Recently I received an email from a student. She had not been coming to class—in fact, not all term, and this was the first I had heard from her, not a particularly unusual situation when dealing with college students. What was unusual was her proposal to make up the term in a week.
Somewhat stunned, I flatly refused. This resulted in a return email which was such an odd combination of the formal, academic register --“indeed,” “shocking,” “with all due respect,” and the informal conversational style “last straw,” “swept under the rug,”-- that I was further irritated with her as it seemed pretentious. Then I realized the student was just attempting, only partially successfully, to use the academic register, probably to impress me in order to advance her cause, and combining it with the more known conversational. Academic and workplace vocabulary do not come “naturally” just by being exposed to it, but it is necessary in those situations requiring formality, distance, and logic, and requires practice. Furthermore, although different in form, workplace and academic vocabulary perform the same functions such as opening a communication, closing it, showing similarity and contrast, demonstrating results, etc., but in a more formal register than the conversational.
10 Workplace & Academic Terms Your Students Should Know
To whom it may concern
This is the traditional opening of a business letter, directed at someone the writer doesn’t know. Somewhat archaic, it is still used in formal situations. Less formal communications will most likely open with “Dear Sir or Madam.”
It should be noted that
This is used in an academic or business communication in order to call the reader’s attention to something: “It should be noted that Monday is a holiday, and the banks are closed.” This is much more formal-sounding than “I just want to let you know—” which performs the same function but in more informal language.
Take into account
This phrase roughly means “to remember” or “to consider”: e.g., “In planning the schedule, please take into account the holidays at the end of the month.” It does have a different meaning than either “remember” or “consider” in that it implies that there are a number of factors to consider in making plans, and this is one of them.
Make use of
This phrase means about the same as the less formal “use”: e.g., “make use of existing resources” means the same thing as “use existing resources.” Although there may be a slightly different shade of meaning in that “make use of” implies using what is already there rather than going out and acquiring it, while “use” does not, this phrase demonstrates the tendency of business/academic phrases to use (or make use of) more words than necessary.
As we have seen
This phrase has the function of referring back to an earlier point: “As we have seen, the company is in a financial down mode and must consider reducing—” Again, more words are used here than strictly necessary. While in general direct, as it makes claims to be, there is also a tendency of this register to use words to obscure rather than clarify meaning. The above sentence could be accomplished with, “We are losing money, and need to cut expenses,” something few want to hear.
This is not to say that
With this phrase, the writer concedes a point to the opposition: “Vanilla is really the best ice cream flavor. This is not to say that chocolate doesn’t also have merits…” A writer who can recognize other viewpoints is generally taken more seriously by the reader.
Raise awareness of
“Raising awareness” is a concept that has its origins, I believe, in the Civil Rights Movement: civil rights abuses are so often ignored because they seem “natural” and just “the way things are,” so the first step to addressing a social ill such as segregation was seen as “raising awareness” that there even was a problem. This phrase has been expanded to apply to almost any problem: e.g., “Raise awareness on the lack of space in the workroom.”
Take advantage of
This is a phrase that does seem to have a different meaning than conversational English, where it also exists. In conversational English, “take advantage of” is often used to refer to exploiting people, perhaps sexually, as in “He took advantage of her naivety.” In academic/business English, which is more impersonal, the focus tends to be on exploiting the nonhuman: e.g., “take advantage of existing oil supplies.”
“Use resources” is one of those phrases used a lot in the business/academic world, usually with a focus on saving or not spending money: e.g., “use our existing resources,” “maximize the use of our resources,” and “use our resources wisely.”
Generate a plan
Again, this is one of those phrases that mean about the same as another, simpler one in conversational English, where we simply “make a plan” or “come up with plan.”
How to Teach Academic and Business Phrases
Call attention to it
The first part of writing in the academic/business genre is to notice it exists. When reading an academic essay or business letter, call attention to specific vocabulary items the author uses and discuss why he or she might have made those choices.
Notice the form and the function
After the students have some awareness of the register, work on analyzing it with them. How is this particular phrase functioning? Is there are comparable phrase we use in conversation? Have students “translate” something from the formal register to the informal and then as their skill grows, from the informal to formal. This begins practice with the register.
Now is the time to work on actual practice with academic/business language. Assign students a topic and task, so that they are more focused on the language than they would be if they were deciding topic and task themselves: e.g., “Write an essay in which you argue for state-sponsored tuition in college” or “Write a letter in which you try to convince a business why you deserve a refund for a defective washing machine that began malfunctioning just as it warranty expired.” Remind students to stay in the academic/business register as this will cause people to take them more seriously and advance their causes.
In further practice, students can begin choosing their own topics and matching the register to the topic and task.
Learning the language for business/academia is not easy, and students’ first attempts might be like my student’s in the introduction, an odd combination of the familiar conversational and the academic just being acquired.
With practice, however, students can master this register and the language that will increase their chances of academic and business success.
Do you have suggestions on how to teach Business or Academic English?