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White Paper: the language of report writing


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Your students want to work on Report Writing. Help! What should you teach them? This white paper suggests sixteen areas, with priorities.

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White Paper: the language of report writing

  1. 1. White Paper: the language of report writing by Paul Emmerson Introduction Your students have ticked ‘Report Writing’ on their Needs Analysis. Help! For every other communication skill there is a body of key phrases for input, and practice exercises or role-plays for output. But report writing is different. It’s messy, complicated and difficult to pin down. We do also have a particular problem with report writing. The way students get better at writing reports is to write reports. And then write some more reports. With other communication skills (telephoning, meetings, writing emails) we build up competence through doing it many times, and often break down the whole skill into mini-activities. It doesn’t quite work as easily with report writing: first we need to establish a context, and a purpose, and have facts and figures to work with. Then we need thirty or forty minutes of silence in class for students to write. Repeat again. And again. It’s uncomfortable – it feels like the students are getting bored. Are they? Maybe yes. Set it for homework? Not a bad idea, if they will do it. But homework is not ideal: the motivation and close personalized monitoring by a teacher circulating and supporting is difficult to reproduce at home. I could perfectly well do yoga at home, but I don’t – I go to a class. Of course, with report writing you can (and should) go ‘in at the deep end’ at some point. This means getting the students to write first, and then seeing where the problems are afterwards. I’ve never had any success asking students to think in the abstract of a typical report they have to write: they lack a context, specific background information, specific facts and figures, the specific company report structure that they have to follow, etc. But if your student does have a particular report to work on in real life, or can show you one already written, then that’s great and you are very lucky. Otherwise, an easy option is to get them to write a report off the back of a role-play: ‘write a summary for your boss who wasn’t at the meeting’. But I’m not concerned with a ‘Deep End’ approach in this article. I want Input!! Below I’ve presented some Input language areas, in a very approximate order of importance, highest priority first. It’s a personal view, of course. I’ll 1/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  2. 2. keep all my examples at Upper Intermediate (B2) level. Intermediate (B1) is probably too low to do serious work on report writing, and Advanced (C1) students are too thin on the ground in our classes. All through this article I’ve referred to IELTS Academic Writing, because the input there is mostly relevant to business report writing. My sources here are mainly Focus on IELTS by Sue O’Connell and Ready For IELTS by Sam McCarter. I have also looked through all the usual multi-level Business English coursebooks (the ones you know and love) but I can’t really find a proper treatment of input language for report writing. And finally, specialized BE books like Collins English for Business: Writing are woefully short on Input language for reports systematically presented and practiced. 1 Formal style First, some examples: we need more money → we need more financial resources first I’ll say what I think the problem is → first we need to define the issues this gives us a lot of chances → this presents us with several opportunities there are various other possibilities → there are various options/alternatives we have limits on how much we can spend → there are constraints to our budget it’s changing a lot → it is undergoing a profound transformation another good thing to do is → a further step in the right direction would be to we have to do something about it → we need to meet these challenges it’s selling really well, much better than we thought → it is selling remarkably well Is ‘formal style’ a good description of the reformulations on the right? IELTS would call it ‘academic style’. My preferred phrase would be ‘educated style’, but this could sound offensive – like you are uneducated (= stupid) if you can’t write like this. So ‘formal’ it is for now, unless you have a better idea. Notice how the first phrase each time would be quite okay in normal speech, or an email, and carries 100% of the meaning. But … somehow these first phrases sound completely inappropriate for the context of a report. In a presentation or a meeting either choice might be okay, depending on the formality of the occasion. 2/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  3. 3. Before we continue, we’d better just ask: are the ‘formal’ alternatives worth teaching? If you are a supporter of BELF (Business English as a Lingua Franca) you presumably answer ‘no’. After all, those on the left carry 100% of the meaning and would be 100% understood in an international context with many non-native speakers of English present. But every single BE learner I have taught over the years wants to know the formal version (or something like it), and avidly writes it down in their notes. This is not because of a ‘false consciousness’ due to the imperialistic nature of native speaker English. It is to do with presenting an image of yourself as an educated person. It is to do with using ‘serious’ language, not everyday language, to make your ideas sound important and not easily dismissed. The impact on the reader, not meaning, is paramount1. If you look through a book or internet article on report writing aimed at native speakers, you will find it full of trite and bland injunctions to be simple and clear, with all sorts of clichés about avoiding a Latin word where an AngloSaxon one would do etc. But I can only imagine that the authors of such books do not live in a world where the image projected by the writer of a report matters. It may not matter as much as the content, but it does matter. Here are two short extracts from the 2012 annual report of HP, written by the new CEO Meg Whitman2. I was working on it in class recently with an Advanced level student who worked for HP. Example 1: original text from HP Annual Report We have also taken steps to refocus our research and development efforts to extend HP’s technology leadership in our core markets. Our product and service development teams have moved aggressively to better understand customer needs, align our portfolio, and speed our time to market. Example 1: my approximate translation into simple, clear language We have also done a lot of R&D work to make sure we still have the best technology. Our development guys have moved quickly to really understand the needs of our customers. And we’re getting our new products into the market more quickly. 1 Where ELF goes wrong is that it completely fails to make a distinction between accuracy (which often doesn’t need correcting, I agree) and complexity (which students want and need and love to be taught, and allows them to come closer in English to the meaning and style they would use in their own language). 2 Internet link to download the PDF of the annual report is: 3/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  4. 4. Example 2: original text from HP Annual Report Fiscal 2013 is going to be a fix-and-rebuild year as we focus on working through the anticipated disruptions expected to accompany the organizational changes we made in fiscal 2012. We will continue to implement our cost-reduction and operational initiatives, make investments in our business – particularly in tools, systems, processes, and instrumentation – and maintain our focus on disciplined capital allocation. We will also continue to drive product innovation in our core markets; improve our commercialization strategy with a focus on cloud computing, security, and information optimization; and rebuild our goto-market capability. Example 2: my approximate translation into simple, clear language Next year is going to be tough. We’ll be working through the disruptions caused by all the changes we made last year. We’ll carry on cutting costs, but we’ll also make some new investments in the business. We’ll make sure that we spend that money well. We’ll also continue to develop new products, and improve how we sell our cloud computing and security services. [Note by PE: I have no idea what ‘rebuild our goto-market capability’ means, so I haven’t tried to translate it] If Meg Whitman wrote a report in a really simple, clear way – perhaps as she might speak the same information – then she would be understood but fired. It’s that simple. This ‘formal style’ is a major language area, and one that is very difficult to systematize and then present for teaching purposes. Here is the beginnings of a list, all single word examples: bad-negative, big-considerable, buy-purchase, change(v)-alter, change(n)-transformation, earlier-previous, effect-impact, get-obtain, good-positive, idea-concept, interesting part-feature, need-require, not good enough-not adequate, particular-specific, parts-components, places-locations, problem-issue, result-outcome, show-demonstrate, talk to-communicate with, worry-concern. Like everything else, it’s never black and white – some simpler language is fine, particularly for passages of text where the ideas themselves are straightforward and not that important. But use a little of the ‘formal’ alternatives and you’ll undoubtedly impress, persuade, and be taken more 4/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  5. 5. seriously. How can we build up a resource bank of examples like those above? Can you add to the list above with some examples of your own? Please email me if you can add substantially to this list with good, high frequency examples! The IELTS books have exercises of grammatical transformations, with students rewriting the first sentence using the word in the brackets. Here are a few examples from the books: The data is not correct. (error) → There is an error in the data. Some drivers have no idea about the rules of the road. (unaware) → Some drivers are unaware of the rules of the road. With a longer runway larger planes could land. (enable) → A longer runway would enable larger planes to land. There are about 1 million bicycles in Amsterdam. (estimated) → There are estimated to be about 1 million bicycles in Amsterdam. Pollution has significantly affected many coral reefs. (impact) → Pollution has had a significant impact on many coral reefs. You may need to adjust the temperature slightly. (adjustment) → You may need to make a slight adjustment to the temperature. This technology could save many lives. (potential) → This technology has the potential to save many lives. This exercise type strikes me as being very useful. But again it’s random, one-off examples. Can we systematize this for teaching purposes? Any ideas? 2 Functions (in the IELTS sense of the word) Here is a list of the IELTS functions, as needed and tested in IELTS Academic Writing Task 2. a) b) c) d) e) f) g) h) Describing an object Describing a process Definition Comparison and Contrast Cause and Effect Change and Development Problem and Solution Argument and Persuasion 5/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  6. 6. Let’s take these one by one. Functions a) and b) I rule out as not being relevant to business report writing. I think that b) ‘Describing a process’ is extremely low frequency in business reports, and is just sneaked in to BE coursebooks by editors as a context for teaching the passive. For more of my thoughts on the passive, see section #13 below. Function c) ‘Definition’ I don’t understand and I can’t find any examples for it. I don’t think it’s relevant. Function d) ‘Comparison and Contrast’ is very relevant and very familiar. It includes all the obvious areas for forming comparatives (revision at UI level), and also lexical phrases like: The main difference is that X is … while Y is … / Another important point is that X is more … than Y. Here we should also include using approximations: X is … nearly/just under/about/approximately/just over/more than 25%/half/twice/three times as expensive as Y. We also have adverbs to qualify a comparative adjective: Speech It’s a little more expensive It’s a lot more expensive Report writing It’s slightly/relatively/somewhat/significantly/considerably more expensive Function e) is ‘Cause and Effect’. Again, relevant and familiar. We are talking about: because of/due to/as a result of; to cause/to lead to/to result in. Function f) is ‘Change and Development’. This is our familiar Business English ‘language of trends’ and it’s obviously important. Interestingly, IELTS Academic Writing Task 1 focuses exclusively on this. Here we have all those verbs like rise/fall/level out/remain steady, as well as ‘adjective + noun’ like sharp rise and gradual increase, and ‘verb + adverb’ like rose sharply and increased gradually. This is also the place to review verb tenses, and associated 6/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  7. 7. time phrases3. Put it all together and we hope that students can produce things like Sales have improved significantly over the last two quarters. Function g) is ‘Problem and Solution’. This is clearly important. In the IELTS books I am looking at I can only find the following as Input language:  Conditionals (see #15 below for my discussion of this area).  Expressing probability: It is quite (very) possible (probable, likely) that … There is a strong (slight, 90%) possibility (probability) that … The possibility (probability) of X happening is small (slight, strong) Function h) is ‘Argument and Persuasion’. Here my IELTS books have:  cause and effect language (as above)  linking expressions: In the first place / One reason for this is … / Another reason is … / In addition / Furthermore.  expressions of concession and contrast: although, despite, however, whereas, on the other hand  ‘It is + adjective + that’ to replace I think that (or In my opinion): It is clear/true/significant/interesting/possible/likely/surprising that …  phrases to report other sources: It is generally thought that … / Some research has shown that … / According to … / As reported in … / As X says, …  phrases to challenge a claim: It is not completely true to say that … / It is hard to believe that …  phrases to point out a false conclusion: The fact that … doesn’t mean … / It may be true that … but …  phrases to summarize and move on: Having discussed … we should now consider … / Given the problems which have been outlined, we can turn to the question of …  Maximizers (adverbs to strengthen a point): very, extremely, fully, highly, strongly, completely, totally.  Minimizers (adverbs to weaken a point): relatively, quite, fairly, slightly, only, somewhat, hardly, just. 3 On the topic of verb tenses, I notice that in the HP annual report Meg Whitman uses a lot of present perfects, and she (an American) uses them exactly as I (a Brit) would. They are all the present result of a past action. Is it the case that in writing Americans use the present perfect more often? 7/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  8. 8. 3 Paragraph structure This refers to when to break to make a paragraph, and also to the internal structure of a paragraph. The internal structure can be:  A topic sentence that introduces the paragraph, followed by supporting sentences to give more detail.  Other internal paragraph structures: time sequences (last year, this year); list of related points (firstly, secondly); rhetorical question which is answered (Why are we going over budget? The answer is clear, …); generalize/contrast (In general it seems that … However …); contradictory points (In the short term … But in the long term …); concede/dismiss (It is true that … however …).  Two particularly common structures are: - First a clause/sentence that links to the previous paragraph, then a topic clause/sentence. Then supporting points as usual. - First a topic sentence, then supporting points, and finally a qualifying sentence. This last sentence is introduced by something like However/On the other hand/etc. If this qualifying sentence itself has supporting points, then the whole qualification would likely be a separate paragraph. As I looked through a couple of real-life reports to prepare this article, I noticed something else: very often the first sentence of the first paragraph of a new section summarizes the whole of the previous section. Then the next sentence is a topic sentence for the whole of the forthcoming section, not just the paragraph. So the topic sentences are first reviewing and then introducing whole sections, not just paragraphs. This reinforces the main ideas in the report and helps the reader. 4 Linking words We know this one well, it’s important, and it’s in our BE books. One of the IELTS books I am looking at calls these words ‘logical links’ to emphasize their use for cohesion. In addition/Furthermore/As well as However/Even so/Nevertheless In contrast/On the other hand/While/Whereas In spite of (that)/Despite (that) 8/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  9. 9. In fact/Actually/As a matter of fact For example/including/such as/e.g. In other words/That is to say/i.e. Because/Because of/Since/Due to Therefore/As a result/For this reason To/In order to In general/Typically, As a rule Firstly/Then/At this stage/The next step is/Finally/Looking ahead When/Before/While/During/Later/Meanwhile To summarize/To sum up/Overall/On balance/In conclusion Some linking words and phrases are used to introduce a viewpoint rather than provide a logical link as above. They develop an argument by expressing a personal attitude. These are all adverbs that appear at the beginning of a sentence followed by a comma. Examples might be: Clearly, Fortunately, Hopefully, Most importantly, Interestingly, Surprisingly, Not surprisingly, Predictably, Inevitably, Significantly, Unusually, Worryingly, etc. 5 Nouns and noun phrases (called ‘nominalization’ in linguistics) One of my IELTS books gives the following to compare: 1 Most people would agree that regular exercise is important. (general English) 2 There is widespread agreement about the importance of regular exercise. (academic English) The commentary here is that ‘By using nouns (eg agreement) rather than verbs (eg agree) actions are turned into abstract concepts. Personal subjects (eg Most people) are often removed, making academic writing more impersonal and formal.’ I agree. My IELTS book introduces what it calls ‘general nouns’ that are ‘a way of briefly summarizing information’. They ‘help to avoid repetition and link a text together’. Examples are: activity, benefit, change, device, effect, issue, problem, reason, result, purpose, trend and type. Interesting idea – I’ve never come across it before. Next, we have noun phrases with two, three or four nouns all together. German speakers have no problem here (we got it from them). Others do. 9/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  10. 10. director with responsibility for finance → finance director forecast for growth → growth forecast project for infrastructure in the EU → EU infrastructure project businesses that are starting up → business start-ups document for shipping when we export → export shipping document regulations to improve safety → safety regulations My IELTS book also points out the importance of noun phrases with ‘of’. Examples here might include: point of (view); rate of (change); cost of (production); quality of (life); process of (ongoing improvement); development of (the business); one of the most important (issues); the main aim of (this report) Before I leave nominalization, I want to share an example that I came across from a real life report. It is fairly extreme, but shows beautifully how changing ‘everyday verb + everyday adverb’ into ‘formal adjective + formal noun’ produces the style of a business report. The writer wanted to say: Over the past decade, the way people communicate has changed a lot. This would have carried 100% of the meaning. Instead, the writer wrote: Over the past decade, the way people communicate has undergone a profound transformation. 6 Balanced, measured style As educated individuals writing a report we try to show the reader that we see the world in shades of grey. We are balanced in our thinking and writing. We qualify statements. We consider opposing points of view. We are too intelligent to see things in dogmatic black and white. We avoid certainties (unless they genuinely are certain, in which case we say so). Here are some very easy (Intermediate level) ways to achieve this style. They are all examples of what a linguist would call ‘modality’:  Modal verbs to show degrees of probability It will be/may be/might be/could be more expensive  Verb phrases to show degrees of probability It seems that/It appears that/It looks like it will be more expensive. 10/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  11. 11.     This suggests that it will be more expensive. It tends to be more expensive when … Adjective phrases to show degrees of probability It is certain/likely that it will be more expensive. It is certain/likely to be more expensive. Quantifiers to show degrees of generality all, the majority of, most, many, some, a small number of, certain Adverbs to show degrees of frequency always, often, sometimes, rarely, never Lexical phrases to show degrees of truth Typically, In some respects, Up to a point, To a limited degree/extent, To some degree/extent, To a large degree/extent We can also show a balanced, measured style at sentence level:  Generalize then qualify In general option A does look a little more expensive, but the cost is probably justified because of the better quality. On the whole it seems that option A will be more expensive, although the cost is probably justified because of the better quality.  Concede then dismiss It is true that option A is more expensive, and cost is certainly an important factor, however option B has many advantages. Certainly option A would be more expensive, at least in the short term, nevertheless there are many reasons to prefer option B.  Contradictory points One the one hand … but on the other hand … Under normal circumstances … but in the current situation … In the short term … But in the long term … 7 Substitution Often in a report the same ideas are repeated several times. Students need to be encouraged to vary their language to produce an interesting piece of writing. This is where we need rise and increase as well as just go up, where we need alternatives and options as well as possibilities, where we need a half as well as 50%, where we need revenue as well as turnover. To help them, students have right-click in Word (‘Synonyms’), and online dictionaries and thesauruses. Students need to be told to proceed with 11/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  12. 12. caution: the synonym may not work in that particular context, and its register may be wrong. But the most useful resource here, in my opinion, is a Collocation Dictionary. Here is an extract for the keyword ‘issue’ from the Macmillan Collocation Dictionary. Notice how the words in each bullet point are near synonyms and could be used to substitute each other: issue  adj+N important big, central, critical, crucial, fundamental, important, key, main, major, pressing, real, serious  that people feel strongly about burning, contentious, controversial, divisive, emotive, sensitive  complicated complex, complicated, difficult, problematic  v+N deal with an issue address, approach, confront, deal with, face, handle, tackle  settle an issue decide, overcome, resolve, settle, solve  discuss or investigate an issue analyze, consider, cover, discuss, examine, explore, investigate, look at, outline, research A dictionary like this is an amazing piece of scholarship, and presents a fantastic resource for business report writers. Notice how most of the synonyms are exactly right for that formal style of writing discussed in section #1. I really think that a student who wants to work on report writing needs a Collocation Dictionary by their side, with you the teacher showing them how and when to use it4. When you sit down next to the student to review their writing, look out for the key nouns and verbs. Then refer to the dictionary together. Have fun choosing words and varying words. You need to do this often, so that it develops into a habit for the student. Only stop your hands-on guidance when the student regularly begins to use the dictionary themselves. 8 Avoiding L1 direct translations This is not really an Input area like the others, because it is L1-specific. And as a teacher of mixed nationality groups I am not best placed to comment. What I can say is that when I see something that is difficult for me to read and understand I ask the student if they are translating from their own language, and they nearly always say ‘yes’. These L1 direct translations are always over4 Collocation dictionaries – I know only of the Macmillan and Oxford ones – haven’t made it online yet. 12/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  13. 13. complex. In English report writing, sentences are short, and without too many embedded clauses and sub-clauses. For teaching purposes it would be great to have some examples of reallife over-complex student writing from a range of L1s, with reformulations into short, clear, educated English. Do you have a bank of student writing from your students’ L1 that could help us here? Standing back for a moment, notice that we now have a contradiction. At the level of vocabulary and short phrases the ‘formal’ style is quite complex, and certainly more complex than speech. But at the level of the sentence and paragraph, report writing in English has quite a simple structure, and certainly more simple than L1. An interesting paradox – do you agree with me? Here is an extract from the HP Annual Report referred to earlier that I think shows very nicely the complex, formal style at word level together with the relatively simple style at sentence and paragraph level. Looking Ahead While we have faced some big challenges, we also see some big opportunities ahead, and we are well positioned to take advantage of those opportunities with our remarkable set of assets and strengths. Our unparalleled scale and distribution allows us to reach customers and partners in any corner of the globe at the best possible price. Our brand is trusted by customers around the world. We have talented and resilient employees that are committed to our customers, and a culture of great engineering and innovation. Above all, we have an incredibly loyal group of customers and partners who want our company to succeed. Over the years, these customers have made enormous investments in HP’s technology, and they need us to continue to provide solutions for today’s new style of IT. This new style of IT promises lower costs, simplicity, and speed. Driven by cloud, mobility, and big data, it is changing how technology is consumed and delivered, and how end users engage with it. For organizations around the world, this new style of IT has the potential to reshape the competitive landscape by lowering barriers of entry in all industries. It looks like we now have to give our students two tips: 13/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  14. 14.  First: ‘For important ideas use vocabulary that gives a serious, formal style’.  Second: ‘At the same time keep your sentence and paragraph structure short and simple’. Difficult? Well, nobody said it would be easy. And don’t for one minute think that native speakers are at an advantage here. I can absolutely assure you after teaching English for 22 years that an Advanced (C1) level learner of English studying for IELTS or CAE can write English every bit as impressive (to the reader) as a UK university student. 9 Word families and word building This is basic stuff. It should be revision at Upper Intermediate level. I think this language area has been forgotten by many BE coursebooks. Word families: verbs, nouns and adjectives achieve-achievement-achievable; analyze-analysis-analytical; availability-available; decide-decision-decisive; improve-improvement; produce-production-productivity-productive; vary-variation-variable; etc. Word families: opposite adjectives same/different, general/specific, innovative/old-fashioned, major/minor, previous/following, simple/complex, over-budget/under-budget, ahead of schedule/behind schedule, premium/budget Word families: opposite nouns advantages/disadvantages, profit/loss, line manager/direct report, supply/demand Word building Affixes counter-/inter-/re-/co-/over-/underSuffixes nouns ending in -ism/-ity/-ment/-ness/-ship verbs ending in -ate/-en/-ify/-ize adjectives ending in -able/-al/-ful/-ive Opposite adjectives in-/un-/il-/im-/dis10 Relative clauses I think students can already handle defining relative clauses quite well at Upper Intermediate level (if they have them in L1). Note how educated English 14/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  15. 15. often uses a noun phrase (or adjective + noun phrase) rather than a defining relative clause: All the companies that supply energy energy supply companies in Germany have warned about a lack of supply in the coming years. It is a measuring device which is highly sensitive a highly sensitive measuring device. The company has very strict guidelines about paying bribes to local officials and other activities that are against the law illegal activities. One area that could be covered at UI level is leaving out the relative pronoun and instead expressing the same idea as an –ing clause or a passive verb form: There are several issues that arise from the increased costs. → There are several issues arising from the increased costs. Potential investors who attend the webinar should be given time to … → Potential investors attending the webinar should be given time to … Services that we offer to the hospitality sector could also be offered to … → Services offered to the hospitality sector could also be offered to … Our brand does not have the same market position as those that are sold in supermarkets. → Our brand does not have the same market position as those sold in supermarkets. I think it’s worth spending a little time on non-defining relative clauses, which are quite common in writing but largely absent in speech. The context here should be cohesion – a report writing skill – not grammar for its own sake. Here is a typical example: Original student writing Poland is going to be an important market for us going forward. And Poland has not suffered as badly in the recent economic downturn. Reformulated student writing Poland, which is going to be an important market for us going forward, has not suffered as badly in the recent economic downturn. 15/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  16. 16. In all the examples in this section I think the original unreformulated version is okay, and the reformulated version just gives a final polish to the style. That’s why I have relative clauses down here at #10. In all honesty I cannot think of many occasions when a student’s writing has screamed out ‘incorrect’ because of failure to use relative clauses correctly. Feel free to disagree, but we do have to prioritize on a time-limited course. 11 Cohesion (reference links) This means avoiding unnecessary repetition using little words like: Pronouns: it, they, this, these, that, those Auxiliary verbs: did, did so, can, will Other little words: there, then, so, such Substitution with a parallel expression: objective → aim, from a technical perspective → from a technical point of view, implement sth → put sth into operation, reach → achieve, strengths and weaknesses → strong points and weak points, important → key, increase → rise, etc. Here are some examples: Example 1 (original) A higher proportion of people over 65 use this type of product than people aged 18-30. Example 1 (reformulated) A higher proportion of people over 65 use this type of product than those aged 18-30. Example 2 (original) Whereas only 48% of customers said that they ordered online in 2008, more than 80% said that they ordered online in 2012. Example 2 (reformulated) Whereas only 48% of customers said they ordered online in 2008, more than 80% said that they did so in 2012. Example 3 (original) Going forward, we will probably have to open an office in Dubai if we want to develop our business in the Middle East. Developing our business in this way will give us many new opportunities. Example 3 (reformulated) 16/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  17. 17. Going forward, we will probably have to open an office in Dubai if we want to develop our business in the Middle East. Such development will give us many new opportunities. 12 Dependent prepositions By this I mean verb + preposition, noun + preposition, adjective + preposition. I know that prepositions are just little words that don’t affect the meaning, but mistakes here do seem quite noticeable to a reader/listener. When a student in class says It depends of … it’s normally the others who scream out on, not me. I find that when I ask students which grammar areas they want to revise, ‘prepositions’ and ‘verb tenses’ come out top of the list. Prepositions are horrible to teach and to learn (because there are no rules and you just have to memorize them) but there’s no avoiding them. I like the way that my IELTS book presents this language area as ‘word building’ rather than ‘grammar’ – at least it makes it sound a little more useful! 13 Passives First let me say how few passives I find in real-life reports. Taking the three-page Introduction to the HP annual report I referred to earlier, I can find only one: Our brand is trusted by customers around the world. Now let’s turn to the treatment of the passive in ELT books. Here is an extract from the IELTS book I am looking at: Active: Tigers often kill livestock. Passive: Livestock is often killed (by tigers). And here is the explanation of the passive from the same book: Using the passive places the emphasis on the action rather than on the agent that does the action. Sorry. I beg to differ. I think the action ‘kill’ has exactly equal emphasis in both sentences. I think that emphasis in a sentence depends on what is interesting or new or surprising, and also on what comes first. I think that the passive is used simply to switch something to first position, often for reasons of cohesion. Take a look at this example I just made up: 17/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  18. 18. 1 No passive This will involve committing additional resources to our social media presence, and we should use these resources to develop our Facebook and LinkedIn pages rather than our Twitter page. 2 Use of passive This will involve committing additional resources to our social media presence, and these resources should be used to develop our Facebook and LinkedIn pages rather than our Twitter page. Does the use of the passive in the second example give more emphasis to the action ‘use’? Hardly. As I said, I don’t believe that stuff about passives putting the emphasis on the action (except in the very specialized and extremely low-frequency case of describing a process). I think that the passive is used in example 2 above for reasons of cohesion: beginning the second clause with these resources refers back to additional resources in the first clause. There also seems to be a small effect of rhetoric: in this case the repetition of ‘resources’ is more noticeable in the second example. Generally, the slightly greater cohesion and slight rhetorical effect make example 2 a little more dramatic and engaging. Example 1, without the passive, is absolutely fine. It’s just a bit flat. Other false trails with the passive include the idea that It is recommended that … is more typical of reports than I recommend … . This is meant to be because it is more formal. Well, it certainly is more formal, but it sounds to me like the English of a bygone age. In a modern business report, I think the writer would say I recommend. But I do think that It constructions like the following are worth teaching: Speech. Some people think that … Report Writing. It is often said/believed/suggested/thought that … I would simply teach this lexically as an example of ‘formal style’, and not teach it in the context of passives. 14 Collocation (word partners) Here I am referring to collocation taught in its own right. Many language areas above involve collocation as part of teaching something else. 18/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  19. 19. Exercises that teach collocation as a subject in itself are familiar to us: ‘Write each key word in the box next to the group of words below it regularly combines with’. Then a follow-up exercise using some of the word partners in sentences. Now, a coursebook exercise such as this will often be based on key words written down on the page in a previously studied text, and so have a very concrete context. The real-life report writer doesn’t begin like this. They begin with a context and purpose in their heads, some heterogeneous information in their heads, a blank screen and a deadline. Collocation taught in the abstract can be justified as awareness raising, but I’m not sure that when a student is writing their brain says: ‘Hmmm … that was an important noun that I just used, and I know that collocation is important. I wonder if I can remember what collocations I can use here?’ They are lost in the flow of producing meanings, and have little attention left for the finer points of form. Second drafts are better places to think about collocation, but even here the guidance of a teacher is nearly always needed. Collocations are very slippery beasts. So this takes us back to a ‘Deep End’ approach where we reformulate what students have already written. And I said I wanted Input. That’s why this is down here at #14. By the way, while we’re thinking lexically, notice that the ‘buzz phrases’ at the end of #15 below are all collocations and fixed expressions. I do think that using some of these, appropriate to the business that the student is in, will add weight and gravitas to a report. They will help to achieve the ‘serious, formal style’ that we want. The problem is to collect them and systematize them for reference and teaching. 15 Rhetoric: the art of persuasion Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. This language area is often covered under ‘presentations’, and Mark Powell has made many strong contributions here. I think that much of this is also relevant to report writing, or indeed any situation in life or business when someone is arguing for an opinion, emphasizing an important point, trying to persuade, suggesting, recommending, etc. Let’s take some examples. First, repetition. Repetition can add interest. Repetition can add impact. Repetition can make your writing more persuasive. 19/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  20. 20. Okay, I’m sure you spotted the deliberate repetition of the word ‘Repetition’. But did you spot the other common rhetorical device? It’s called the ‘rule of three’ and it’s where you give three similar structures rather than two or four. This toaster has extra lift for small items, a crumb tray that slides in and out, and is very good value for money. Try saying just two of those, or adding a fourth, and it loses impact. Besides repetition and the rule of three there are other examples of rhetoric in writing, all very important for trying to persuade people. One would be the deliberate use of contrast: We need high safety at low cost / We need global reach with a local presence. Another would be the use of rhetorical questions. Here, sometimes no answer is expected (Can we really afford this in the present economic climate?) and at other times the writer gives the answer themselves (What should we do about this problem? There are several obvious solutions. The first is to …). Another rhetorical device is ‘emphasizing with an introductory phrase’. This is used in speech as well as in writing. The important thing here is that … I would like to stress that … What we really need in this situation is … The thing that impressed me most was … The one thing that concerns me is … What we need to do first is … The implications of this are clear: first, … second, … Also under ‘rhetoric’ I would include the use of buzz phrases. There is a very fine line between convincing buzz phrases and unconvincing clichés. But I think I know the good ones when I see them. I’m looking at the first part of the HP annual report again (‘The Year in Review’ section) and I would identify the following as buzz phrases worth noticing in class. I think they all help to make an argument sound persuasive, even if the underlying idea is bland and obvious. Interestingly, all except three are verb + noun collocations. to allocate resources to be on track to do sth. to be well positioned to do sth. to better understand customer needs to optimize our supply chain to prioritize investment dollars to refine our strategy to roll out a new system 20/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  21. 21. to bring costs in line with revenue to bring focus back to the business to build the foundation for sth. to empower and enable sales teams to face a challenge to implement a series of changes macroeconomic challenges to map out a journey scalable solutions to see big opportunities ahead to streamline the company strong leadership team to tackle issues to take steps to refocus our efforts To my mind the above help to strike a serious, formal note, and are not the same as unconvincing clichés like it’s a win-win situation, let’s think outside of the box, the customer is always right, we need a paradigm shift in our thinking, in today’s highly competitive marketplace, etc. 16 Conditionals (discussing Implications) If inflation rose, the central bank would be forced to raise interest rates, and that would put up the monthly repayments on our bank loan. We might have to hedge against that risk. If we delayed the product launch by a month, that would have a knockon effect to our channel partners. They are expecting stock by the date we announced previously and are already talking to end-users about delivery times. Students love them. We love them. But just how much meaning do they carry? When you read the examples above, are you interested in the content as carried by the vocabulary, or the low probability as carried by the 2nd conditional? I believe that 2nd conditionals often pass right over the heads of listeners and readers. Yes, they can get noticed in speech if emphasized with intonation. But the main way to communicate low probability is to use a phrase that communicates low probability, like It’s not very likely but if … . Having done this, the structure that follows can happily be a 1st conditional one and absolutely no-one will notice. I think teaching 2nd conditionals is a bit of a luxury, and has more to do with teachers wanting to show they are teaching and learners wanting to feel that they are learning. 21/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.
  22. 22. 3rd conditionals are perhaps useful for report writing, for the particular context of analyzing what went wrong. But here I believe that the ‘result in the present’ (mixed conditional) form is more common and useful than the classic form. So I believe that If we had done that, they wouldn’t have done the other is not really all that common. More common is If we had done that, they would now do/be doing the other. Conclusion I think that report writing is a very under-analyzed area in ELT and very under-practiced in coursebooks. All too often the students are left with a context to write about and a model report at the back of the book to follow, but no systematic language to implement that they have built up stage by stage. They are left unsupported in a way that they are not for other communication skills like meetings, telephoning, presentations, writing emails etc. In this white paper I have tried to put that right. I have drawn together some familiar language areas, introduced some unfamiliar ones, and deemphasized some old favourites. The sixteen areas (or fifteen if we exclude ‘avoiding L1 translations’) represent a body of language that can be systematically presented and practiced, and then slowly combined. This analysis draws to some extent on the IELTS Academic Writing syllabus. I have given a personal view as to how to prioritize the different language areas if time is tight. It goes without saying that it all depends on the specific needs of the student/s you have in front of you, and this will depend to a large extent on their level and their L1. 22/22 This article is © Paul Emmerson but may be freely circulated.