Grammar for Business: 8 Important Rules Professionals Need to Know
English grammar is as useful for business as your favorite suit.
That’s because using good English grammar when talking or writing creates a positive impression. It shows you know how to communicate accurately.
When you use accurate language, you say exactly what you want to say. This is especially important in the business world.
Luckily, learning grammar for business purposes can be simple and fun! Here are eight important grammar rules, tips for understanding them better and a practice quiz to test your new knowledge.
- 8 Important Business English Grammar Rules
- 1. Use the passive voice to focus on the action of the sentence
- 2. Use modal verbs to add meaning to the main verb
- 3. Do not use “will” to refer to the future after time expressions
- 4. Do not use “will” or “would” in conditional statements
- 5. Use the present perfect tense for past actions that affect the present
- 6. Use the perfect tense for actions that happened before other actions
- 7. Use the continuous tense when an action is ongoing
- 8. Use “the” to refer to something specific
- Tips for Understanding Grammar for Business Purposes
- Business Grammar Practice Exercises
- And One More Thing...
8 Important Business English Grammar Rules
1. Use the passive voice to focus on the action of the sentence
You can use the passive voice whenever you want to focus on an action rather than on the person performing the action.
The passive voice is formed with the verb to be and the third form (past participle) of the main verb. To be will be in the correct tense for the sentence. At the end, we can add the person who completed the action, if necessary.
Imagine you’re describing a problem. You can use the passive voice to avoid blaming someone for the problem with this rule.
You can also use this rule when it isn’t important to know who did the action, or when a group completed the action together.
It can also help you sound more formal. In English, being formal means being less personal. The passive voice can help you do that, especially in writing.
The meeting will probably be delayed (by the vice president).
The report was sent to the wrong recipient.
The email hasn’t been sent yet because of technical problems.
It is recommended that we do more research before launching the product.
It has been suggested that better teamwork will lead to better results.
Practice the passive voice by doing the exercises at the end of this post or with this online resource.
2. Use modal verbs to add meaning to the main verb
Modal verbs are words like may, might, can, could, shall, should, will, would and must. These words are used together with another verb in order to add further meaning to a sentence.
Modal verbs don’t use “s” in the third person singular like many other verbs do (e.g., he eats, she sleeps). These verbs also cannot be used in the future or past tenses. You can form the negative version of them by just adding not after the modal verb.
Whenever you have a choice, go with the more polite and formal modal verb. For example, when asking somebody to do something for you, say:
- Could you…? instead of Can you…?
- Would you…? instead of Will you…?
Also, when asking for permission, you can be more polite by using May I…? instead of Can I…?
Each modal verb adds a somewhat different meaning to the main verb.
First, you can express possibility.
May is used for stronger possibility than might. Can is used to make general statements about what’s possible. Could is the past tense of can, and it’s also sometimes used to say that something is possible.
They may email us for further details.
The market might recover, but until then we should be cautious.
The rules can be very strict in our company.
Our supervisors could be more transparent about salaries.
Modal verbs can also express impossibility.
Cannot and can’t (the negative forms of can) are used to express that something is impossible in the present. Could not and couldn’t (the negative forms of could) are used to express that something was impossible in the past.
These figures cannot be right—our profits are much higher.
We knew the chairman was joking. He couldn’t be serious.
Modals can express probability as well.
Must is used to express high likelihood in the present, and must have is used for the past. Should expresses probability in the present, and should have is used for the past. These words mean that something is likely to be true, but it is not 100% certain.
The meeting is running late. There must be something wrong.
The team got good results again. They must have worked really hard.
The negotiation should be over any minute now.
It’s closing time. Most customers should have already left.
Some modal verbs can express ability.
Can is used for someone’s ability or skill in the present. Could is used to express the same thing in the past. Could have is used to say that somebody had the chance to do something, but they didn’t do it.
She can speak three languages, but we’re not sure if we’re going to hire her.
When I lived next to the office, I could walk to work.
We could have finished the project on time, but Steven was transferred and we fell behind.
Modals can also express permission.
This is usually done with can. Could and may are more formal.
Can I help you with that report?
May I introduce you to my colleague?
Could I ask a few questions about your presentation?
You can use modal verbs for requests, too.
To ask someone to do something for you, use can or will. Could and would are the more formal, polite versions.
Can you fill in for me please?
Will you take my messages while I’m gone?
Could you please open a few windows?
Would you help me with this scanner?
Modal verbs can also be used in suggestions.
Could and should can help you offer suggestions and advice.
You should try to talk slowly when giving presentations.
We could schedule another meeting for tomorrow.
And finally, modal verbs can express necessity.
We use must for the present and future and had to for the past.
You must fill in this form to apply for the job.
They had to take on more staff to finish the job on time.
That’s a lot of information, but don’t worry—you can use these exercises to practice modal verbs. There are more practice questions at the end of this post.
3. Do not use “will” to refer to the future after time expressions
This rule is quite common in general English as well, but it comes up a lot in business contexts.
After words and phrases that refer to time (when, after, before, as soon as, etc.) we do not use future tenses and the word will.
Instead of the future tense, we use the present tense. Instead of the future perfect tense, we use the present perfect. We simply cut will out.
This rule comes in handy when making time arrangements and talking about schedules. It may seem difficult if you don’t have a similar rule in your native language, so just remember to be extra careful when using time expressions in English.
Don’t forget to email me when you get the results.
As soon as I have received the invitation, I will forward it to you.
Make sure you practice this rule so that you get it right every time!
4. Do not use “will” or “would” in conditional statements
(Unless they’re modal verbs, as you just saw.)
A conditional sentence is made up of two parts:
- The “if” clause (the part starting with the word “if”)
- The main clause (the other part, which has meaning on its own)
In business you may need to use a lot of conditional sentences in negotiations. For instance, if you needed to express what you would do if your partner were willing to do something else.
There are three types of conditional sentences you need to know.
Type 1 conditionals are used for real actions that happen in the present or future.
After If, we use the present tense. In the main clause (the second half of the sentence) we can use whatever we want; there are no restrictions.
Example (Type 1):
If he sends you the report, make sure you let me know.
Type 2 conditionals are used for unreal actions happening in the present.
You still start with If, but because we want to talk about something that isn’t really happening in the present, we cannot use would in the first half of the sentence (you can use it in the second half).
In the first half, your verb will take the present subjunctive form. For most verbs, this looks like the past tense, like bought or needed. However, if you need to use the verb to be, you simply use were for all persons.
Examples (Type 2):
If they raised everyone’s salaries, we would be the first to find out.
If he were hired, I would be his colleague.*
*You may hear “If he was hired, I would be his colleague,” but this isn’t entirely correct or formal. Just use were to be on the safe side.
Type 3 conditionals are used for unreal actions happening in the past.
Again, we start with If, and again, we cannot follow it with would in the first half of the sentence. Use the past subjunctive form of the verb instead (e.g. had been).
Example (Type 3):
If he had been my supervisor, I would have told him why I couldn’t reach my target.
Remember to stick to the correct and formal option (were, not was) in order to sound polite and make a good impression. You can practice this and more with these online exercises.
5. Use the present perfect tense for past actions that affect the present
We talked about using perfect forms of verbs earlier in this post. You’ve already used the past perfect and the present perfect. These styles of conjugation are used when an action has been completed already, so it’s “perfect.”
In this rule, we use the present perfect to refer to actions that happened in the recent past, or past actions that have an impact on the present.
In contrast, the simple past is used for actions that no longer have a connection with the present.
So whenever you’re talking or writing about something that happened in the past, first decide if the event still has a connection with the present or not. Avoid switching between the present perfect and the past because it makes you seem undecided.
Our competitors have lowered their prices, so we’ll have to do the same.
After we published the press release, we got several questions from shareholders.
Practice the present perfect and the simple past here, and don’t forget to do the exercises at the end of this post as well.
6. Use the perfect tense for actions that happened before other actions
In business, it’s often important to make the order in which things happen clear so that there’s no confusion about what needs to be done and when it needs to be finished.
There are three perfect tenses. Every time you need to use one, decide which action happened first and which action happened afterwards to figure out which perfect tense you need.
The past perfect is for talking about actions that happened before another moment in the past.
Example (past perfect):
By the time I handed in my resignation, I had already been contacted by two different recruiters.
In this example, there’s the moment in the past (when I handed in my resignation) and another moment before this (when I was contacted by recruiters).
Next, the present perfect is for talking about another moment from the present.
Example (present perfect):
I have never seen such an impressive resume.
In this example, we use the present perfect to express an action that happened just before the present moment. We can add until now at the end of the sentence to make this extra clear if we need to.
Finally, the future perfect is for talking about other moments from the future.
Example (future perfect):
I will have finished the report by the time you give me the email address.
The future perfect is used to express an action that will happen (finishing the report) before another moment (you giving me the email address) in the future.
Here are a few exercises so that you can practice the perfect tenses.
7. Use the continuous tense when an action is ongoing
This is another general English grammar rule that comes up especially often in the business world. Business people talk a lot about what they are doing and what they do. It’s important not to mix the two situations up.
So, we use the past, present and future continuous tense for actions that are ongoing (progressive) in either the past, present or the future. The speaker feels that it takes a certain amount of time or effort to complete an action, or the action lasts for a while.
You can actually say when they started and when they ended (or when they will end in the future). On the other hand, you would use the simple aspect for actions that are general.
A very common mistake is the difference between being asked “What do you do?” and “What are you doing?”
The question “What do you do?” means you should answer something like “I am a lawyer.” Because the question uses the present simple tense, it refers to a general action (your job).
In the second case, the question “What are you doing?” means you should tell the person about the action you’re currently doing, like “I’m looking for a file.” The present continuous suggests a progressive action (not a general one).
I was interviewing the second candidate when I got your text message.
They are going through a complex restructuring process, so I don’t know if they have any job openings.
In my presentation I will be talking about new market research methods.
You can practice the continuous aspect by doing these exercises.
8. Use “the” to refer to something specific
Our last rule is once again important in general English and business English.
The word the is called the definite article, and it’s used when we know exactly what we’re talking about. It has been “defined” for all the people in the conversation, and has already been mentioned before.
This rule is helpful in business when you need to talk about specific things or people, or when you want to make it clear what object or person you’re talking about.
That means it’s important to decide if the thing you’re talking about is known to all of the people involved, or if you’re just making general remarks.
I received the email that you mentioned during the meeting.
I don’t like emails that don’t have a subject line.
In the first example, the speaker defines the object they’re talking about by making it specific (the email you mentioned).
In the second example, the speaker is referring to all emails (that don’t have a subject line) in general, and not to a certain email in particular, so the isn’t used.
Practice the definite article by doing these online exercises. And don’t forget the practice quiz below!
Tips for Understanding Grammar for Business Purposes
Look closely at the rule
Sometimes grammar rules can be complex. However, you need to understand the rules, not just memorize them. Really understanding how grammar works will help you use it better and with greater accuracy.
You just read eight key grammar rules made simple so that they’re easier to understand. This will get you started in the right direction! Today you can start really, truly understanding English grammar.
Read the provided examples
Most grammar rules have technical terms like “subjunctive,” “participle” and so on. Don’t worry about these! If you understand them, awesome. But if not, know that these are just terms we use to refer to grammar rules while discussing them, and you will still be able to learn the rule without understanding the description.
It’s more important that you study how grammar rules are actually used. You should try to read and listen to examples of grammar rules being used naturally by native speakers in English. Seeing and hearing many examples will help you understand the rules better than memorizing grammar terms will.
Make your own example sentences
Understanding grammar is one thing, but remembering and using correct grammar is another thing altogether.
If you make your own example sentences for each rule, you’ll learn the rules much faster, have a better idea of how they work and remember them quicker when you need to use them in real life.
Practice with grammar exercises
Every time you study a new grammar rule, make sure you get lots of practice. Practice will help you prepare to use the rules in real life when speaking or writing.
Each rule above has links to external practice resources. The next section of this post also includes practice exercises, plus the answer key, so you can check your understanding right now.
Use grammar rules when writing and when speaking
After you’ve learned a grammar rule, make sure to keep using it! Otherwise, the rules will soon be lost—like all the other things we learn and never use again.
Beyond writing your own example sentences, try to use new grammar rules whenever you can, whether that’s at work, when talking to colleagues or a language partner, or even just writing in your language journal.
Business Grammar Practice Exercises
How are you doing? Do you think you understand how to use the above grammar rules?
Test your knowledge and practice the rules with the following exercises. The answer key is at the bottom.
Part 1: Fill in the gaps with one of the modal verbs provided. Several options may be correct.
A. This ___ be my signature; I always use black ink.
(can, can’t, couldn’t)
B. ___ I forward your report to my colleague?
(Can, May, Should)
C. We ___ go through five interviews and an exam before we got the job.
(must, had to, could)
D. Prices ___ go up, but we ___ know for sure.
(might, will, can; shouldn’t, can’t, mustn’t)
Part 2: Fill in the gaps with “the” or leave the gap empty if “the” is not necessary.
A. This is ___ worst cover letter I’ve ever read!
B. Do you have to read ___ resumes as part of your job?
C. Is this ___ PowerPoint presentation you said you needed help with?
D. She is a junior manager, so she doesn’t make decisions regarding ___ raises.
Part 3: Decide if the following sentences are correct or not. If they are incorrect, rewrite them.
A. If I knew about his decision, I would have told you.
B. When I will call you, please give me the right address.
C. By the time I applied for the job, they have already received 200 resumes.
D. I have been working on this presentation since you left.
Once you’re finished, you can check your answers here:
A. can’t | B. Can, May, Should (all are correct) | C. had to | D. might; can’t
A. the | B. – | C. the | D. –
A. Incorrect; If I had known about his decision, I would have told you.
B. Incorrect; When I call you, please give me the right address.
C. Incorrect; By the time I applied for the job, they had already received 200 resumes.
Grammar for business English is not so different from normal English grammar.
Now that you’ve learned a few new rules and you know the steps to learning them well, all you’ve got to do is keep up the good work. Good business English is worth your time and effort!
And One More Thing...
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