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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The differences (and similarities) between “compose” and “comprise”

Non-native speakers of English are not the only ones who regularly confuse these words or use them incorrectly. Unfortunately, native speakers are equally guilty of mistakes.

Here’s how to use them correctly:

  • “compose” – to make up, i.e. the parts compose the whole
  • “be composed of” – to be made up of, i.e. the whole is composed of its parts
  • “composes of” – INCORRECT

 

  • “comprise” – to be made up of, i.e. the whole comprises its parts (opposite to “compose”)
  • “be comprised of” – INCORRECT, but commonly used by native speakers to have the same meaning as “consist of” and “be composed of”
  • “comprises of” – INCORRECT

Here are some examples of usage:

  • 24 lawyers, including 6 partners, compose the Energy Department.
  • A hallway, living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and separate WC compose the apartment.
  • 28 member states compose the European Union.

The above examples, although technically correct, would sound a little strange to a native English speaker. It would be better to write the following:

  • The Energy Department is composed of  24 lawyers, including 6 partners.
  • The apartment is composed of a hallway, living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and separate WC.
  • The European Union is composed of 28 member states.

In the above examples “consists of” would work as well as “is composed of”. Alternatively you can use “comprise”:

  • The Energy Department comprises  24 lawyers, including 6 partners.
  • The apartment comprises a hallway, living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and separate WC.
  • The European Union comprises 28 member states.

Remember the whole comprises the parts and the parts compose the whole. So avoid this common mistake:

  • 28 member states comprise the European Union.

I also sometimes see “comprise” used when the writer should use “include” or “contain”.

WRONG
Please note that a special non-liability clause is comprised in the Lease.
RIGHT
Please note that the lease contains / includes a special non-liability clause.
WRONG
The installation was not comprised in the Council of Ministers’ Regulation.
RIGHT
The installation was not included in the Council of Ministers’ Regulation.

Remember that “comprise” has an exhaustive meaning, i.e. it refers to all the parts.

  • The apartment comprises a hallway, living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and separate WC.

In the above example the list of rooms is complete. There are no more rooms in the apartment.

“Include” or “contain”, on the other hand, are not exhaustive, i.e. they do not refer to all the parts.

  • The apartment includes a hallway, living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom and separate WC.

In this example the apartment may contain more rooms.

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The difference between “consist of” and “consist in”

Until relatively recently I was not aware of the difference between “consist of” and “consist in”. This is probably because among native English speakers “consist in” is very infrequently used in comparison to “consist of”, which is relatively common. In fact it wasn’t until I moved to Poland that I learned the difference.

Here it is:

  • “consist of” – to have as its component parts or elements, i.e. the whole consists of its parts
  • “consist in” – to have as its essential features, i.e. the whole is defined by its parts

Here are some examples of usage:

  • The book consists of 50 chapters.
  • The activity carried out at the plant consists of precision cutting, lathe work and heat moulding.
  • The problem consists in  his failure to cooperate.
  • The defence consists in  discrediting the claimant.

It’s no accident that I only learned the difference between the two phrases in Poland. In Polish the difference is made clear by two very different phrases – and as a result Poles are far better at explaining the difference than English people:

składać się z = consist of (literally “to be made up of”)

polegać na = consist in (literally “to rely on”)

Be aware that these days “consist in” is rarely seen in English writing outside of dusty philosophical texts. To many people it can sound strange or old fashioned, or simply wrong.

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Misused English terms in EU publications

There is a general opinion among non-native speakers of English that the language of official publications is correct and may be used as a model to follow. Unfortunately, when it comes to many official EU documents, this opinion is wrong. Due to the multi-linguistic nature of the EU and the fact that EU documentation has very frequently been translated, many words and phrases that you find in English versions of official publications are incorrect, incorrectly used or even made up.

Fortunately, help is at hand. Jeremy Gardner, a translator at the European Court of Auditors, has compiled a list of misused English terms in EU publications. You can find a link to the list here: http://www.vision-research.eu/index.php?id=893

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The difference between “in future” and “in the future”

Consider these examples:

You should be more careful in future.

In the future we plan to make significant investments in Romania and Bulgaria.

In the first example “in future” means “from now on and always”. It is often used in the context of changing habits or behaviour, and may form part of a reprimand (such as in the above example).

In the second example “in the future” means “at/from some future point in time”.

“In future” is used mainly in British English. Speakers of US English may not be familiar with it. They tend to use “in the future” for both meanings.

 

More examples:

He reassured shareholders that the bank would in future focus on services for individuals and small businesses.

Trade relations between member countries will in future be conducted primarily on a bilateral basis.

He said that similar treaties with Latvia and Lithuania would be concluded in the future.

I would like to know whether you think the project will be profitable in the future.

 

Here are a couple of similar phrases that work like “in the future”:

We expect a bill on this subject to be submitted to Parliament in the near future.

I’m looking forward to meeting you again in the not-too-distant future.

 

You should be aware that native speakers’ use of these terms may not always conform to these rules. In particular, British English speakers may use “in future” when they should use “in the future”.

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The difference between “affect” and “effect”

Generally speaking, the difference is this:

affect” is a verb meaning to have an influence on, to cause a change in something (often negative),

effect” is a noun meaning a result.

So, for example: If an area is affected by flooding, the effect can be devastating.

More examples:

The authorities banned the use of chemical insecticides in the worst affected areas.

A wide range of Japanese exports to the United States have been affected by the agreement.

Short-term unemployment may have no serious effect on an individual; long-term unemployment can be devastating.

The effect of the medication is virtually instantaneous.

 

There are also less common uses of the words:

affect” as a verb meaning to simulate, put on a false show.

I couldn’t believe it! At the meeting he affected total ignorance of the whole plan.

Although he’s British he affects a very convincing American accent.

affect” is also used as a noun, meaning a feeling or emotion, mainly in the context of psychology.

 

effect” can also be used as a verb, meaning to cause to occur, to bring into existence, execute (it often collocates with the word “change”).

The changes effected by the new legislation led to a comprehensive revision of our employment policies.

She was mistaken about the essential character of the document she signed and did not know about the transaction which it effected.

in effect” is an idiom that means in essence, to all purposes.

The policy is, in effect, a tax cut for banks.

We should also note that there are some trade measures that are protectionist in effect, and have strong links with competition policy.

Rules, legislation, agreements etc. can be said to come into effect or take effect when they start operating.

The ban was agreed by international treaty in 2010, but did not come into effect until 2012.

The changes took effect without any serious disruption to manufacturing processes.

personal effects” means private belongings.

He came to the house yesterday to pick up some of his personal effects.

 

Comparison of “affect” and “effect” as verbs

The changes to the regulations will affect savings.

= The changes will probably reduce savings.

The changes to the regulations will effect savings.

= The changes will lead to new savings being made.

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Differences between British and American English

When you write in English you should decide whether to use British or American. Some companies have a policy about this, but many do not. Either way, you should aim to be consistent throughout a piece of writing.

The table below is divided into the following categories: Words (arranged thematically), Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation. It is by no means a complete list, but contains some of the more common and useful differences between the two dialects of English.

For more information see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_American_and_British_English and the suggested links.

 

BRITISH

 

AMERICAN

WORDS (UK)

WORDS (US)

CLOTHES (UK)

CLOTHES (US)

waistcoat

vest

trousers

pants

braces (straps to support trousers)

suspenders

jumper

pinafore / pinafore dress

tights

leggings

trainers (shoes)

vest

undershirt

pants

underpants / briefs

suspenders

garter

sweater

jumper

pantyhose

tights

sneakers

COMMUNICATIONS (UK)

COMMUNICATIONS (US)

mobile / mobile phone

post code

to post

letter box / post box

phone me on this number

he will write to me

cell / cell phone

zip code

to mail

mailbox

call me at this number

he will write me

DATE & TIME (UK)

DATE & TIME (US)

20 August 2014

20/8/14

the twentieth of August

Monday to Friday (inclusive)

he went on Friday

the sale starts on Monday

at the weekend

quarter to four

quarter past four

August 20, 2014

8/20/14

August (the) twentieth

Monday through Friday

he went on Friday / he went Friday

the sale starts Monday

on the weekend

quarter of four / quarter to four

quarter after four / quarter past four

EDUCATION & SPORTS (UK)

EDUCATION & SPORTS (US)

school / college / university

state school

maths (i.e. mathematics)

archaeology

sports teacher

in a team

football

American football

hockey

ice hockey

I often watch sport on TV.

Did you watch the match?

school

public school

math

archeology

coach

on a team

soccer

football

field hockey

hockey

I often watch sports on TV.

Did you watch the game?

FOOD (UK)

FOOD (US)

entrée / starter

main course

pudding / dessert

blancmange

sweets

chips

crisps

biscuit

scone

courgette

pepper (the vegetable, not the spice)

aubergine

starter

entrée / main course

dessert

pudding

candy

fries / French fries

chips

cookie

biscuit

zucchini

capsicum

eggplant

HOME & FAMILY (UK)

HOME & FAMILY (US)

cooker

to grill

toilet / loo / lavatory

tap (for water)

have a bath

mummy (mother)

dummy

nappy

pushchair / buggy

cupboard / wardrobe

duvet

plaster

condom

rubber

torch

spanner

rubbish

rubbish bin

dustbin

garden

autumn

ill

doctor’s surgery

stove

to broil

washroom / bathroom / restroom

faucet

take a bath

mommy

pacifier

diaper

stroller / buggy

closet

quilt / comforter

Band-Aid

rubber

eraser

flashlight

wrench

trash / garbage

trash can

waste basket

yard

fall

sick

doctor’s office

HUMAN EMOTIONS (UK)

HUMAN EMOTIONS (US)

clever

angry

mean

unpleasant / unkind

smart

mad

stingy / miserly / selfish

mean

LAND AND BUILDINGS (UK)

LAND AND BUILDINGS (US)

plot (of land)

(real) property

council housing

terraced house

flat / apartment

semi-detached house / split-level apartment

lift

ground floor

first floor etc.

lot

real estate

housing project

townhouse / row house

apartment

duplex
-

elevator

first floor

second floor etc.

LAW (UK)

LAW (US)

barrister  / solicitor

claimant

competition law

company

articles of association

appeal against the decision

attorney

plaintiff

antitrust law

corporation / company

(corporation’s) bylaws

appeal against the decision / appeal the decision

MONEY (UK)

MONEY (US)

bill (e.g. for a restaurant meal)

note (paper money)

cheque

current account

cash machine

hire purchase

instalment

accountancy

check / tab

bill

check

checking account

ATM (automated teller machine)

installment plan

installment

accounting

SHOPPING & ENTERTAINMENT (UK)

SHOPPING & ENTERTAINMENT (US)

queue

shop assistant

shop

off-licence

chemist

trolley

jeweller / jewellery

film

cinema

advertisements (on TV)

theatre

line

(sales) clerk

store

liquor store

drug store

shopping cart / wagon

jeweler / jewelry

movie

movie theater

commercials

theater

TRANSPORT (UK)

TRANSPORT (US)

centre

kilometre

traveller / travelling

licence (noun) / license (verb)

car

bonnet

boot

windscreen

mudguard / wing

tyre

racing car

sailing boat

mobile home

lorry

articulated lorry

petrol

paraffin

motorway

dual carriageway

roundabout

tarmac

pavement

car park

multi-storey car park

railway

wagon

subway

underground (railway) / tube

center

kilometer

traveler / traveling

license (noun & verb)

car / automobile

hood

trunk

windshield

fender

tire

racecar

sailboat

recreational vehicle (RV)

truck

semi-trailer truck

gas / gasoline

kerosene

highway / freeway

divided highway

traffic circle

pavement / blacktop

sidewalk

parking lot

parking garage

railroad

freight car

pedestrian tunnel

subway

WORK (UK)

WORK (US)

labour

curriculum vitae / CV

laptop

filing cabinet

dialling tone

holiday

fill in a form

labor

résumé

notebook (computer)

file cabinet

dial tone

break / vacation

fill out a form

SPELLING (UK)

SPELLING (US)

centre

kilometre

recognise / recognize

organisation / organization

etc.

colour

neighbour

honour

favour

traveller / travelling

jeweller / jewellery

fulfil

instalment

licence (noun) / license (verb)

defence

practice (noun) / practise (verb)

learnt / learned

spelt / spelled

spoilt /spoiled

programme / program

plough

tyre

center

kilometer

recognize

organization

etc.

color

neighbor

honor

favor

traveler / traveling

jeweler / jewelry

fulfill

installment

license (noun & verb)

defense

practice (noun & verb)

learned

spelled

spoiled

program

plow

tire

GRAMMAR (UK)

GRAMMAR (US)

The government is / are considering the issue.

The committee is / are undecided.

appeal against the decision
-

Has he left yet?

Have you seen John?

They’ve got a new house.

Come and see what I’ve bought.

I often watch sport on TV.

Did you watch the match?

have a bath

at the weekend

he went on Friday

the sale starts on Monday

behind

in a team

different to / from

named after somebody

phone me on this number

he will write to me

fill in a form

The government is considering the issue.

The committee is undecided.

appeal against the decision / appeal the decision

Did he leave yet?

Did you see John?

They’ve gotten a new house.

Come see what I bought.

I often watch sports on TV.

Did you watch the game?

take a bath

on the weekend

he went on Friday / he went Friday

the sale starts Monday

behind / in back of

on a team

different than / from

named for somebody

call me at this number

he will write me

fill out a form

PUNCTUATION (UK)

PUNCTUATION (US)

full stop

brackets

hash sign (i.e. #)

pound sign (i.e. £)

Mr Smith

Ms Jones

Dear Jane, (starting an email or letter)

We have six phones, five computers and a printer.

He said, ‘See you tomorrow’. / He said, “See you tomorrow”.

period

parentheses

pound sign

British currency symbol

Mr. Smith

Ms. Jones

Dear Jane:

We have six phones, five computers, and a printer.

He said, “See you tomorrow.”

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