Good Grammar – Just a Matter of Image?

In business writing, getting your grammar right is not just about projecting a professional image. It is also about conveying your message accurately, and not having it distorted by grammar mistakes.

Consider this sentence extracted from an actual email:

  • On receiving the customer’s instructions, they cancel the order and refunded the money to the customer.

Some will argue that this is a small mistake. Just amend the tense form and the tenses will be consistent.

But is it really that simple? Which verb needs to be amended – “cancel” or “refunded”?

There are two possibilities:

(1) If the issue is now over, and the writer is recounting a past event, the correct sentence should be:

  • On receiving the customer’s instructions, they cancelled the order and refunded the money to the customer.

(2) If the issue is still ongoing, and the writer is referring to it as a standard procedure, then the sentence should be:

  • On receiving the customer’s instructions, they cancel the order and refund the money to the customer.

The differing tense forms (“cancel” and “refunded”) can confuse the reader. This is not a small mistake, and the writer has the responsibility to convey the message clearly.

Your readers cannot read your mind; they can only read your writing.

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This is just one example of how using grammar wrongly can change the intended meaning in your message.

Use grammar correctly in your business writing. If you don’t, it could just mean embarrassment, or it could result in a confusing message leading to miscommunication.

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Join our training workshop and learn how to use grammar correctly and confidently:

Grammar for Business Communication (4 & 5 March 2019)

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What Do Customers Want?

If you work in customer service, you will have encountered unhappy or difficult customers. When a customer becomes angry, demanding or difficult, there is usually a reason for it.

Customers generally expect:

(1) Quality

Terrence Lim was very happy to have secured two tickets to a concert by a popular British singer. He wanted to take his wife, who was a fan, to the concert as a birthday treat.

On the evening of the concert, Terrence and his wife arrived early to avoid the crowds. To their astonishment and disappointment, the gates to the sports stadium, where the concert was held, were all locked till well after the concert commencement time, which was 7 pm.

The gates were only opened at 7.25 pm. By then, the crowds were clamouring to enter the stadium, and there was a lot of pushing and shoving. Although Terrence and his wife managed to get to their seats in relatively good shape, their happy and anticipatory feelings earlier on in the evening had all but disappeared.

They were feeling cheated about he amount they had to pay for the tickets, because the event seemed to be so badly managed. They had even felt a little frightened by the jostling crowds at some point.

The quality of the concert, in their eyes, had been marred. It would take a die-hard fan to want to chance buying concert tickets from the company again.

(2) Product knowledge

Let’s take a closer look at the case above. When Terrence and his wife arrived at the concert venue and found the gates locked, he tried to get more information from the staff members who were deployed to help the concert goers and manage the entrance gates. Many other people were doing the same.

The staff members, however, seemed flustered and lost. None of them seemed to know what was going on; all they could do was to apologise and plead with them to be patient.

Although the staff members were unfailingly polite and patient in the face of an impatient crowd, it did not mask the fact that they had no idea what was causing the delay.

However, the people who bought tickets had the expectation that they would know.

(3) Courtesy and Respect

Everyone has esteem needs, and customers are no different. In fact, this need is even more explicit because the transaction is financial in nature.

Enough has been said about customers being irked by the real or perceived disrespect shown by service providers.

Why should you care?

You should care about what customers want and expect, and what makes them unhappy, so that you can respond in a focused and effective manner to their unhappiness.

You do not want to focus on irrelevant issues that do not target the root cause of unhappiness.

When customers complain, you may think that the problem is solved if you give them what they want. However, customers may still feel un-cherished and dissatisfied when a company offers them what they want in an inappropriate manner, or does not address issues that have upset them.

When you deal with an unhappy customer, treat that as a chance to put things right. Don’t be quick to assume that the customer is problematic, unreasonable, or creating extra work for you.

A happy customer can tell ten other persons about their experience with your organisation.

So can an unhappy customer.

Don’t Be a Mystery – Use Grammar Correctly

 

In business writing, if you make mistakes with your tenses, there are two possible outcomes:

Outcome 1: The mistake is small and does not affect understanding.

Example

Wrong: Last week, the manager meet the client.

The word “meet” is in the wrong tense, as this is a past event.

Correct: Last week, the manager met the client.

This can be considered a small mistake, as the words “Last week” make it clear that the event is now over.

However, it makes the writer look careless and irresponsible.

Outcome 2:  The reader will have no idea what you are saying. In other words, your message is a mystery.

Example

Wrong: The technician interview inform Peter that the part not in stock.

Understanding is impossible here, as the writer has disregarded the use of tense forms.

Here are some possible interpretations of this sentence:

  • The technician interviewed informed Peter that the part had not been in stock.
  • The technician interviewed informed Peter that the part was not in stock.
  • The technician interviewed informed Peter that the part would not be in stock.
  • The interview of the technician confirmed for Peter that the part was not in stock.

If a message can be interpreted in so many ways, it is a weak message. (Shockingly, this was extracted from a report.)

Use grammar correctly in your writing. Pay attention to the time reference of occurrences, and use tense forms accordingly to describe them.

Don’t be a mystery to your reader!

5 Misconceptions About Speaking English

What do you think about the way you speak at the workplace?

Are you articulating your words correctly? Are you using appropriate speech patterns to convey your message? Are you using grammar correctly?

Self Assessment: Voice and Articulation

True or False?

(1) A gentle, slightly breathy voice shows that I am not aggressive, and it is suitable for business situations.  (True / False)

(2) In order not to waste the listener’s time, I should speak at a faster pace. This also helps me to project confidence.  (True / False)

(3) People should not be judged by the way they speak. Some people sound enthusiastic and confident, but not everybody can sound like that.  (True / False)

(4) I speak with an accent, and I also don’t articulate my words very well. My colleagues know that, and they can understand me, so it is OK.  (True / False)

(5) Children have the ability to improve their speaking skills because they are faster learners, but as an adult, it is too late for me to work on this.  (True / False)

What were your responses? See if they are similar to our observations.

(1) A gentle, slightly breathy voice shows that I am not aggressive, and it is suitable for business situations. 

Quite the contrary. A gentle, breathy voice, while being non-threatening, comes across as unsure, weak, or unenthusiastic.  A clear and strong voice will gain you more respect.

(2) In order not to waste the listener’s time, I should speak at a faster pace. This also helps me to project confidence.  (True / False)

False. When we speak too rapidly, there are two disadvantages:

(1) We don’t have the time to frame our thoughts properly to come up with the best words and phrases.

(2) We may sound nervous or impatient when we speak too fast.

What matters is not how many words we can speak; it is how many words the listener can understand.

(3) People should not be judged by the way they speak. Some people sound enthusiastic and confident, but not everybody can sound like that. 

False. When we speak clearly and correctly, we project enthusiasm and confidence, and we come across as being more professional. With effort, most people can do it.

When we speak in a low voice or with a monotone, we could be presenting important or interesting information, but the listener is not likely to take much notice or be impressed.

(4) I speak with an accent, and I also don’t articulate my words very well. My colleagues know that, and they can understand me, so it is OK.  (True / False)

Accent and articulation are related yet different things.

Our accent reflects our linguistics background, our dialect and first language influences, and the speech patterns we commonly hear in our daily lives. Generally, our accent is a kind of birthright, and we don’t need to give that up.

Articulation, on the other hand, is the way we form the sounds in each word. This can be practised and perfected with the help of phonetic symbols.

(5) Children have the ability to improve their speaking skills because they are faster learners, but as an adult, it is too late for me to work on this.     

This is a common perception, but it is false.

Children, especially younger ones, may not have fully developed articulators. Their motor neurons may also not be fully “connected” for them to coordinate their articulators, so it is actually more difficult for them to produce certain sounds.

Adults, on the other hand, should have fully developed neurons and articulators.

Assuming that their speech mechanisms are healthy and in good working order, adults should be able to practise and perfect all the sounds in the phonetic alphabet, which makes it possible to pronounce most English words accurately.

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If you think that you are not speaking clearly or correctly, or if you suspect that you are not projecting your voice well enough, do something about it.

Train your articulators to articulate sounds correctly. Learn techniques to project your voice effectively.

People at the workplace judge us by the way we speak. It is not fair, but it happens. All the time.

 

What Has Counting Got to Do with Grammar?

Yes, what indeed?

Grammar is the system and structure of a language, and counting, as we know it, is for mathematics.

But what if we were referring to countable and uncountable nouns?

Nouns are naming words. They give a label to things, and the two main categories of nouns are:

(1) Proper Nouns

These are actual names given to brands, people, countries, pets, etc.

Examples

  • Peter
  • Singapore
  • Apple

(2) Common Nouns

These are general names given to things, places, people, etc.

Examples

  • man
  • country
  • mobile phone

Under the category of common nouns, there are two classifications: countable nouns and uncountable nouns.

The way to determine a countable or uncountable noun is this:

  • Can you add an “s” or “es” to the word to show plurality?
  • Can you use a different form of the word to show plurality?

If you can do one of these, it is a countable noun. If you cannot, it is an uncountable one.

Examples

Countable Noun Uncountable Noun
office – offices water – water
manager – managers staff – staff
project – projects equipment – equipment
woman – women furniture – furniture

So, back to our question – what has grammar got to do with counting? Turns out that it may have very little to do with counting.

Whether a noun is countable or uncountable does not rely on the physical ability to count something. You have to abide by the rule of grammar.

This sign was seen at a construction site:

Sign - Equipments

Question: Where is the mistake?

Answer: The word “equipments” is wrongly used here. (It should be “equipment”.) There is no plural form for the word equipment, as it is an uncountable noun.

So what do you do if you are unsure about this grammar point? You check the dictionary.

For example, a quick check with the Longman online dictionary shows this:

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(Caution: Many words come with various usage definitions. Be sure to read carefully for the definition that you need. Some words can be used in either the countable or uncountable form, depending on your context.)

Getting your nouns right can save you from writing things like “staffs’, “furnitures”, “equipments”, “luggages”, etc. These are uncountable nouns and should not take a plural form.

Three Sentence Structures to Use in Business Writing

In English, there are 4 sentence structures:

  • The Simple Sentence
  • The Compound Sentence
  • The Complex Sentence
  • The Compound-Complex Sentence

For business writing, I recommend that you use the first 3 structures.

I will tell you about the 3 recommended sentence structures, but first, here’s a quick explanation of what makes up a sentence.

What are Clauses?

Clauses are groups of words that make up sentences. There are 2 types of clauses:

(1) the independent clause (can exist on its own grammatically)

  • usually conveys the main idea(s) in the sentence

(Eg: Peter tested the machine)

(2) the dependent clause (cannot exist on its own grammatically)

  • usually conveys secondary idea(s) in the sentence

(Eg: but did not write the investigation report)

If you combine these 2 clauses, you can make a sentence.

(Eg:  Peter tested the machine  but did not write the investigation report.)

The 3 Recommended Sentence Structures for Business Writing

These are the 3 recommended structures for business writing:

(1) The Simple Sentence

The simple sentence consists of one independent clause.

Examples

– Peter tested the machine.

– He did not write the investigation report.

(2) The Compound Sentence

To explain this in the simplest way, the compound sentence consists of two independent clauses (joined with a linking device).

Examples

– Peter tested the machine, but he did not write the investigation report.

– Peter tested the machine; however, he did not write the investigation report.

– Peter tested the machine; he did not write the investigation report.

This structure is especially useful when you want to place equal emphasis (weightage) on both these ideas.

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(3) The Complex Sentence

Again, to explain this in the simplest way, the complex sentence consists of one independent clause and one dependent clause.

Example

– Peter tested the machine but did not write the investigation report.

This structure is especially useful when you want to place more emphasis (weightage) on one idea (independent clause) and less on the other (dependent clause).

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Summary

If you have only one idea to convey in a sentence, you will obviously use a simple sentence.

If you want to convey 2 ideas of equal weightage in a sentence, use the compound sentence.

If you have 2 ideas in your sentence, and you want to emphasise one over the other, use the complex sentence.

Application

In our daily writing, you will very often need to convey complex information.

Now that you know more about the 3 sentence structures you can use, put this knowledge into practice.

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How to Speak English Better Immediately

I know of many people who wish that they could speak English better. They do speak English, but they feel that they don’t speak it well enough.

Here are three things you can do to improve your spoken English immediately.

(1) Work on Your Articulation

There are some words that we don’t articulate correctly. We may not be able to correct all of them; however, we should at least work on the words we use regularly.

Don’t just rely on your instinct or copy what others are saying. There are ways of checking for articulation online (eg: dictionary.com).

Alternatively, learn the phonetic symbols so that you can confirm the articulation of words in a dictionary.

Examples of commonly mispronounced words:

–  Wednesday: The meeting is confirmed to run on wed-nes-day. (The correct articulation is wenzday.)

–  lavender: Our office is on la-VAN-da Street. (The correct articulation is LAIR-vender.)

–  colleague: Tom is my ker-league. (The correct articulation is KOR-league.)

(2) Manage Your Intonation

Intonation refers to the way your voice goes up and down in pitch when you speak.

Many people tend to speak with a rather flat or narrow intonation. This means that they place more or less equal stress on almost every word in their speech.

At other times, they don’t place any stress on key words, or they stress the wrong words.

For example, these sentences may convey different tones, even though the words are the same:

  • We ARE busy, and we will work on this tomorrow.
  • We are BUSY, and we will work on this tomorrow.
  • We are busy, and we WILL work on this tomorrow.
  • We are busy, and we will work on this TOMORROW.

English is a stress-based language, and people rely on your intonation to understand your meaning.

Intonation in your speech also shows emotion and enthusiasm, and these are important elements in communication.

(3) Be Mindful About Grammar

You cannot speak with incorrect grammar and hope that the listener will understand your intended meaning every time.

It is fun and easy to use Singlish when we speak, but when the message is critical and accuracy is important, be mindful of your grammar. Switch to standard English.

Why Should You Improve Your Spoken English?

At the workplace, when you speak clearly and correctly, you project enthusiasm and confidence, and you come across as being more professional.

Your overall professional image is determined by how you dress, how you act, and how you speak. Don’t let your spoken English be your weakest link.

 

5 Tips for Your Business Writing

Timm Gunn, co-host of the Emmy-winning reality show Project Runway, once said that in this Internet age, the word “manners” seems antiquated. Life moves so rapidly that it’s easy to feel justified in being rude.

Therefore, many people write short and curt messages. Others don’t acknowledge email. Yet others forget that their readers are busy, and have little time to read long and tedious messages.

Business writing is always about the reader – not the writer.

What is the point of showcasing your writing prowess, when your reader cannot understand your message easily?

And just because you have all the information, should you include it all to show the reader how much you know?

To make reading even more challenging, the tone is sometimes cold and unfriendly. This makes the reader feel uncertain or unwelcome.

Here are some quick tips for your writing:
(1)  Ensure logical flow in your writing – especially when the message is complex.  

Circle key words in your paragraphs, and see if they convey a logical sequence of ideas. Better still, plan your content before you start writing.

(2)  Eliminate old-fashioned words and phrases.   

“Attached herewith” and “the undersigned” come to mind. Others include “as per your message dated” and “pursuant to your email of”.

(3)  Keep sentences to below 20 words.  

Most people can follow the flow easily in a sentence that contains 20 words or fewer. Beyond that, this becomes a challenge.

(4)  Take some care with the layout.  

Use one paragraph for each key point, and leave a line-spacing between paragraphs. Use headings and lists where appropriate.

(5)  Eliminate grammar mistakes in your writing.  

Read a good grammar reference book or attend a grammar workshop if grammar is a challenge for you.

The way you write projects your professional image. Make sure it is a positive image.

 

Writing to Unhappy Customers? – Five Points to Note

Customers are often frustrated by perceived insincere responses to their complaints. They feel that writers use template-style messages with meaningless words and phrases without dealing with the real issues.

Here is an example.

Henry’s organisation manages a building with retail shop spaces.

A tenant, Ms Chew, has written in to complain about the noise and dust generated by a neighbouring unit that is undergoing renovation works.

Ms Chew has also asked for a waiver of rental payment for the following month, as she says that her business has been affected.

Henry wrote this reply. What do you think of it?

Dear Ms Chew,

We refer to your email dated 26 April 2018 regarding your request for waiver of the monthly rental for May 2018.

We have taken measures to reduce the noise and dust generated from the renovation works like restricting drilling works to timings outside retail hours. We have also deployed more cleaners around the areas undergoing renovations.

We will send your feedback to the on-site contractors, so that they can further minimise the inconvenciences caused.

We are unable to accede to your request for a waiver of rental as it is unfair to tenants who have duly paid the monthly rental.

Please note that the renovation works should be completed by 10 May 2018, and we seek your patience and understanding in this matter.

Please contact us again if you have further queries.

With Best Regards,

Henry Ho

Customer Relations Executive

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Five Points to Note in Responding to Complaints

(1) State Your Writing Purpose Clearly and Correctly

When Henry stated that Ms Chew’s email was about the waiver of rental payment, it might have missed the point.

Ms Chew may not appreciate being portrayed as someone asking for waiver of rental payment. There were other issues troubling her, and these could be more important than the rental payment.

(2) Show Empathy for the Other Party

In Henry’s message, there was no empathy shown at all for Ms Chew’s difficulties.

Before he explained the actions he had taken, Henry could have shown some empathy. For example, he could have written:

“The noise and dust generated must have been inconvenient and indeed upsetting for you, and I am sorry to hear about that.”

A simple empathy statement like this would demonstrate that Henry was not just writing from his point of view, and that he had actually considered it from Ms Chew’s point of view.

(3) Be Logical and Reasonable When You Reject a Request.

Henry wrote that waiving the rental payment for Ms Chew would be unfair to tenants who have duly paid the monthly rental.

To Ms Chew, this is not even logical. Other tenants are not affected by the noise and dust, so how can the comparison be fair?

We cannot always give the other party what they want. However, we must explain it clearly and logically.

(4) End on a Positve Note.

Henry ended the message by saying that Ms Chew should contact him again if she had further queries.

To begin with, Ms Chew did not have a query, so there cannot be further queries. She had some real concerns to deal with. To describe that with the word “query” can seem dismissive.

This is not a positive way to end the message.

(5) Use Words and Phrases Meaningfully.

In responding to complaints, refrain from using standard templates.

Of course you can cut and paste from an older message, but tailor it carefully to meet the needs of your existing situation. Words and phrases work differently under different circumstances.

For example, the phrase “Please note that…” is commonly used in email writing. However, innocent as it may seem, the phrase actually sounds pompous.

Can’t we just tell the reader something without first asking them to “note” it? It even feels like we are stressing something to someone who is not really paying attention, or who may be a bit slow in understanding.

Do we really want to give that impression to a complaining customer?

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Here is a possible revised message to Ms Chew:

Dear Ms Chew,

Thank you for your email dated 26 April 2018. We are sorry to hear about the situation you are facing.

The noise and dust generated by the renovation works in unit 02-98 must indeed be inconvenient to you, and I can understand your frustrations about this.

We have taken measures to reduce the noise and dust generated by the renovation works. For example, we have now restricted all drilling works to timings outside retail hours.

We have also deployed more cleaners to the areas outside units #02-95 to #02-100, so as to ensure the general cleanliness of these public areas.

At the same time, we will send your feedback to the on-site contractors, so that they can further minimise the inconveniences caused to you in whatever ways possible.

As for your request for a waiver of rental, much as I understand your situation, I am not able to waive your May rental payment.

As you know, most tenants need to undergo some renovation works in their units when they move in. This usually causes some inconvenience to other tenants. As such, we feel that the best way forward would be for all tenants to be patient and understanding in these situations.

The renovation works will be completed by 10 May 2018, and we seek your patience and understanding in the meantime.

Please email or call me at Tel: 6788 8766 if I can be of help in any way.

With Best Regards,

Henry Ho

Customer Relations Executive

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Writing to Unhappy Customers?

When customers complain, it is easy to label them as being demanding or difficult. However, something could be causing them real distress.

Examples of Customer Complaints

Here are some examples of difficult customer service situations you may have to deal with in writing:

  • You are an environmental officer. A resident has complained about cigarette smoke wafting up from the unit below his.
  • You work in the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore’s land-use planning and conservation authority. Some residents have complained about the noise generated by diners at the restaurants at the foot of their apartment block at night.
  • You work in a hospital. A patient’s daughter has complained about the perceived poor treatment her father had received during his hospitalisation.
  • You work in a fashion boutique. A customer wants to return a dress she bought recently, but she has misplaced the receipt.
  • You work in a hotel. A guest has complained about having to pay extra for WIFI service in the room.

In each of these examples, there is a gap between what the customer expects and what the organisation can provide. This conflict must be managed carefully to preserve the goodwill.

The Challenges of Writing to Unhappy Customers

Unhappy customers could be asking for things you cannot provide, or asking for decisions you cannot make. It is difficult to say no to them and still preserve the relationship.

The key challenges in writing to them are:

  • You must explain the situation accurately and objectively.
  • You must manage your tone so that you don’t sound condescending or insincere.
  • Your writing must be clear and grammatically sound.
Write with a Positive Mindset

When you receive complaints and negative feedback, you decide how you want to react.

Here are some negative (but common) reactions:

  • Look for ways to defend yourself.
  • Mentally list incidents in the past that show how troublesome this customer can be.
  • Look for justifications to say no to the customer.
  • Forward it to someone else to handle.

Positive reactions would include empathising with the customer and looking for ways to make the customer feel better.

Writing to an unhappy customer is challenging, but it is worth the effort if you can retain the loyalty and confidence of the customer.

Don’t under-estimate the damage that an unhappy customer can do, especially with the many social media platforms today, where an unhappy customer can broadcast his or her unhappiness easily and widely.