How to talk on the phone

Here are a few examples of phrases commonly used in telephone conversations. Obviously the people’s names and the company name are invented.

Introducing yourself

If an assistant answers the phone:

They say: Good morning, Company X, How can I help you?

You say [FORMAL]: Good morning / Good afternoon. My name is John Smith from Acme Co. May I speak to Jane Jones please?

You say [NEUTRAL]: Hello. This is John Smith. Can I speak to Jane Jones please?

You say [INFORMAL]: Hi, This is John Smith. Is Jane Jones there?

If the person you want to speak to is unavailable:

You say: When will he/she be back in the office?

You say: When would be a good time to call?

If the person you’re calling answers the phone:

They say: Hello. Jane Jones.

You say: Hi Jane. This is John Smith from Acme Co. Is it convenient to talk at the moment?

You say: Hi Jane. This is John Smith from Acme Co. Do you have a minute or two to discuss a couple of things?

You say: Hi Jane. This is John Smith from Acme Co. I have a couple of things I’d like to discuss with you.

 

How to answer the phone

If someone asks to speak to you, you say “Speaking” or “Yes, this is me”. Americans may say “This is he/she”.

If you are an assistant or secretary the following phrases will be useful:

Good morning / Good afternoon, Company X. How may I help you?

Please hold for a moment and I’ll see if Jane’s available.

Please hold the line and I’ll put you through.

One minute please, I’ll transfer you now.

I’m afraid she’s just gone out of the office for a moment. Would you like to leave a message? Or I can ask her to call you back?

Jane is in a meeting right now and she won’t be available until later this afternoon. Can I take a message?

Jane is talking on the other line right now. Would you like to hold or shall I ask her to call you back later?

Jane has left the office. Would you like me to take a message, or I can put you through to her voicemail?

Can I ask who’s calling?

Can I take your number?

 

Asking for clarification

Remember – always ask the caller for clarification if you didn’t understand some information. If you ask the caller to repeat something and you still don’t understand, ask them to repeat again – maybe giving the excuse that the line is bad and you can’t hear them very well.

I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Can you repeat that please?

I’m sorry, can you repeat that one more time? The line isn’t very good.

I’m sorry, can you repeat that a little more slowly? I can’t hear you very well.

How do you spell your last name?

And the company name is Acme Co. Is that correct?

Just let me repeat your information to make sure everything is correct.

Just let me repeat what you said to make sure everything is correct.

 

Problems with the line

Can you hear me OK?

I’m sorry I can’t hear you very well. Can you speak up a bit please? (i.e. speak louder)

Sorry, I lost you just then. Can you repeat what you just said?

The line seems very bad. I can’t hear you. Can I call you back?

You’re breaking up. Can I call you again later?

My battery’s about to run out. Can I call you back later?

 

Phoning back

Hi. It’s John again. We just got cut off.

 

Ending a conversation

OK. I’d better let you go. Thanks for your help.

I need to get going. I’ve got a meeting in a few minutes.

I’ve got another call coming in, so I’d better go.

Good to talk to you. Bye.

It’s been good talking to you. We’ll be in touch. Good bye.

Thanks for calling. I’ll speak with you again soon.

Thanks for calling. We’ll speak again soon.
 

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How to use “provided that”

The phrase “provided that” has numerous possible meanings, which can result in ambiguity if it is not used properly.

 

First of all, “provided that” can simply be a verb + conjunction combination. This is a common structure in legal writing. E.g.:

Section 3 provides that the obligation does not apply in the following circumstances.
(i.e. In accordance with section 3, the obligation does not apply…)

Before it was amended, the Act provided that the seller could take possession of the goods and retain them until payment was made.
(i.e. Under the previous version of the Act, the seller could take possession…)

In this way contracts, laws or acts have “provisions”. Provisions are particular rules, requirements, stipulations, etc.

 

“Provided that” also has an idiomatic meaning as a phrase that introduces a proviso. A proviso can be a number of things, including a condition, an exception and a qualification.

1) The most common idiomatic meaning is “on the condition that”. This is how “provided that” is usually understood in everyday English. Here are some examples:

You may go to the party provided that you’re home by 12.00.

You can drive a car provided that you have a valid licence.

You may produce your own version of the form, provided that the content is the same as in the attached template.

If you omit “that” the meaning stays the same:

You can drive a car provided you have a valid licence.

 

2) A less common meaning is “with the exception that”.  This meaning is rarely used outside of legal writing. E.g.:

If the Deposit is not paid, the Seller has the right to rescind this Agreement by delivering written notice to the Purchaser within 30 days of the date of this Agreement, provided that such rescission right is not effective if the Seller has rescinded the Preliminary Agreement for the Property.
(i.e. If the Deposit is not paid the Seller has the right to rescind this Agreement except if the Seller has already rescinded the Preliminary Agreement.)

All the above comments apply to the Properties, provided that the comments concerning the Expropriation Decision do not apply as there was no equivalent for the Properties.
(i.e. All the above comments apply to the Properties except the comments concerning the Expropriation Decision.)

 

3) Here’s an – admittedly rather complex – example of “provided that” as a qualification. Again this usage is only likely to appear in legal writing.

If the Seller’s production of the product is stopped or disrupted by an event of force majeure, the Seller must allocate its available supplies of the product to the Buyer based upon the same percentage of the Seller’s preceding year’s shipments of products to the Buyer in relation to the Seller’s total shipments of the product, provided, however, that to the extent that the Seller does not need any tonnage that is available in excess of the allocation of products to the Buyer, it must make that tonnage available to the Buyer.*
(i.e. The proviso qualifies the Seller’s obligation by adding additional information: If the Seller has a greater amount of the product available than the same percentage of the previous year’s shipments to the Buyer, he must also sell that amount to the Buyer.)

 

The phrase “providing that” is sometimes used as an alternative to “provided that”. Both mean the same thing and both are correct, but “provided that” is the more popular alternative.

 

* Example taken from Bryan Garner “Legal Writing in Plain English”, p. 111. Needless to say, Garner presents this sentence as an example of how NOT to write legal English. Garner generally does not advocate the use of provisos. He suggests rewriting and simplifying such sentences – a point of view that you might agree with if you’ve had difficulty understanding the last three examples in this post.

 

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How to use “provide for”

“Provide for” can be a phrasal verb or simply a verb + preposition combination.

Here are some examples of “provide for” as a verb + preposition combination:

I will provide the wine for the meal.

We care about the service that we provide for our customers.

A ramp will be provided for disabled access.

As a phrasal verb, “provide for” has three meanings:

“provide for” somebody
“provide for” something
“provide for” something (legal usage)

“Provide for” somebody means to give people the essential things they need to live, such as food, housing and clothes, e.g.:

Parents must provide for their children.

After he lost job he worried that he would not be able to provide for his family.

Prisoners must learn to provide for themselves legally so they do not reoffend when released.

“Provide for” something means to plan for, prepare for, take precautions against, anticipate, get ready for a possible (negative) event in the future. E.g.:

It turned out that by buying extra batteries, he had provided for just such an emergency.

You should provide for exchange rate fluctuations when calculating the price.

We have little confidence in contracts which attempt to provide for all possible contingencies.

“Provide for” something is common in legal texts, where it means to make possible, enable, establish, facilitate or require in a legally enforceable manner. Here are some examples:

This contract provides for termination under the following circumstances.

The agreement provided for regular consultations between the Company and Contractor.

The Act provides for two members of the board to represent the company.

In this way contracts, acts etc. have “provisions”. Provisions are particular rules, requirements, stipulations, etc.

 

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The difference between “arrange” and “arrange for”

We use “arrange for” when we talk about making arrangements, often when we ask someone else to deal with something, e.g.:

Please arrange for the issuance of a new invoice. (I don’t expect you to do it yourself – ask an accountant to do it.)

I will arrange for the documents to be sent to you in the morning. (I won’t send them myself – I will ask someone else to arrange a courier.)

“Arrange for” is a fairly formal phrase usually used in business or legal contexts.

It is also polite, as you are not directly asking the person to do something themselves. “Arrange for” implies that you only want the person you’re addressing to see that something is done, most probably by someone more junior. Therefore, when you use the phrase, you are also implying that the person you’re addressing is senior enough to have subordinates.

In contrast, “arrange” means plan, prepare, organise. E.g.:

We will arrange a meeting as soon as possible. (We will do it ourselves.)

Jane asked me on Friday to arrange a visit to the factory, but I still haven’t had time yet. (Jane asked me to do it; someone else may have asked Jane to “arrange for” it.)

“Arrange” also means to put in some form of order, e.g.:

Please arrange the furniture so the sun does not shine on my computer screen.

In this context “arrange for” is incorrect.

The difference between “arrange” and “arrange for” is similar to the difference between “do something” and “have something done”:

“arrange” = “do something”
“arrange for” = “have something done”

“Arrange for” is more formal and polite than “have something done”. E.g.:

Please arrange for this document to be translated into English.

Please have this document translated into English.

 

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The difference between “principal” and “principle”

These words are pronounced the same way, but their meanings are different.

Principal” can be an adjective and a noun.

It is most commonly used as an adjective, meaning “main” or “most important”:

Her principal area of responsibility is economic policy.

The principal reason why we cannot accept his application is because he is not a citizen of an EU member state.

As a noun, the most common meaning of “principal” is:

  • Someone who holds a position of leadership, especially the headmaster/headmistress of a school

In the fields of business and law “principal” also has the following meanings:

  • A person who authorises another to act as a representative, e.g. an agent or an attorney is authorised by a principal
  • A person with the main responsibility for an obligation, as opposed to that person’s surety or guarantor
  • A person who commits a criminal offence

“Principal” also has financial meanings:

  • The capital or main part of a financial holding, as opposed to the interest or revenue it earns
  • The amount of a debt upon which interest is calculated, i.e. the amount borrowed, excluding interest

Principle” is a noun.

It has two related meanings:

  • A basic idea or rule that explains or controls how something works or happens – the principles of democracy, the hereditary principle, the principle of electro-magnetic conduction
  • A moral rule or standard of good behaviour – He is a man of principle; That woman has no principles; I do not eat meat on principle; In principle I agree with you
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How to use initials and acronyms

Non-native English speakers often find it difficult to know when to use “a”, “the” or no article with initials and acronyms.

The key is to know what the initials mean. If the initials are a proper noun (name), then you should not use an article (this follows the rule concerning article use with names). If the initials are descriptive, then you will probably need to use either “the” or “a”.

For example, company names do not usually require an article, e.g.: BMW (Bayerische Motoren Werke), GE (General Electric), GM (General Motors), LG (Lucky Goldstar), CNN (Cable News Network). Neither do initials describing people, e.g. JFK (John Fitzgerald Kennedy).

But if the initials are a description of e.g. countries, authorities or organisations, you should use “the”, e.g.: the USA, the UK, the UN, the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), the EU (European Union), the ECJ (European Court of Justice), the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe)

An exception here is the BBC, which we say even though the BBC is a company. “BBC” stands for “British Broadcasting Corporation”, so the name acts like a description of a corporation. General Electric is a corporation too, so we could equally as well say the GE corporation, but according to convention, we just refer to it by name – GE.

Acronyms are pronounceable names made up of a series of initials. Thus, as proper nouns, they do not need an article. E.g. NATO, NASA, UNESCO, OPEC, VAT

“A” or “an”?

Although we write a limited liability company, we write an LLC.

The choice of “a” or “an” is determined by the pronunciation of the initials (LLC is pronounced el-el-see, so, as it starts with a vowel sound, we must use “an”).

Other examples: a marketing authorisation holder becomes an MAH, a special purpose vehicle becomes an SPV

As acronyms are pronounced as words, we say, e.g. a NATO resolution, an OPEC member

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How to be polite

Non-native English speakers sometimes sound abrupt and impolite to native English speakers. This is because they often use language that is too direct, and does not have the correct “distance” from the hearer or reader. It is therefore important to use the correct polite expressions.

You can make your speech and writing more polite by using the following:

  • modal verbs (such as would, could, might)
  • different verb tenses
  • polite conditionals
  • the passive voice
  • negative questions

Modal verbs

DIRECT: Please send me the documents.
POLITE: Could you please send me the documents?

DIRECT: If you want to send such a letter we can draft it for you.
POLITE: If you would like to send such a letter we would be happy to draft it for you.

DIRECT: You should consider the following course of action.
POLITE: You might like to consider the following course of action.

Changing the tense of the verb

The present simple tense is very direct. Choosing a different tense increases the distance and softens the meaning of your words.

Use a progressive verb form rather than a simple verb form:

I am looking forward to hearing from you.
I am assuming that the rest of the documentation will follow.

Use a past tense instead of the present (present meaning remains):

What did you say your name was? (i.e. What is your name?)

Use a past progressive (present meaning remains):

I was wondering whether you would like our advice on this new issue that has arisen.
I was thinking that you might like to meet the head of our Employment team.

Use the future tense (present meaning remains):

I hope you won’t mind if I copy Richard onto this email.

Polite conditionals

These use modal verbs and the past tense. Again, present meaning remains. They can be used for requests, advice or recommendations:

I would appreciate it if you arranged for immediate payment.
I would be grateful if you signed and returned the document by the end of the week.
It would be more secure if you changed the password more frequently.
Due to the complexity of the matter it would be best if you asked a tax advisor to take a look at it.

You can also use a modal verb in the “if” clause (this is an exception to the standard rule on conditionals):

I would appreciate it if you could send it back as soon as possible.

NOTE: Remember to include “it” in the phrase “I would appreciate it if…”

The passive voice

The passive voice is an impersonal verb form which creates distance (and avoids making accusations):

DIRECT (active voice): It seems that you made an error in the calculations.
POLITE (passive voice): It seems that an error was made in the
calculations.

Negative questions

This is a way of softening advice or recommendations. These are more commonly used in speech than in writing.

Negative questions are a diplomatic way of speaking with clients and superiors.

DIRECT: We’ve met before.
POLITE: Haven’t we met before?

DIRECT: We should include this point in the statement of claim.
POLITE: Shouldn’t we include this point in the statement of claim?

DIRECT: This clause needs renegotiating.
POLITE: Don’t you think this clause should be renegotiated? (+ passive)

DIRECT: We should go with scenario 2.
POLITE: Wouldn’t it be better if we went with scenario 2? (+ conditional)

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