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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. Its 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 doesnt 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. Its 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 dont 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. Ive 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 thats 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 wasnt at the meeting. But Im not concerned
with a Deep End approach in this article. I want Input!!

Below Ive presented some Input language areas, in a very approximate


order of importance, highest priority first. Its a personal view, of course. Ill

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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 Ive 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 OConnell 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 cant 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 Ill 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
its 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
its 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
cant 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.

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Before we continue, wed 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 clichs 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 HPs 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 were 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 doesnt
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: http://phx.corporate-
ir.net/External.File?item=UGFyZW50SUQ9MTY5MTkzfENoaWxkSUQ9LTF8VHlwZT0z&t=1

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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 go-
to-market capability.

Example 2: my approximate translation into simple, clear language


Next year is going to be tough. Well be working through the disruptions
caused by all the changes we made last year. Well carry on cutting
costs, but well also make some new investments in the business. Well
make sure that we spend that money well. Well 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 go-
to-market capability means, so I havent 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. Its 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, its 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 youll undoubtedly impress, persuade, and be taken more

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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 its 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) Describing an object
b) Describing a process
c) Definition
d) Comparison and Contrast
e) Cause and Effect
f) Change and Development
g) Problem and Solution
h) Argument and Persuasion

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Lets 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 dont
understand and I cant find any examples for it. I dont think its 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
Its a little more expensive
Its a lot more expensive
Report writing
Its 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 its 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

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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 doesnt 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?

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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, its important, and its 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)

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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 Ive 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.

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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.

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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
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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 over-

4
Collocation dictionaries I know only of the Macmillan and Oxford ones havent made it online yet.

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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 real-


life 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 HPs technology, and they need us to continue to
provide solutions for todays 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:

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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 dont 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-/under-
Suffixes 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-/dis-

10 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

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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 its 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.

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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. Thats why I have relative clauses down here at #10. In all honesty I
cannot think of many occasions when a students 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)

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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 dont affect the
meaning, but mistakes here do seem quite noticeable to a reader/listener.
When a student in class says It depends of its 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 theres 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 lets 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:
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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 dont 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. Its 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.

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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 doesnt 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 Im 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.
Thats why this is down here at #14.

By the way, while were 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.

Lets take some examples. First, repetition. Repetition can add interest.
Repetition can add impact. Repetition can make your writing more persuasive.

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Okay, Im sure you spotted the deliberate repetition of the word
Repetition. But did you spot the other common rhetorical device? Its called
the rule of three and its 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 clichs. But I
think I know the good ones when I see them. Im 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 optimize our supply chain


to be on track to do sth. to prioritize investment dollars
to be well positioned to do sth. to refine our strategy
to better understand customer needs to roll out a new system

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to bring costs in line with revenue scalable solutions
to bring focus back to the business to see big opportunities ahead
to build the foundation for sth. to streamline the company
to empower and enable sales teams strong leadership team
to face a challenge to tackle issues
to implement a series of changes to take steps to refocus our efforts
macroeconomic challenges
to map out a journey

To my mind the above help to strike a serious, formal note, and are not
the same as unconvincing clichs like its a win-win situation, lets think outside
of the box, the customer is always right, we need a paradigm shift in our
thinking, in todays 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 knock-
on 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 Its 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.

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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 wouldnt 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 de-
emphasized 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.

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