One of my most embarrassing moments happened with a crowd of hundreds of people there to witness it.
I was speaking on stage and I completely jumbled up my lines. I was so embarrassed.
Thankfully, I was only in fourth grade and not giving a weighty business presentation!
Presenting ourselves with careful attention to detail sets us apart in the business world. But doing that often means that we need to have a deeper understanding of the mechanics of business English, which gives us the ability to say exactly what we intend.
Whether we like it or not, the way we present ourselves when speaking and writing causes people to judge us. When we make easily-preventable mistakes or use poor grammar, it is often assumed we are not very educated or professional.
Because of that, today we are going to talk about everyone’s favorite subject: grammar!
We will look at 10 aspects of grammar that business English learners often have trouble with, and I will share some secrets to help you understand and master them.
1. Understanding Articles
Articles are the words “a,” “an” and “the” that come before a noun. You can think of them kind of like adjectives. They tell us a bit more about the word they describe.
In English, articles can be definite (“the”) or indefinite (“a” or “an”). This means they can signal a specific object (the pencil) or a more general one (a pencil).
People often get confused about which article is most appropriate to use in a given situation. Some common mistakes are forgetting to use the article “an” before a word that begins with a vowel sound (“an apple” is grammatically correct whereas “a apple” is incorrect) or using articles when it is not necessary (“soccer” would be grammatically correct but “the soccer” would sound strange).
Using the right articles at the right times shows that you understand business English at a deeper level. They allow your sentences to have a native-sounding flow and prevent you from looking less educated.
Memorize the difference between definite and indefinite articles, and remember to learn situations when articles aren’t needed as well as when to use “a” versus “an” before a word.
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2. Understanding Prepositions
Some common mistakes with prepositions are to use the wrong word (“We arrived
in two o’clock” should be “We arrived at two o’clock”), to leave out a preposition completely (“We looked the painting” should be “We looked at the painting”) or to place it incorrectly in a sentence (“On top of the book it was” should be “It was on top of the book”).
At best, these errors will make your sentences sound awkward but at worst, they may cost you clear communication or authority.
Listening to the way that native English speakers use prepositions will help you more easily hear where they are needed. Memorizing the definition and use of each prepositional word will help you quickly add them to your sentences without a second thought.
3. Understanding Verb Tenses
Verb tenses tell when in time something has occurred, is occurring or will occur in the future.
Verb tenses can change the entire meaning of a sentence. “We buy paper on Tuesday” (an ongoing action that occurs every Tuesday) communicates a very different message than “We bought paper on Tuesday” (a completed action in the past).
It is also important to be consistent with the tense you choose to use in a specific situation.
“We work, we laugh, we eat and we are sleeping” doesn’t maintain verb tense consistency and creates unclear communication.
Remember to analyze exactly what you are trying to say and to choose the best verb tense for that communication to occur. Be sure to pay careful attention to your verb use to make sure that you do not accidentally switch between different tenses.
4. Understanding Phrasal Verbs
Phrasal verbs are verbs that are used as part of a phrase such as “grow up,” “take down” or “look out for.” They are generally a verb followed by a preposition (or two). They are also very common and are a huge part of what makes English unique.
They are often used as idiomatic phrases that may change the usual definition of the words they contain. For example, putting different prepositions after the verb “get” can completely change the verb’s meaning. To give just one example, the phrasal verb “get out” can mean to leave or to exit, but “get over” means to recover or stop thinking about something. Phrasal verbs are tricky!
Using phrasal verbs can also seem less formal so it is important to pay attention to your audience when using them.
The best ways to learn how to use phrasal verbs are to listen to them in conversation and to practice using them yourself. Memorization can be key here because not all of the words used in these phrases are easy to guess.
5. Understanding Contractions
A contraction is the combination of two words with an apostrophe. For example, you can combine “can” and “not” to form the contraction “can’t,” or “will” and “not” to form the contraction “won’t.”
Contractions can make conversation and writing feel less formal and more casual, and they can lead to miscommunication for non-native English speakers because they can be less clear and cause confusion.
With any communication, it is very important to know exactly who your audience is. In some cases, the best approach will be completely informal and friendly exchanges, while in other cases it is very important to use formal English.
You wouldn’t write an important email to a potential future boss the same way you might speak to your coworkers in the break room. In order to make sure that you communicate as clearly as possible, you also would not want to use any language that might be difficult for a non-native English speaker to understand.
Always take care to make sure that you are using contractions only in appropriate situations. In both formal writing and in situations where more formal or clearer communication is desired, it is best to avoid using contractions.
6. Understanding Pronouns
A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a person, place or thing, such as “he,” “she” or “it.” They help reduce repetition when speaking and writing because we don’t have to keep saying a person’s or object’s name over and over again.
A common error with pronouns is using a pronoun that doesn’t match the noun it is referring to (“Stella went to the beach, and they had a good time” would be grammatically incorrect because the appropriate pronoun to represent “Stella” is “she”). It is also important to be careful when using “he” or “him” and “she” or “her” (“I am talking to he” is incorrect and should be “I am talking to him”).
Mixing up pronouns can make you look less professional and cause some embarrassment. You can master your pronoun skills by listening to how they are used in spoken English and by memorizing their accompanying rules.
7. Understanding Syntax or Sentence Structure
Syntax or sentence structure is the way the words in a sentence are arranged so that they make sense. It can be easy to forget that English follows a generally different sentence structure from many other languages. It is definitely important to remember that you can’t simply translate your native language into English and sound professional.
For example, “the apple red” may be the right sentence structure in your native language, but in English it should be “the red apple.”
Take the time to really study sentence structure in English. Listening to how English sentences flow and noticing differences from your native tongue can help you avoid these mistakes.
8. Understanding Subject-Verb Agreement
Subject-verb agreement is making sure that you choose the right form of a verb to match the subject doing the action. For example, you should say “he talks” or “they talk,” but not “they talks.”
One of the most common errors that learners make with subject-verb agreement is not paying careful attention to whether the subject is singular (“she eat ice cream every Sunday” should be “she eats ice cream every Sunday”) or plural (“they runs through the park every morning” should be “they run through the park every morning”).
You can avoid potentially embarrassing moments by taking the time to carefully consider whether your verb needs to match a singular or plural subject.
If it makes you feel better, even native speakers get confused about subject-verb agreement sometimes.
9. Understanding Homophones
Homophones are words that sound the same but mean very different things. Examples include “their,” “there” and “they’re,” and “or,” “oar” and “ore.” Thankfully, you will generally only notice mistakes with these when you write them down.
Since these words sound identical it can be very easy to confuse them when writing. For instance “She told us witch road to take to the party” should be “She told us which road to take to the party.”
Homophones can be tricky even for native English speakers. The only real way to avoid mistakes is to memorize their spellings and matching definitions. Challenge yourself regularly until you instinctively begin using the correct words in your sentences.
10. Understanding Negation
Negation is used to create a negative statement such as to explain that something is not true (“Greenville is not the capital of South Carolina”), not the situation (“he did not say he was hungry”) or not wanted (“I do not want steak tonight”).
Many languages use double negatives, or two negative words, to express these ideas, but English is not one of them. In English, you can generally only use one “negative” word (which includes other words like no, nobody, nowhere, and none) per sentence. So while “I don’t want no ice cream” would be perfectly correct in another language, it should be phrased “I don’t want any ice cream” when you are speaking English.
Practice negative statements until it becomes natural to drop the double negative habit when speaking or writing in English. It will help your professionalism shine through.
Taking the time to learn these grammar secrets will help you avoid errors and make you stand out from the crowd.
Instead of damaging your image, your business English communication skills will make your professionalism second to none!
And One More Thing…
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All you have to do is tap or click on one of the words in those subtitles to get more information. For example, if you tap on the word “brought,” you will see this:
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Sarah Frady spends her days chasing after her two little girls. She has a B.S. degree from the University of South Carolina with a Minor in Business Administration and Concentrations in Communications and Psychology. She spends her evenings as a professional writer and entrepreneur. She endeavors to uplift, inspire, educate and encourage other moms on her blog Our Happy Imperfection.
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