By Singapore Teaching Centre, British Council

17 November 2021 - 17:00

Adult students in-discussion in the computer lab

We all speak differently in different contexts.

The way you talk to your friends is probably very different from the way you talk to your parents, your co-workers or a stranger on the MRT.

It’s the same in the English language. Conversations in business English can sound very different from casual English conversations!

Let’s look at the differences between spoken English in casual and professional contexts – plus, some business English phrases to smarten up your conversation.

Why business English matters

Globally, one in four people speaks English. It’s the most widely spoken language in the world, outpacing Mandarin Chinese, Hindi and Spanish by several millions. If you want to do business internationally, you need to speak English.

You’ll gain even more benefits from learning business English. This includes particular words, phrases and styles of speech that you will only hear in a professional context. From big business meetings to office small talk, using correct business English can make a huge difference to your career success.

Learn more on Business English course

Differences between business English and casual English conversation

So what’s the difference between casual English and business English conversations?

Firstly – and most obviously – the topics of conversation are different. Business English usually deals with business topics. There will probably be some specific business vocabulary that relates to your company or industry.

Secondly, business English is very purpose-driven. In general conversation, sometimes we just talk in order to pass the time or build relationships. But in a professional context, your conversation is more likely to have a specific focus.

The way you speak should reflect that focus. For example, if you want to suggest an idea in a business meeting, you’ll need to speak very directly. Everyone should understand what you want to achieve and how you plan to do it. You don’t need to worry about speaking beautifully or poetically. Instead, focus on speaking in clear and correct English.

Business English also has some specific terms and phrases. In the next section, you’ll find some common conversational phrases for business English.

Basic business English phrases

Have you ever wondered where ‘square one’ is? Or why ‘the ropes’ are so important? Here’s your guide to some specific terms in business English …

  • That works: agreeing with an idea or a suggestion. You want to meet for coffee at 10 tomorrow? Yes, that works!
  • Red flag: a sign that a person, project or situation could become a problem. For example, if someone arrives an hour late for a job interview, it raises a 'red flag' about their punctuality.
  • Get someone up to speed: give someone the information they need to join a project or start a task. If you’re asked to 'get someone up to speed', give them a quick summary of anything they’ve missed.
  • Touch base: contact someone for a progress update or feedback. If you’re collaborating with someone at work, then you might agree to 'touch base' with them each week.
  • Back to square one: giving up on an idea and starting again from the beginning.
  • Learn the ropes: learn the basics of the business. This phrase comes from the days of sailing ships, when young sailors had to 'learn the ropes' in order to get around the ship and do their jobs correctly.
  • A long shot: an idea which has a small chance of success, but a big potential reward. 
  • My hands are tied: people usually say this phrase when they want to do something, but can’t. For example, if you want to hire a new assistant but don’t have the budget, then 'your hands are tied'.
  • End of play: surprisingly, this means 'end of work'! 'End of play' is often used as a deadline, meaning the end of the standard working day.

Do you know your long shots from your red flags? The British Council in Singapore runs Business English courses which are tailor-made for your company and career goals. 

Sign up for Business English course