Idioms & Phrasal Verbs in English Business Writing [common mistakes]
As businesses become more international, so must our writing. Most of the time, good business writing skills transfer very well to global audiences, but there are some confusing verbs that global business writers should try to avoid. These are called phrasal verbs.
First, let’s take a look at the different types of verbs.
There are two main types of verbs:
- Action verbs, such as run, jump, talk, negotiate, etc.
- Stative verbs, such as be, have, like, love, etc. (We don’t really “do” these verbs. They are more descriptive verbs than doing verbs.)
As I’m sure you can guess, there are far more action verbs that stative verbs, and there are a lot that are particular to business. You can find a great list of business related action verbs here from Pepperdine University:
Now that we have reviewed some background information on verbs, what exactly is a phrasal verb?
A phrasal verb is phrase made up of a verb and a preposition that means something other than what the two words mean independently. If we made this into a formula, it would look like this:
verb + preposition = new meaning
Phrasal verbs are common in English, but they are difficult for global audiences. They are often considered idioms. You cannot deduce the meaning based on the two words alone, they can be difficult to find in a dictionary, and they are different from one English-speaking country to another. (Ever notice that the British call to-go food “take away” while in the U.S. it’s called “take out?”)
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples, and the synonymous one-word verbs you could use instead:
The markets are blowing up right now.
In this example, no one is literally blowing air up into the sky, so this could be hard to decode. Instead, say:
The markets are exploding right now.
The use of the synonymous one-word verb exploding makes the sentence accessible for all readers, not just those who speak a particular variety of English.
Here’s another example:
We need to look into that option.
In this example, we are not literally looking into a box or the refrigerator, so this also could be hard to understand. Instead, we should say:
We need to research that option.
In both examples, there is a one-word verb that means the same thing as the phrasal verb.
When writing for a global audience, it is always better to use the synonymous one-word verb because it is easier to understand and far easier to look up if your reader doesn’t understand it.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy our full list of business writing tips. For readers looking to improve their English business writing skills, we offer a full business writing course for non-native speakers.
About the author
Katie Almeida Spencer
Katie is an experienced Business Writing and English as a Second Language instructor, business writing coach, and teacher trainer. She taught Business and Academic Writing at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She holds a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Rhode Island and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Massachusetts Boston.