What is Business English?

The term ‘Business English’ has been used so often in the world of EFL that it is easy to think of it as a fixed and easily definable concept. However, a few years ago I started to feel that I couldn’t really answer the question ‘What is Business English?’ with any great certainty, nor was I sure if some of the materials I was using were actually portraying the language that my students needed. It was clear that the materials were being created via the intuition of the materials writers and that the flow of materials creation was from idea to text: certain presumptions were being made as to what Business English was, and these then formed the text of the materials. It was equally clear that in fact the flow should be in exactly the opposite direction - Business English should be examined first, an accurate picture gained of what it is like, and then materials created from the results of that analysis.

Gathering data

In  order to look at both Business English and Business English materials in more detail, two corpora were created: one of Business English published materials consisting of 33 books and coming to just under 600,000 words, and a second, larger corpus of ‘real’ Business English of just over 1 million words. The Business English Corpus (BEC) contained both written and spoken texts and also distinguished between language used for talking about business, i.e. in newspapers or on TV, and the language used for actually doing business both in written form, e.g. emails, reports and faxes and in spoken form through recordings, e.g. of meetings, negotiations and phone calls. In this way it was hoped to gain an overall representative sample of Business English in all its major forms. Using a smaller version of the British National Corpus (BNC) as a reference corpus, and Mike Scott’s WordSmith Tools 3 (Scott 1999) it was then possible to examine how Business English differed from general English and likewise how the Business English presented in published materials differed from ‘real’ Business English.

Key words

The analysis carried out used the principle of key words. That meant that rather than examine simple relative frequency of words between the corpora, WordSmith was able to statistically compare frequencies of words in all the corpora and show, for example, those words that occur significantly more in Business English than in general English - positive key words - and conversely, those words that occurred significantly less in Business English than in general English - negative key words. It was also able to show in like manner how the lexis used in published materials differed from real-life Business English.

  The Results

  So, what did it show? By using key words and unusual frequency  instead of looking a pure frequency, those words used commonly in business showed up very clearly and created a semantic world of business that was very clear to see. The lexis found could be encapsulated to a large extent within a limited number of semantic categories. These categories included business people, companies, institutions, money, business events, places of business, time, modes of communication and lexis concerned with technology. Perhaps more significantly, the key lexis of Business English was found to be overtly positive in nature, with very few negative words featuring at all. It was also found to be dynamic and action-orientated and clearly non-emotive - most of the adjectives were obviously referring to things, e.g.  products and companies, rather than to people. Just as enlightening were the results of the negative key words analysis - those words that occur far less in business than in general English. These words were able to show what did not belong to the business world, for example only two days showed up in this analysis as being used less in business that in everyday English - Saturday and Sunday. The analysis showed that Business English was semantically divorced from lexis concerned with personal issues, society, family, house and home and personal activities. Also used far less in business was lexis referring to distinctly negative states, and words used to express deep, reflective and emotive feelings were found to occur significantly less - the word ‘truth’ for example, was found to occur nine times less in Business English than in  general English.

  Negative Key Words: Places                                      Positive Key Words: Places

town    county             village                                     office                premises           department


            palace              library                                     division       boardroom             depot


opera     prison            castle                                               marketplace


Example lexis showing ‘places’ featured in the key words - negative key words are those that appear less in business and positive key words those appear more in business than in general English. The lexical and semantic division statistically provided by the key words helps create the world of Business English.  

  The way forward

  The analysis of the published Business English materials confirmed findings of other studies into EFL materials. The world of Business English presented in the published materials was one of a finite number of contextualised business situations often framed by reference to problems - using lexis that had been found to be noticeably lacking in real life. There was a focus on meetings, presentations, travel, entertaining and food and where the real-life corpus had shown a distinct preference for positive lexis, here both negative and positive feelings were more equally expressed. The impersonal and non-emotive language of business found above was replaced with a strong focus on personal and interpersonal lexis, politeness and tangible objects.

  In summary it can be said that, to a large extent, there actually is something called ‘Business English’ that can be seen as semantically distinct from ‘general’ English though at the same time is still quite clearly attached to it. Business English consists of a ‘meaning world’ created by lexis that belongs to a limited number of recurring semantic sets and its nature can be characterised by a series of opposites:

High frequency in Business lexis                                 Low frequency in business lexis


business                        ------------------->                             society

positive                         ------------------->                             (positive) & negative

shallow                         ------------------->                             deep/philosophical

dynamic                        ------------------->                             reflective

non-emotive                 ------------------->                             emotive

The axes that delineate Business English lexis