Business Vocabulary in Use

Title: Business Vocabulary in Use
Author: Bill Mascull
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Consists of: Self-study Vocabulary Book
Summary: "simple yet effective"
Reviewed by: Alex Case
Review date: July 2002

Back in the mists of TEFL time, Raymond Murphy wrote a self-study grammar book with the simple formula of a two-page spread for each grammar point, with the explanation on the left sides and the exercises on the right. He could hardly had dreamt then that it was the beginning of a range of similar books for CUP that would include 8 grammar and vocabulary books (plus American versions). Although they have been written by various authors, they are all known in our staff room by the name 'Murphy's', as in "Does anyone have the Elementary Vocab Murphy's?". Criticisms of the other 'Murphy's' books have included the fact that the example sentences are contrived and not derived from corpora, and that the vocabulary books do not provide enough context (and therefore collocations) for the presentation of vocabulary. My own bugbear with them is that they maintain the 'present then practice' model rather than any kind of discovery or test/teach/test approach, and I find it hard to believe that students gain a lot from starting by reading through an explanation. They remain, however, among the most popular TEFL books in the world. I was therefore interested to see how much how much had changed in the writing of the latest member of the family.

The book starts with 47 two-page topic units, starting with 'Work and jobs' and ending with 'Business across cultures 3'. These units are subdivided into 'Jobs, people and organizations', 'Production', 'Marketing', 'Money', 'Finance and the economy', 'Doing the right thing' (e.g. 'Ethics'), 'Personal skills' (e.g. Time management) and 'Culture'. The 'topic' sections are followed by 6 units on 'Telephone, fax and e-mail' and 13 on 'Business skills' (e.g. Presentations'). Students were generally very positive on the topics included, although some students thought it strange that letters were not covered at all. I generally find that students using self-study vocabulary books are more likely to complete topic-based units than units on 'make and do' or 'suffixes'.

The first thing you notice when you open to one of the two page spreads is the professional 'business-like' presentation, with more colour photos and graphs than cartoons, and good use of shading and boxes to divide up the page. In typical 'Murphy's' style the language is presented on the left hand page in several separate sections. For example, 'Profitability and Unprofitability' is divided into 'A: Profitable and Unprofitable products', 'B: Budgets and expenditure' and 'C: Economies of scale and the learning curve'. Each of the sections deals well with the differences between British and American English, and with common language errors. The discussion of cultural differences also comes up several times through the book. The texts used to present the language are fairly long, and provide lots of commonly occurring collocations and fixed phrases. This and the fact there is a big 'Cambridge International Corpus' symbol on the back! suggest that they language is taken much more from real texts. The examples are obviously not themselves taken straight from real life, however. One example of this is people explaining the vocab they are using as part of a 'dialogue'. This does allow the author to avoid lists of dictionary type definitions, and the format does allow clear differentiation between topic areas. It also means that useful language can be absolutely packed into quite a sparse two page area. It also, however, means that the texts seem no less contrived than those TEFL 'dialogues' containing 25 examples of the present perfect.

On the right side of each page are the practice activities. There is generally one for each of the sections on the right hand side, which can be very useful if only one of the sections are relevant to a student's needs. Whilst the book generally continues the 'Murphy's' 'present then practice' methodology, the fact that the left hand side pages use context more than definitions to explain the language means that some of the exercises do feel slightly more like a 'discovery approach', e.g. 'Find expressions in Section A opposite that mean…' The fact that the texts are so contrived, however, means that these exercises are little use for training students to guess from context.

These practice sections are followed by a freer 'Over to you' section (with pretty 3D arrow) which gives students a chance to talk (if they are in class) or write (if at home) about the topic. Students all said these were a good idea, but the fact that none of them asked to me correct any writing makes me dubious about how much they were actually used.

After all 66 units, there is the answer key and an index. The answer key seems to be accurate (it's amazing how often that isn't the case), although the fact that the introduction to the book gives the wrong number of topic units (66 instead of 67) makes me suspicious that there must be some more inaccuracies in there somewhere. The best thing about the index is that it gives the phonemic transcription for each word, although it might have been useful for them to have spared a page to list the sound of each symbol.

Despite numerous attacks on this simple formula, and much better attempts to use real language in context (e.g. the book 'Key Words in Business' - Collins Cobuild, edited by the author of the book being reviewed here), it is hard to think of a more user friendly book for student self study. I would particularly recommend it for students who need to study 'Business English' without yet having any clear idea which business they will be working in. For the more specialized business student, and for small needs-driven classes such as one-to-one, it will never be a substitute for brainstorming the language, or pulling it straight out of the pages of the Financial Times or the Economist.

TEFL.net ESL Reviews & ArticlesAlex Case has worked as an EFL Teacher, Teacher Trainer, Director of Studies and EFL Editor in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, the UK and Japan. Alex Case is Reviews Editor of TEFL.net.