Julio C. Gimenez
The Language of
Business E-Mail: An Opportunity to
Bridge Theory and Practice
The language of business
attracted a great deal of attention in the last decade. Research
studies on the language, style and register of business email have been
published in many journals, books and other publications. However, many
of these discussions have been theoretical in nature, failing to make a
connection between theory and practice. It is then the task of the ESP
teacher to make such a connection. This article argues that business
communication lends itself well to bringing theory and practice closer
together. To this end, the article first identifies relevant features
which have started to emerge from main studies in the language of
business email, a vital component in business communication. It then
explores different possible pedagogical applications of these findings
in the BE class. The article discusses the SAE (Selecting, Applying and
Evaluating) model which can be used to design and evaluate classroom
activities. The article finally presents four activities which have
been created following the main findings emerging from the research
Scripta Manent. Slovensko društvo učiteljev tujega strokovnega jezika.
In the last ten years the language of business email
communication has been researched from several perspectives, providing
different views on this new emerging communication genre. Baron (2000,
2002), for example, has discussed stylistic features such as the length
of messages, abbreviated and elliptical forms, and informality. These
features, Baron suggests, have made the style of email ‘reminiscent of
telegraphic language’ (2002:410). Similarly, Crystal (2001:238) has
produced an extensive study of internet language and has asserted that
the electronic revolution has brought about a linguistic revolution,
resulting in ‘Netspeak’, ‘a genuine new medium’. In addition, Collot
and Belmore (1996) have indicated that the nature of the language used
in emails is closer to the spontaneous genres like speeches and
interviews than it is to the informational genres such as official
Most discussions on email language have been theoretical in nature
leaving to the English for Specific Purposes (ESP) and Business English
(BE) teachers the task of having to make the connection between
research findings and classroom practices. If, however, the repeated
call for theory and practice to be brought closer together is to be
answered, researchers should also attempt to explore the pedagogical
implications of their empirical research findings (Nickerson 2002). The
aim of this article is therefore two-fold. It first identifies the most
relevant features which emerge from studies in the language of business
email communication. It then explores different possible pedagogical
applications of these findings in the BE class. To this end, the
article discusses the SAE (Selecting, Applying and Evaluating) model
which can be used to design and evaluate classroom activities. In so
doing the article aims at helping to bridge the gap between theory and
practice in BE.
The increasing interest in email communication has produced studies
which have looked at emails as texts, focusing on their linguistic and
rhetorical elements. Many of these studies have embraced the
spoken-written dichotomous nature of emails (Baron 2000, 2002; Collot
& Belmore, 1996; Crystal 2001; Gains, 1999; Gimenez, 2000), and
have provided detailed descriptions of the nature and features of the
language of email. This section will review studies which, following
this linguistic perspective, have been conducted in a corporate
environment and are therefore relevant to the BE context.
In his investigation into the text features of business emails used for
internal communication, Gains (1999) focused on generic features such
as subjects, closings, openings, as well as linguistic features like
compression, abbreviations, omissions and register. Gain discovered a
high degree of consistency in the way writers in his samples used most
of these categories. He found no evidence of features of conversational
discourse being incorporated in the texts he analysed, nor of any
compressions or word omissions. Gains concluded that the analysis of
his data does not support the existence of a new business genre.
However, this lack of evidence may have resulted from the kind of data
analysed and the type of analysis made. His data were collected from a
“closed system for internal electronic mail” (p. 82) which could have a
“permanent legal status” (p. 90) for the company he researched. This
may explain the standardisation of the linguistic forms observed. As
emailers knew that their messages could become legal records, there is
a high chance that they resorted to standard forms to compose their
In a study of external business email communication, Gimenez (2000)
also analysed the textual features of business emails. However, his
data showed examples that reveal a certain relaxation in the style and
register of business emails. The language in his data “contains simple,
straightforward syntactic structures, showing a preference for
co-ordinated rather than subordinated ideas” (p. 241). In his data,
Gimenez also found standard as well as personalised uses of
abbreviations, contracted forms and capitalisation and spelling
mistakes. He concludes that “efficiency, one of the features of e-mail
messages frequently mentioned by e-mail users, seems to equate with
informal and flexibility of style” (p. 250). Gimenez’s data, however,
were composed of messages exchanged between the export manager of a
UK-based company and some of his long-established international
customers. This may help to explain, for instance, the informal style
of the texts analysed and some of the language choices made by the
More recently, Mallon and Oppenheim (2002) reviewed the textual
features that seem to be exclusive to email messages in an attempt to
come up with a list of ‘e-mailisms’. They define emailisms as those
features ‘associated with e-mail’ which may or may not appear in other
forms of communication (2002:9). Mallon and Oppenheim (2002) conclude
that the most common emailism in their data was contracted forms,
“appearing 142 times in 100 emails” (p. 16), followed by spelling
mistakes (57 times per 100 emails). The third most common emailism was
quoted text which was used by 30% of (200) writers in their sample.
In a recent study, Gimenez (2005) demonstrates that business emails
have become a more complex genre, embedding a series of internal
messages. He defines embedded emails as messages “which are made up of
an initial message which starts the communication event, a series of
internal, subordinated messages which depend on the first message to
make sense, and a final message which brings the communication event to
an end” (pp. 235-36). Among other features, Gimenez focuses on the
length of the messages, concluding that the first (‘chain initiator’)
and last (‘chain terminator’) messages tend to be longer than the
internal messages as they open and close the communication event
respectively. The lexical items of embedded emails tend to follow the
same pattern of distribution and complexity. Lexical items in the
internal messages tend to be less complex than those in the chain
terminator and initiator. Another interesting feature observed in
relation to embedded emails is their embedded topicality. Gimenez
(2005) suggests the macro topic stated in the subject line of an email
usually embeds other micro topics as the conversation
The studies reviewed above have managed to isolate some
emerging tendencies in the language of business email. The first two
studies demonstrate a clear difference between the language of email
used for internal communication and that of messages used to
communicate with, for example, customers. Thus, we see that whereas
Gains (1999) observed a high degree of uniformity in the written formal
records of the company he investigated, Gimenez (2000) noted a relaxed
style and informal register in the emails for external communication he
studied. Although these findings seem to be contrary to what we would
expect, an informal register for internal communication and a formal
style for external communication, a consideration of the purposes of
the messages, the relationship between emailers and the culture of the
company can help explain these tensions and apparent
Mallon and Oppenheim’s (2002) study does not make a distinction between
internal and external business emails but identifies essential
linguistic features which make up the data they analysed. Contractions,
spelling mistakes and embedded texts ranked the highest in the features
of their data. Finally, Gimenez’s (2005) recent study of internal
embedded emails also identifies main features of the language of
business emails in terms of its lexis, length and
topicality. Table 1 below summarises the main findings in
these four studies.
system for internal communication; permanent legal status
features of conversational discourse
system for external communication; long-established customers
& Oppenheim (2002)
system for internal communication; embedded emails
and terminator longer than embedded messages
Simple lexical items in embedded messages
Table 1. Some emerging tendencies in the language of email
One long-standing call in the field of applied linguistics
has been the need to bring theory and practice closer together. This
call has mostly been understood as a task that only teachers and
trainers have to fulfil. Most often than not, with a few notable
exceptions (e.g. Nickerson 2000), many researchers in BE have been
immersed in theoretical analyses and discussions, leaving the BE
teacher or trainer to deal with the practicalities of adapting research
findings in teaching or training contexts. However, as Fig. 1
illustrates the research cycle completes itself when results from the
practical applications of a theory are fed back into the theoretical
Figure 1. The research cycle: Researchers and
On the other hand, teachers and trainers could be instructed to apply
empirical findings in their teaching or training situations. One
framework which facilitates the transfer from theory to practice is
what I call the ‘SAE Model’. SAE stands for Selecting, Applying and
Evaluating. This model follows principles similar to those for
selecting teaching materials and textbooks (Gimenez & Sapg 2002)
and, to a certain extent, parallels the research cycle represented in
Fig. 1. The SAE model allows teachers and trainers to apply simple and
practical criteria to research findings in order to determine which are
most relevant to their context. Figure 2 below exemplifies the SAE
Figure 2. The SAE model
As illustrated in Fig. 2 above, the SAE model suggests features that
research findings should bear to be easily adaptable to both the
teaching/training context and the target situation in which learners
may be involved in the future. Apart from being adaptable, findings
should demand minimum adaptation time and effort and should represent
an interesting activity for the learners. The application stage of the
model focuses on practical, motivational and cognitive aspects.
Learners should find the activities based on the findings easy to use,
leading to a sense of success and satisfaction and to a variety of
interaction patterns: individual, pairs, small groups and plenary. The
last stage in the model is the most critical. The evaluation of the
research finding and its associated activity is based on the results of
its application in class. It focuses on whether it has led the learners
to discover new things and have empowered them by the new knowledge
they have acquired. A final consideration at this stage is whether the
activity has potential for being used again with a similar group of
This last section of the article aims at presenting four
activities which have been developed based on the findings discussed
above and summarised in Table 1. These activities were prepared for a
group of intermediate students doing a BE course at a UK University.
The activities were designed, applied and evaluated following the SAE
model described in the previous section. Based on Gains’ (1999) and
Gimenez’s (2000) studies, the first activity aims at raising learners’
awareness of the differences in language and style in internal and
external email communication. The second activity is based on the main
findings of the study by Mallon and Oppenheim (2002) and leads learners
to identify and examine common structures and features of email
communication. The third activity is based on Gimenez (2005) and shows
how the process of embeddedness works in corporate emails. The fourth
and last activity resulted from a combination of the research findings
reviewed above and aims at exploring and expanding the learners’
knowledge of the language of emails by using collocations and
Activity 1: Uses and Differences
1.1 Read the following two examples of email business
How do they compare? How do they differ? Consider their:
Sent: 19 April 1996
Subject: Our list of
prices for [machine model]
|Dear Mr. ......,
Thank you for your
recent email requesting our list of prices for the [machine models].
Please find enclosed
the list with our most competitive prices. Prices do not include
shipping costs, as requested.
Do not hesitate to
contact us if you need further information.
Jake ........ [name +
Sent: 13 January 2003
[trade mark] certification
I’d be grateful if you
could speak with someone in the regulatory team (Emma, Anne?) to find
-whether we have
copies of the docs above, if not where to get them
-whether they would
apply to Regional [trade mark] certification
1.2 Make a list of your
findings under each of the headings suggested (language, style and
register) and compare your list with that of another student.
Activity 2: Commonalities
2.1 Read the following emails. Sample 1 is an example of
internal communication and Sample 2 of external communication. After
you have read and analysed them, mark the features that they share.
Sent: 13 April 2004
Subject: RE: System
what's your view on
this. Since we agreed to the terms back then, I believe they’r still
entitled to have this IP for the agreed price.
I should have the
approval on the discount somewhere. Let me check on that?
Unfortunately I cannot
make Thursday. In order to ensure that we can cover all the aspects
that you need, I’ve stood Paul down and arranged for Oscar Brown to
attend the whole day instead. Oscar is one of our Senior consultants
and has extensive experience of P8 Project Management. Oscar is also
fully conversed with our delivery methodology.
My apologies for
changing the attendees at short notice. I’ve asked Oscar to contact
Tony and Steve directly.
2.2 Make a list with the
features you marked and be prepared to discuss your choices in a
Activity 3: Embedded Messages
3.1 Read this chain of email messages and answer the questions
3.1.1 Was the first
message you read written first or last? How about the last
message you read?
3.1.2 How do the first
and last messages compare with the other messages in between in terms
3.1.3 Which message(s) is
more complex in terms of the language used?
26 April 2003 12:56 AM
RE: Interception Issues
Due to travel
arrangements, I have to ask you if we could bring forward our
conference call to Wednesday April 30, at the suggested London time of
9.30 am. This also means I will send you the new version of the ICP by
cob Monday April 28.
Please let me know.
16 April 2003 14:59
RE: Interception Issues
9.30 is fine
15 April 2003 08:43
RE: Interception Issues
Yes, 2nd May is
probably better as it gives us a bit more time to finalise the amended
What is a good time
for you? I can do from 9.30 am through to midday (your time).
16 April 2003 02:50 AM
RE: Interception Issues
Could you do 2nd of
15 April 2003 08:43
RE: Interception Issues
A conference call on
6th May would be fine. Shall we say 11am your time? I will speak to S
again tomorrow about the amended plan and the letter.
3.2 Write an email to a
classmate and answer his/her reply by using the ‘reply option’ to
create a chain of emails.
3.3 How does your chain
compare with the example in 3.1?
Activity 4: Email English
4.1 Some language curiosities
Some words associated with the word ‘email’
- The word ‘email’ can be spelt
with a hyphen (e-mail) or without it (email).
- ‘Email’ is becoming more and
- Email can be either a ‘noun’
(Send me an email.) or a ‘verb’ (I’ll email it to you).
- The verb ‘attach’ (I’m attaching
a copy of...) has ‘attachment’ as its noun (can you send me the
document as an attachment?).
- The noun ‘carbon copy’ is
normally referred to as ‘CC’, read as ‘see-see’. It can also be used as
a verb ‘to cc someone’.
Look at the entry for the word ‘email’ in the Oxford Collocations
Dictionary (p. 253). Then complete the sentences below the entry.
1. I never ______________ (verb) an email even if I
am angry at the sender.
2. What’s your _____________ (noun) address?
3. How many emails do you ____________ (verb, many
possibilities) a day?
4. You’ve got a new email ________________. (noun)
5. I always ______________ (verb) unimportant emails.
6. Does your company _____________ (verb) important
4.3 More words associated
Look at the concordances (an alphabetical index) for the word ‘email’
from the Online KWIC Concordancer. Concentrate on the words/phrases
before and after the word ‘email’ and then complete the rules following.
|1 kada of the
Personnel Department via e-mail
confirmation of this reservation by e-mail (email@example.com
h if you would send me your reply by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org
er extension is 558. Her interoffice e-mail address is Cbarton
[BLC2:30:00557] I hope this e-mail
finds you well.
2:30:00095] I received the following e-mail from you last
[BLC2:30:01247] In my previous e-mail I wrote
[BLC2:30:00801] In reply to your e-mail
of April 1, I am
BLC2:30:00466] Thank you for your e-mail of April 10.
epage (http://www.tbn.com), or send e-mail to email@example.com.
2:30:00832] For reservations, send e-mail to
ght it was a good idea to send you e-mail to say hello and
ppreciate your kind permission via e-mail.
ate your permission in your return e-mail.
gest an alternative date by return e-mail.
I'm already using it to write this e-mail.
e know as soon as you receive this e-mail?
can send/confirm something _________ or
can get an email ___________ someone but you
send an email ___________ someone.
email you sent before is your ____________
4. If you
want to mention the date of an email, you
say ‘my email __________ December 10’.
5. If you
have to reply an email, you need to send a
In this article I have
attempted to demonstrate how the findings of
empirical research can be applied in a pedagogical context. I have
discussed the emerging tendencies in the language of business email and
have used the SAE framework to suggest a generic structure to turn
these theoretical considerations into practical classroom activities. I
hope this will help raise researchers’ and teachers’ awareness of the
need to bridge the gap between theory and practice in business English
and to approach the responsibility of bridging this gap as a shared
Baron, N. S. (2002). Who
sets e-mail style? Prescriptivism, coping
strategies, and democratizing communication access. The Information
Baron, N. S. (2000). Alphabet to
Email. How written English evolved and where it’s heading.
Collot, M. and N. Belmore.
(1996). Electronic language: A new variety
of English. In S. Herring (Ed.): Computer-mediated
Communication: Linguistic, Social and Cross-cultural perspectives.
Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins. Pp. 13-28.
Crystal, D. (2001).
Language and the Internet. Cambridge: Cambridge
Gains, Jonathan. (1999).
Electronic mail–A new style of communication
or just a new medium?: An investigation into the text features of
e-mail. English for
Purposes, Vol. 18/1:
Gimenez, J. C. (2005).
Unpacking business emails: Message embeddedness
in international business email communication. In M. Gotti and P.
Gillaerts (Eds.): Genre Variation in
Business Letters. Linguistic Insights: Studies in Language and
Communication. Bern: Peter
Lang, pp. 235-255.
Gimenez, J. C. (2000).
Business e-mail communication: some emerging
tendencies in register. English for
Specific Purposes, Vol.
Gimenez J. C. and N. Sapag.
(November, 2002). Designing and evaluating
EFL materials. Paper presented at the First Colloquium for EFL Teacher
Trainers. Cordoba, Argentina.
Mallon, R. and C.
Oppenheim. (2002). Style
used in electronic Mail. Aslib
Proceedings, Vol. 54/1: 8-22.
Nickerson, C. (2002).
Endnote: Business discourse and language
Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching, Vol. 40/4: 375-381.
Nickerson, C. (2000). Playing the
Corporate Language Game. An investigation of the genres and discourse
strategies in English used by Dutch writers working in multinational
corporations. (Vol. 15).
available at http://ysomeya.hp.infoseek.co.jp/
accessed on 04/07/05.
(2002). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Author 2005. Published by SDUTSJ. All rights reserved.
Scripta Manent 1(1)
» G. Crosling
Language Development in a Business Faculty in Higher Education: A
» J. C. Gimenez
Language of Business E-Mail: An Opportunity to Bridge Theory and
» S. Laviosa
in Advertising: Form, Meaning and Function
» M. L. Pérez Cañado and A.
» S. Čepon
in the teaching of ESP: An Evaluation Proposal
English in Practical Terms
» Volume 3/1
» Volume 2/2
» Volume 2/1