General English versus business English

Without having a decent hold of general English, mastering business English is cumbersome

Tasneem HossainTasneem Hossain
Published : 10 August 2022, 11:18 PM
Updated : 10 August 2022, 11:18 PM

English is one of the most widely used languages for communication worldwide. It is essential for general communication as well as for the business world too.

Being in the consultancy business for almost thirty years has allowed me to come across thousands of English learners. Each time during the sessions on Business English the first question the learners ask is, ‘what’s the difference between general English and business English?’

It’s a simple question and the answer is simple too.

Although both are used for communication, the approach and objectives of these two vary from each other.

Simply put, general English is commonly used for general purposes of everyday conversations and involves the use of basic vocabulary and grammar. Business English, on the other hand, is focused on specific purposes related to business and industry. The vocabulary is more systematised, structured and slightly advanced. It follows a more disciplined approach to help professionals around the world to acquire the skills they need to communicate within the professional platform common to all.

But without having a decent hold of general English, mastering Business English is cumbersome.

As general English is used in our everyday language, the tone is casual and informal. There are very few technical terms, as it is expected to be understood by everyone without the need for expert knowledge. The situations common for general English are Introducing yourself, talking about family and friends, hobbies, likes and dislikes, food, shopping, vacations, hometown, books, movies, music, sports, plans etc.

Since business English is the application of specific vocabulary used in specific business areas such as marketing, commerce, finance, and a wide variety of business sectors the tone is more organised and formal. A direct style, using special terminologies for different sectors, is applied to minimise possible misunderstandings arising due to cultural differences between individuals from different backgrounds and countries.

For example, one may greet a friend with, ‘Hi! What’s up?’ That’s fine. But while greeting a co-worker, it’s better to be a little courteous: ‘Good afternoon. How are you?’

See the difference?

General English is the foundation of the language. It focuses on basic grammar and vocabulary in developing the four skills of speaking, reading, writing and listening on a wide range of topics. Thus it’s extensive.

Business English builds upon the vocabulary specific to the identified categories in business. So the vocabulary is not so extensive but advanced in its usage.

A few examples of higher English can be identified with the following sentences:

General English (casual): Did you get my message yesterday?

Business English (professional): Did you receive my message yesterday?

General English (casual): I got your email yesterday.

Business English (professional): I received your email yesterday.

The verb ‘get’ is a widely used verb that can be used in many different ways. However, in a business setting a higher level of verb ‘receive’ replaces it in the context of receiving something from someone such as an email, a letter or a phone call.

This is one of the most common ones that I have come across. Not that the casual one is incorrect, but in the business context you need to use a more formal tone with a higher level of words.

Look closely at how business English builds on general English words by giving it a more formal tone and vocabulary.

General English: Let's talk about it later.

Business English: Let's discuss it later.

General English: I need some help.

Business English: I require some assistance.

General English: How do I get in touch with her?

Business English: How do I contact her?

Both may sometimes overlap each other in terms of topic. But one has to differentiate the situation and the environment.

As business English is focused on specific areas, some grammar points are given more importance, such as modal verbs. There are some particular idioms and phrases which are more commonly used in business settings, but seldom in general English.

In a normal situation, one can simply say, ‘I am busy.’ But in a business setting, one may use, ‘My hands are tied up.’ This sounds more courteous. In a workplace environment, one has to be more courteous than usual to keep a good working relationship.

Apart from knowing business English vocabulary, one needs to focus on clear pronunciation too, as the goal of Business English is to have effective communication to have a smooth functioning of work.

One must also be able to understand that American business English differs a little from British business English. Whichever you are using: be consistent and follow anyone in both spoken as well as written English (select your reader’s preference). To be an effective business communicator, one needs to be diplomatic and adjust to the reader’s needs and mindset.

In this age of globalisation, the importance of the English language cannot be overlooked. More so, Business English is an essential tool to communicate and compete in the international market to reach your desired goal.

Have you ever wondered why some professionals get noticed while some don’t, even if they have the same skills?

It is because along with their work skills, their business English vocabulary is strong and communication is more effective.

Learning business English will help you in innumerable ways. It will help you express yourself more effectively and your presence will be noticed. The bottom line: it will help you climb the corporate ladder.

The best way to master business English is to practice regularly and develop a wide range of business vocabulary from the wide variety of available resources. You can focus on the MI theory (Multiple Intelligence Theory): that is, to focus on methods that work best with your learning style and incorporate the other ones too.

You can go through audio recordings and audio-visual videos available online in business English. You can also read books on business English teaching, and articles from newspapers, magazines and business journals.

Company information and their written documents like company profiles, annual reports, letters, emails, company advertising brochures and many more such resources are also helpful if you are employed. If you are still a student or looking for a job, browse through the website of different organisations.

The secret to excelling in business English is to practice proactively every day.

Empower yourself for your professional growth. Business English will give you the extra edge to supersede your competitors and empower you for your professional growth. It will help you enrich your personal development and open a vista of opportunities.

It’s never too late to start learning.

[Tasneem Hossain is a multilingual poet, columnist, op-ed and fiction writer, translator and training consultant. She is the Director of Continuing Education Centre, Bangladesh.]


1. All you need to know about teaching English abroad, 13 December 2018, ITT Blog

2. Key Differences between General English and Business English, 22 October, English Explorer

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