communication, and good communicators in business English are always very careful to leave them out. In fact, for the business person whose first language is not English, learning the techniques person whose first language is not English, learning the techniques needed for good speaking and writing is comparatively easy, because the most important rule for the best business communication in English is that your messages should be short and simple, made up of common words familiar to all.[2]

Simple English, Common Words[edit | edit source]

The first rule about written messages in English is, you will be pleased to know, that it is better to use short, simple, common words instead of long, unfamiliar ones. If you want your business communications to be clearly understood by the people who read them, then write them clearly. This means using words which are familiar to everybody, and this applies to ALL forms of business communications. Here are some long, unfamiliar words which are completely unnecessary in written (and spoken!) business messages. Beside each is the simple, short word which has the same meaning:

1eradicate — get rid of
2 nullify — cancel
3 operose — difficult
4 supposition — idea
5 misreckoning — mistake
6 missive — letter
7 melioration — improvement
8 arrears — debt
9 placate — please
10 adumbration — similarity
11 ingress — entrance

Good communicators use simple English in their written messages. Try to forget the idea that big, long words are better than simple, short ones. Nothing could be further from the truth. Simple, clear English which is easily understood is what is needed in all business messages. Long, difficult words show disrespect for the reader, and should be avoided. Some writers use long words and complicated sentences to try to impress their readers, especially writers of some legal or government documents. But this style of writing is not impressive, it is ridiculous. Use simple words which everybody understands, every time. [2]


Vocabulary and Grammar[edit | edit source]

Vocabulary and grammar are two of your most basic and most important tools. It is absolutely essential that your grammar in English is perfect if you want to communicate in English effectively. You should understand how each tense is structured, and how and when it should be used. You need to know how to (1) make affirmative statements, (2) make negative statements, (3) ask questions, and negative questions, and (4) form the question-tag question, both positive and negative, with all tenses. For example, here is the simple present tense, showing all four forms. However, isolated sentences do not often give the full idea of how to use the verb. Only a good grammar book and lots of practice will do that! You need to be able to use these four forms with all tenses in English.

a). I send a fax every day.
b). I don't send a fax every day.
c). Do you send a fax every day?
d). You send a fax every day, don't you?
e). You don't send a fax every day, do you?

Mastering English tenses, and knowing when to use them, is important in the development of your communication skills. Remember: good grammar is one of your most important tools in business and management. [2]

Vocabulary[edit | edit source]

Vocabulary, like grammar, is an extremely important tool. A large vocabulary will help you to find the exact word you want to express your ideas. Think back to the example of the carpenter in the last chapter. The more tools he has. the easier it is for him to make exactly what he wants. So it is with words — the more words you have, the easier it will be for you to express exactly what you want. However, there is no need for you to learn an English dictionary by heart! In fact, it is completely useless to try to learn isolated, individual words. Words must be learned through reading, and it is best if you can learn words which are found in reading which interests you, as research has found that such words are more easily learned. A good start would be for you to buy an English-language newspaper every week. Find an article which interests you, preferably in the business section, not too long at first. Read it through once, and then again, this time noting any words unknown or little-known to you, and any tenses of any verbs which you are not 100% familiar with. Highlight these with a marker on the second reading. Next, read the article a third time, this time looking up the unknown words in a dictionary. Read them again in the context of the article, noting in your head the sentence in which they appear, and how they are used. Try to memorize it — looking at and thinking about the sentence containing the word will help you to learn it.[2]

Basic skills and techniques for business correspondence[edit | edit source]

Beginning the Letter

1.Know the format.

Whatever the content of your letter, there are a few business standards to follow regarding the way it looks. Business letters should be typed and composed in a common font such as Arial or Times New Roman. Employ block paragraphing - i.e., to start a new paragraph, hit "return" twice and don't use an indent.

a). If you're printing the letter to send, consider printing the letter on company letterhead. This lends it a more professional air and provides your company's logo and contact information.
b.) An emailed business letter should also be composed in a common font. Don't use script or colors other than black and white in a business email[3]

2. Include information about your company.

List your company name and the company address, with each part of the address written on a different line. If you're self-employed or an independent contractor, add your name either in place of the company name or above it.

a) If your company has pre-designed letterhead, you can use this instead of typing out your company and address.
b) If you're typing out the address, it should appear either right or left justified at the top of the page, depending on you and your company's preference [3]

3. Include the date.

Writing out the full date is the most professional choice. For example, write either "April 1, 2012" or "1 April 2012." This should appear left justified a few lines below the sender's address.[4]

4. Add the recipient's information.

Write out the recipient's full name, title (if applicable), company name, and address in that order, with each piece of information on a separate line. If necessary, include a reference number. The recipient's information should be left justified a few lines below the date.[3]

5. Choose a salutation.

The salutation is an important indicator of respect, and which one you use will depend on whether you know the person to whom you're writing, how well you know them and the level of formality in your relationship. Consider the following options:

a) Employ "To Whom It May Concern" only if you don't know whom, specifically, you're addressing.
b) If you do not know the recipient well, "Dear Sir/Madam" is a safe choice.
c) You may also use the recipient's title and last name, e.g. "Dear Dr. Smith."
d)I f you know the recipient well and enjoy an informal relationship with him or her, you may consider a first-name address, e.g. "Dear Susan."
e) If you are unsure of the recipient's gender, simply type the whole name, e.g. "Dear Kris Smith."
f) Don't forget a comma after a salutation or a colon after “To Whom It May Concern.”


Composing the Body


1. Strike the right tone.

Time is money, as the saying goes, and most businesspeople hate to waste time. The tone of your letter, therefore, should be brief and professional. Make your letter a quick read by diving straight into the matter and keeping your comments brief in the first paragraph. For instance, you can always start with "I am writing you regarding..." and go from there. Don't concern yourself with flowery transitions, big words, or lengthy, meandering sentences - your intent should be to communicate what needs to be said as quickly and cleanly as possible. To tighten your copy, avoid passive verbs and try not to editorialize.[3]

2. Write clearly and concisely.

Let your reader know exactly what you are trying to say. Your reader will only respond quickly if your meaning is crystal clear. In particular, if there is some result or action you want taken because of your letter, state what it is. Explain your position in as few words as possible.

3. Be conversational when appropriate.

Letters are written by people to people. Avoid form letters if possible - you cannot build a relationship with canned impersonal letters. However, stay away from colloquial language or slang such as "you know," "I mean" or "wanna". Keep the tone businesslike, but be friendly and helpful.

a).If you know the recipient well, it's fine to include a friendly line sending good wishes.
b).Use your judgement when determining how much personality to reveal. Sometimes adding a little humor is actually helpful in a business setting, but err on the side of caution before making a joke.
c).Most likely the purpose of your letter is to persuade your reader to do something: change their mind, correct a problem, send money or take action. Make your case.[4]

4. Be courteous.

Even if you are writing with a complaint or concern, you can be courteous. Consider the recipient's position and offer to do whatever you can, within reason, to be accommodating and helpful.

5. Wrap it up.

In the last paragraph, summarize your points and clearly outline either your planned course of action or what you expect from the recipient. Note that the recipient may contact you with questions or concerns, and say thank you for his or her attention to the letter/matter at hand.[3]


Closing the letter

1. Choose a closing.

The closing, like the salutation, is an indicator of respect and formality. "Yours sincerely" or "Sincerely" is generally a safe bet; also consider "Cordially," "Respectfully," "Regards" and "Yours Truly." Slightly less formal but still professional closings include "All the best,” “Best wishes," "Warm regards," and "Thank you." Use a comma after your closing.

2. Sign the letter. Leave about four lines empty for your signature. Sign the letter after you've printed it, or, if you're sending it via email, scan an image of your signature and affix it to this part of the letter. Blue or black ink is preferred.[4]

3. Include your typed name and contact information.

Beneath your signature, type your name, phone number, email address and any other applicable means of contact. Give each piece of information its own line.

4. If necessary, include Enclosures.

If you've enclosed additional documents for the recipients review, note this a few lines beneath your contact info by noting the number and type of documents, e.g. "Enclosures (2): resume, brochure."[3]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. a b c d e [1]Mark Ellis, Cristine Johnson. Teaching Business English. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994
  2. a b c d e f [2]. Business English and Communication. Hong Kong: The Management Development Centre of Hong Kong, 1999.
  3. a b c d e f [3] Writing the Basic Business Letter
  4. a b c [4] The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill