To Whom It May Concern: Phrases, Structures, and Register of Business

To Whom It May Concern
Phrases, Structures, and Register of Business

Stacia Levy
by Stacia Levy 14,126 views

I just downloaded some information from a writer’s website about its materials submission policy.

This was not a contract but rather an explanation of the site, its business, and its services for writers, so it was not written in “legalese,” or legal language but rather the business genre, which is supposedly concise, clear, and direct so that future clients can understand the services the company offers. However, this piece of literature was so full of language that clouded the issue rather than clarified that I put it away for “future reading,” which may be never, given this experience, and if I don’t get back to the reading on the services I will not visit the website again. The irony that this poor writing was posted on a website for writers is probably not lost on you. Students should learn the language of business, both to understand it and to use it, but they should also learn to use it so that the listener or reader can actually understand.

Register of Business English

Different situations call for different language use or register: the expected vocabulary, structures, and tone for the situation. For example the academic register I use in the classroom is different from the conversational one I use at home: e.g., in academic English, “As a reminder, it is highly unlikely that any late work can be accepted this month, given the circumstances of the upcoming holidays.” This is in sharp contrast to the language of conversational English: “I said do it now, not later.” Academic English tends to be impersonal and indirect in contrast to conversational English, which is brief and personal. Similarly, business English has its own register expectations of conciseness, directness, and impersonality.

Phrases of Business English

A lot of language exists in often-repeated phrases. For example, most people will recognize the greeting from a business letter, “To Whom It May Concern,” which has an impersonalness in that no name is mentioned, and the passive voice, which facilitates impersonalness as no agent need be named, is used.

Common Phrases from Business English

  1. 1

    on the job market

    to be actively looking for work. “I didn’t expect to be on the job market at my age, but I lost my job.

  2. 2

    to let go

    to terminate someone’s employment, often for cause: “I had to let Tom go because he just can’t get along with anyone.

  3. 3

    on the (firing) line

    to be at risk, usually a job. “My job here is on the line, so I have to work really hard.

  4. 4

    to get the axe

    to be terminated, but perhaps due more to loss of company revenue than cause: “The company has so lost so much profit during the recession that fifty employees might get the axe.

  5. 5

    above and beyond (the call of duty)

    Derived from the military, this phrase in business means to have exceeded expectations on a particular task: “Mary, your work on the report was above and beyond the call of duty.

  6. 6

    in the black/red

    from bookkeeping, where financial gains are recorded in black and losses in red. So a company that is doing well financially, for example, is “in the black.” “Red/black ink” is also used: “Our books are covered in red ink” means the company is suffering a lot of financial losses.

  7. 7

    to learn the ropes

    this means to learn the expectations and duties of a job: e.g., “I’ll spend the first couple of months at the company just learning the ropes before taking on clients.

  8. 8

    a numbers cruncher

    A numbers cruncher works in a field that requires a lot of mathematics, such as accounting. The phrase can be used as a pejorative: “What does he know; he’s just a numbers cruncher.

  9. 9

    the golden handshake

    Extra money given to an employee at retirement, often as an incentive to retire early.

  10. q

    a glass ceiling

    a barrier that does not allow certain individuals, often minorities and/or women, to rise to management level. “Rhonda didn’t get the promotion because that company has such a glass ceiling.”

Methods to Teach Business English Phrases

  1. 1

    Raise Consciousness on the Business Register

    Explain that there is this thing called the “business register,” language for business situations, and how it differs from everyday conversational English. Give a few examples, and ask students to do the same.

  2. 2

    Real examples from business documents

    Bring in samples from your own mail: business phrases are there! Also have students bring in their own samples. Choose one and go over it as a class, pointing out the phrases mostly from the business register and how the writer uses them. Also consider putting students in groups and giving each group a sample letter and have them locate common business phrases.

  3. 3

    Practice writing assignments from the business register. Use a target number of phrases

    Give students the task of writing a document like the ones they have been studying. Give a purpose to the writing (to obtain payment, advertise services, etc.)Then assign a set number of business phrases for students to use.

  4. 4

    Practice writing documents using targeted phrases

    Select key phrases from model documents and discuss their functions: to open, to introduce the reason for writing, to offer examples, to close, and so forth. Give students a writing task and some phrases they will need and write.

  5. 5


    Have students in pairs or groups roleplay specific situations: a job interview, a meeting, a termination, etc. See how long they can maintain the business register, including its phrases.

The business register is distinct from the conversational one and is endemic throughout our society in workplace situations.

Therefore, students should become aware of and able to use the language of this register.

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