What can we learn from emails?

Following on from Prof Ronald Carter’s blog entry ‘A few words on corpus linguistics’, Dr Rachele De Felice looks in more detail at what we can learn from the language of emails.

Email communications
How often do you use email for professional purposes? According to some reports, “the average worker fields more than 100 emails every day”, and most people in other walks of life also often have to write a business email. If email communication is central to your business, you probably make sure that your message comes across as professional, effective, and polite – but have you ever thought about just what it is in the message that gives this impression?

Everyone has their own writing style, of course, but there are certain words and phrases that tend to appear very often in professional email communication as a typical, almost expected way of expressing something – so it is useful to know what they are, and when to use them.

Corpus linguistics
What are these phrases and how do we find out about them? This is where corpus linguistics comes in. Corpus linguists analyse large collections of texts (such as those collected in the Cambridge English Corpus) to identify any patterns or other features that stand out, and to learn more about how we communicate in different contexts. Nowadays, corpora are stored and accessed electronically, and some of the biggest ones run to several million words (e.g. the British National Corpus, 100 million words).

Email corpora aren’t as big yet – it’s hard to collect this data as both individuals and companies have, understandably, concerns about the private or commercially sensitive content of their emails – but researchers have reached agreements to use some of their email archives, so we are now starting to carry out research based on real email data.

Analysing the data
With this data, we can find out what people actually write when they are carrying out a particular task via email, rather than rely on our intuitions, or what we think ‘should’ be written in these cases.

For example, what do people typically write when they are trying to arrange a time to talk or meet with someone? It turns out that direct, specific requests, such asCan we meet at 2 p.m. on Wednesday? are very rare. It is more common to give the other person, the email recipient, the option to suggest a time. By far the most frequent phrase in this context is let me know, used in sentences such as let me know what time you would like to talk/have the meeting; let me know when you’d want to meet. By using these kinds of expressions, we are making it clear to the other person that we value their time and their needs, and that we are willing to accommodate them. It is important to bear in mind that email practices may vary from one cultural context to another; a phrase that might be the most frequent in a corpus of British English may occur far less frequently in a corpus of American English.

If there are constraints on the meeting time, it’s still possible to mention them without coming across as too demanding, as in these examples:

Would you maybe have time to meet on Tuesday?

Please let me know if there’s a time after 1 p.m. that works for you.

What time between 7 and 11 suits you best?

As you can see, the imposition caused by restricting the possible meeting times is softened by the use of words such as maybe and please, and by emphasising the focus on the recipient’s needs, as we saw above, with phrases such as works for you or suits you best.

If you think about your personal emails, you’re probably a bit more direct when arranging to meet someone. Looking through my own messages, I found plenty of examples where the writer is not making as much of an effort to show flexibility about times:

Meet you at 5.45? That ok?

Shall we just meet there at 11.30?

Shall we aim for 9?

How about 12.30?

Making use of the findings
We might not be consciously aware of these differences in the way we use language when we arrange business or social meetings, but, as corpus linguistics shows us, they are found over and over again. It’s important for us corpus linguistics researchers to identify these strategies and bring them to the attention of everyone who needs to use Business English – whether learners of the language or just newcomers to the professional world – to help them communicate in the most effective way.

And here’s a fun fact I discovered while researching this entry: according to word frequency, Friday and Monday are the most important days of the work week – or at least the most talked about! In decreasing order of frequency, the week would run Friday – Monday – Thursday – Tuesday – Wednesday (with a few rare mentions of the weekend). Does nothing ever happen on a Wednesday?

Dr Rachele De Felice, Research Fellow, Centre for Research in Applied Linguistics, School of English Studies, University of Nottingham.

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