Category Archives: Workplace Language


Collocation is the habitual grouping of a particular word or words with another word or words; particularly nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. They are word ‘partnerships’ and unlike idioms, the individual words in a collocation contribute to the overall meaning.

The way words combine in collocation is key to language use.  Using collocations leads to effective communication. Collocations are like chunks of speech that make it easier to express complete ideas.  Understanding and learning collocation improves vocabulary skills and helps with the acquisition of correct pronunciation: fixed expressions provide you with the stress pattern of the phrase as a whole.

Examples are spare time, spare change, get married and go bankrupt.

Happy New Year, Happy Anniversary, Happy Birthday and Merry Christmas are all collocations.  Although ‘happy’ and ‘merry’ are synonyms, we do not say Merry New Year or Merry Birthday or Happy Christmas.

Collocations are exact.  House work is not the same as home work; nor are overhang and hangover or look over and overlook the same.

There are several types of collocation, including:

  1. Noun and verb
  2. Verb and noun
  3. Noun and noun phrase
  4. Adjective and noun
  5. Adverb and Adjective
  6. Verb and Adverb /Adverb and Verb
  7. Verb + expression with preposition

Examples of each type are:

  1. The dog began to bark when it saw the cat moving.
  2. Snow was falling as our plane took off.
  3. The man was convicted of committing murder.
  4. Amy always does her homework in the evening after washing the dishes.
  5. The students gave their teacher a round of applause.
  6. The first hint that a storm was imminent was a clap of thunder.
  7. His doctor ordered him to get regular exercise.
  8. The Titanic sank on its maiden voyage.
  9. Cheating on his final law exam was an utterly stupid thing to do.
  10. Are you fully aware of the implications of your action?
  11. Mary whispered softly in John’s ear.
  12. I vaguely remember that it was growing dark when we left the house.
  13. We had to return home early because we had run out of money.
  14. When Jane heard about her friend’s death, she burst into tears.

Informal English Expressions – Idioms

Idioms are phrases and expressions which are commonly used in everyday conversation by native speakers of English. They are a type of informal English in which the words together have a meaning that is different from the definitions of the individual words in the expression.

This can make idioms difficult for non-native speakers to understand. Idioms are used in a figurative, not a literal sense.  People use them to express something more vividly and often more briefly. They serve as images or mental pictures.

For example, in the sentence ‘At our weekly board meetings, the director could talk until the cows come home, the expression means ‘for a very long time’. Cows are usually slow-moving animals.

Idioms make the language more colourful.   In the sentence, ‘When worldwide demand for its software decreased, the company had to do some belt-tightening, the image is of someone trying to lose weight, or in this case, reduce expenses.

One reason language learners find idioms difficult to understand is they are not sure what image the idiom is based on.  Idioms, however, are not ‘arbitrary’.  It is possible to guess their meaning from the words they consist of.

Many idioms are derived from physical experiences.  The expressions ‘hot under the collar’; ‘let off steam’, and ‘slow burn’ refer to anger ; the image is of heat, and rising  body temperature.  Likewise, the expressions ‘lend a hand’, ‘try your hand at something’, and ‘hands-on training’ all use the image of the hand to perform an action.  From everyday experience, we know that most activities involve the use of our hands.

A helpful way of understanding idioms is to group them according to the ‘areas of experience’ from which they are derived.  If you recognize the origin of an idiom, you should be able to work out its meaning. Some origins are:

Sailing – take something on board, clear sailing, steer clear of someone, show someone the ropes, be on an even keel

Horse Racing – neck and neck, win hands down, go off the rails

Hunting – don’t beat around the bush, it’s in the bag, a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush

Gambling – hedge one’s bets, up the ante, stick one’s neck out, throw in the towel

Entertainment – behind the scenes, be center stage, a balancing act

Intelligence – sharp as a tack, on the ball, with eyes wide open, hit the nail on the head

Up to 20% of English idioms consist of words that rhyme or that use the same sound at the start of each word.

So, we say ‘go with the flow’, not ‘go with the stream’, ‘it takes two to tango’, not ‘it takes two to waltz’ and ‘through thick and thin’, ‘below the belt’, ’bite the bullet, ‘cash cow’ , ‘crystal clear’, ‘cut corners’ and ‘eager beaver’.

Idioms enrich our speech . They are a good use of imagery when describing attitudes, behaviours and trying to draw someone’s attention to a point you feel is important.

 They are fixed expressions ; if we change the grammar or vocabulary, we lose the meaning.

Finally, idiomatic expressions are used when speaking informally, not in formal conversations.



Direct and Indirect Communication Styles

A communication style is the way in which we use language to share information with others.

Direct communication happens when a speaker’s true intentions are communicated in his/her verbal message. It expresses the speaker’s/sender’s needs and desires explicitly. When a direct communicator wants or needs something, he/she will ‘come right out and say it’.

Direct communicators take the other speaker’s words at face value: they will not analyze the message for underlying meaning. They value the effectiveness of short, direct answers, and expect and respect honesty and frankness.

Indirect communication happens when a speaker’s true intentions are hidden.  Indirect speakers will not make a direct statement or directly answer a question that might cause tension or result in an uncomfortable situation. They are more likely to say “maybe” or “possibly’ when the true answer is “no”.

Indirect communicators believe that being polite is more important than giving a true response; this belief is related to the concept of ‘saving face’ – to avoid hurting another person’s self-esteem.

In the U.S. and most western cultures, direct communication is usually the preferred style. In other cultures, including African and some Asian countries, indirect communication is more prevalent.

To a direct speaker, indirect verbal communication is often considered evasive, even untrust- worthy, while to an indirect speaker, direct verbal communication is perceived as harsh, even rude.

It can be frustrating for speakers in cultures where direct communication is the norm to interact with speakers in or from cultures that use indirect communication.  For example:

A sales manager has just received a poorly-written report with a few unsupported statements. .

If the manager is a direct communicator, he/she might say to the employee, “You have made a number of errors and incorrect assumptions in this report. Go back, check your data and proofread your work.

If the manager is an indirect communicator, he/she might say, “It seems there are some mistakes in this report and readers may question some of your assumptions. Could you check it over another time before finalizing it?”

The goal is the same for the direct and indirect communicator: he/she wants the employee to turn in a better report.   However, the second request may require interpretation.

It can be difficult for someone unaccustomed to a particular style of communication to ‘guess at’ the underlying meaning of indirect communication, and this may create a block to meaningful communication.

With direct communication, there is less risk of misunderstanding, but more risk of surprising or offending the receiver.  With indirect communication, there is more risk of misunderstanding, but less risk of offending the receiver.

In the workplace, the potential for tension and stress increases when the two different styles converge

Handling differences requires understanding and flexibility.  Recognize how your style may affect others, and become more flexible in how you approach people with a different style. Try a slightly different approach – for example, use less “assertive” language with an indirect communicator.

Advancement in the professional world requires learning to ‘cross the bridge’ between both communication styles.

Formal and Informal Language in the Workplace

When addressing one or more individuals in spoken and written communications, and especially in the workplace, it is important to use appropriate language depending on who the audience is, and the context of the spoken or written exchange.  For example, using informal language when addressing a director or senior manager in a business meeting may show disrespect. Or, continuing to address a supervisor as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ at an informal social event may ‘offputting’.

Formal language is used in situations which are of a serious nature (i.e. business or academic meetings) and with people whom we do not know well, including strangers.  Features of formal language include:

  • Impersonal (3rd person) pronouns (it, they)
  • use of the passive voice (It is a widely-known fact that … )
  • complex grammatical sentences with more than one clause (Further to the memorandum sent this morning, all staff are required to..)
  • formal vocabulary and phrases which express ideas precisely (considerable, substantial,the majority of)
  • longer words with suffixes and prefixes (inadmissible, ineligible, irregardless)

Informal language is commonly used in more relaxed situations and with people whom we know well; for example, friends and co-workers.  Features of informal language include:

  • personal pronouns (I, you, we)
  • use of the active voice (We all know that …..)
  • simple grammatical sentences (We request all staff to ……)
  • shorter words that express ideas generally (lots of, a lot, most of)
  • colloquial expressions (“What a drag”, “That’s a no-brainer”, ”)
  • contractions, abbreviations and ellipsis (“[To make a ] Long story short ..:, “[Have you] Seen John around?”, “the girl [whom]I met in Montreal”

Formal language is more commonly used in writing; however, in e-mails and correspondence with friends, we use informal language. Likewise, informal language is usually used when speaking; however, in many business and academic presentations, people use formal language.

English does not have a clear set of rules for the use of formal and informal language; however, speakers and writers do need to be careful how they speak or write in different situations.

In summary, the best policy when faced with the choice of using informal or formal language is to: 1) use formal language when first addressing the person (it’s safest), and 2) listen carefully to the other person when you first meet: listen for the words he/she is using and try to use the same words.