English for work: how language affects professionalism

21 July, 2017 Careers Erin O'Neill

Colleagues speaking

The way that people speak to each other is constantly changing – not only over the years, but also depending on the context. For example, you will probably speak in one way to your friends and in a different way to a stranger.

This is also true for working in an office, as there are many tones of voice and choices of language that are more appropriate for the workplace. In this blog post, we explore some of the do’s and don’ts of professional language.


Casual language

When speaking or sending emails to your colleagues, it’s always best not to use slang or ‘text’ speak (such as ‘u’ instead of ‘you’). There are two main reasons for this.

Firstly, one of the roots of being seen as professional is appearing to take your work seriously. Not using the correct words or spelling often indicates that you are being casual – and so people may worry that you are using the same approach towards your job.

Secondly, it is very important to be polite to everyone you work with. Being polite includes making sure that everyone can understand what you are saying, because this means that everyone is included when you are speaking to them. This applies to language which is too complex as well as too casual.

Consider these sentences:

  1. “plz let me no if u can do it =) afaik deadline is mon”
  2. “Please let me know if you can complete this task. As far as I know, the deadline is Monday.”
  3. “When convenient, please convey to me the likelihood of your finishing this labour, and affirm that it will be executed by Monday as has been determined.”

Both the first and third versions can be difficult for people to understand. Not everybody shares the same background or knowledge, so it is best to stick to standard spellings and vocabulary to ensure that everyone you’re talking to is on the same page.


Jokes and emojis/emoticons

Emojis and emoticons – small faces that are used on social media and messaging services to communicate a feeling or reaction – are extremely common nowadays. Notably, during her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton tweeted “How does your student loan debt make you feel? Tell us in 3 emojis or less.”

As her tweet implies, emojis are mostly used by young people; but in a workplace, you are likely to meet people from a wide range of generations. This means that not everyone will know what you mean if you end a sentence with an emoji, so they are best avoided.

When it comes to humour and jokes in the workplace, it is always best to get to know a person first before you start making jokes – particularly in emails.

When you are speaking to someone in person, you can also see their body language and hear the tone of their voice, which helps you to understand when they are being serious and when they are not. However, it is easy for someone to misinterpret or misunderstand what you say in emails.

Until you know that a person will respond well to your sense of humour, keep your language focused on work. This will also keep you out of any trouble with human resources!


Formatting and punctuation

Different ways of altering your text – such as italicsbold, and underlining – all give the impression that you are emphasising something. However, in a business context, they can also be read as anger or impatience. Stay away from these formats in emails to avoid coming across too aggressively (unless you are writing a heading).

On a similar note, you should never write in all capital letters LIKE THIS. When reading text, capital letters come across as shouting – and you should never shout at your colleagues.

Lastly, using exclamation marks (!) and question marks (?) certainly have their uses. You can use an exclamation mark to indicate excitement – e.g. “I am so excited to start this project with you!” – and of course a question mark indicates a question.

However, try not to use both together (?!) and never use more than one of each. For example, do not write “This is very urgent!!!” or “Can you please update me???”. Doing this indicates a level of emotion that is not appropriate in the office, and can be very off-putting to others.


To find out more about communicating in an English-speaking workplace, why not consider one of TLG’s English for Work courses?

All our classes are now available online, click here to learn more.
Also try our One-to-One online classes, click here to learn more.
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