How to Write a FORMAL LETTER in ENGLISH
When email was non-existent and business dealt with through letters written on paper, formality was a bit stricter.
In some way, I suppose that new technologies have made us a little more flexible when it comes to interacting with others, even if it is about writing a formal letter or email.
First of all, we must assess the degree of formality we need to communicate, what real relationship we have with the person to whom we are sending a formal letter or email, have we had contact before?
If so, was it by phone? By letter or email? Face to face?
With these data and, always using our common sense, we will write a letter or email with the required formality for each occasion.
Basic guidelines for writing a formal letter in English
This post will show you the basic guidelines for writing a formal email or letter that could be used for business interactions.
You will find typical phrases and common rules that you must follow, but do not be too strict with the rules, as I have pointed out above, “formal” can mean many different things in different contexts.
Well, let’s start then!
If you write an email, the basic thing is that you do not tell them about your life in the Subject section.
The ‘subject’ must be direct and concise and must clearly express the reason for the message.
Don’t write “Hi there!”… you are not writing to your cousin in Benidorm … An example could be: “Meeting Magazine Survey 10/18/2014”
First of all, we will see the most typical forms of greeting, both informal and formal, and you will know the degree of formality necessary for each case.
- Hi Peter,
- Hello Sandra,
- Dear Mrs. Rogers,
- Dear Julian Scott,
When you don’t know who you are talking to, you can write:
- Dear Sir or Madam,
- To Whom It May Concern (this one is a bit dated)
If you are going to address a woman who you don’t know whether she is married or single, the use of Ms is recommended, instead of Mrs or Miss.
Here is a picture with personal titles in English:
By the way, do you put a period/full stop after titles in English?
The issue seems confusing, but it is very simple: in American English, it is dotted, while in British English the dot is omitted:
- Ms. (AmE), Mr. (AmE), Mrs. (AmE)
- Ms Mr Mrs (BrE)
- Miss (does not have a dot nor British or American)
Structure of a formal letter in English
A letter or email structure has three basic components that generally coincide with many other types of writings that we will see in future posts.
Let’s see them one by one:
First, you must introduce yourself, and then you must briefly explain the reason for the letter or email.
Therefore, you will start by saying:
- My name is…
And you will continue with one of these common expressions:
- I am writing with regard to…
- I am emailing in reference to…
- I am contacting you to…
- In reply to your email, I…
- I am writing in connection with…
- I would like…
- Contractions are not usually used in formal writing, although they could be more common each time (depending on the degree of formality).
To start with, the general rule is:
Do not write: “I’ve gone”, you must write the complete form: «I have gone».
To start an email, do not use the Present Simple to say,
“I write this email to you”, the Present Continuous is the tense we use: “I am writing this email” not “I write this email”.
Here you have to explain what you need briefly, don’t go too crazy and beat about the bush, you don’t have to explain your life to them, get to the point, that is, write short and concise sentences.
1) Use paragraphs to keep your message tidy: an email should not have more than five paragraphs, and each paragraph should have a maximum of five lines. To connect paragraphs in a fluid and coherent way, I recommend using connectors in English.
2) It goes without saying, but just in case someone loves capital letters … DO NOT WRITE THE EMAIL IN CAPITAL LETTERS BECAUSE IT SEEMS THAT WE ARE SHOUTING!
3) Always use the same font, if it’s Times New Roman, stick with that and don’t change to Arial in the middle of the email. Avoid using Comic Sans or any similar font: we will use a font as formal as possible; the Times is perfect.
4) Avoid as much as possible the abbreviated language that you use in text messages and WhatsApp: do not write things like BTW, TTYL (By the way, talk to you later).
5) Don’t use emojis 😯 😳 😈
Informal words and terms and their equivalents in a formal language
In this WikiHow link, they present you with a list of informal words and terms and their equivalents in a formal language, very useful indeed.
Typical expressions for a formal letter
Now we are going to see some typical expressions that can be used for the body of the formal letter or email:
- We are able to confirm that…
- We regret to inform you that…
- Just a note to say…
- Please, could you…?
- Can I have…?
- Could you…?
- I would really appreciate it if you could…
- This is an urgent matter
Active voice vs passive voice:
Keep in mind that you should use simple grammar without frills and structures that are too complex. Avoid the passive voice, inversions, etc.
In Business English it is preferable to use the active voice.
Look at the examples:
Don’t use this structure in passive:
It was discussed the unconditional surrender of the country
Better use these types of phrases:
We discussed the unconditional surrender of the country
Common phrases to end a formal letter in English (or formal email):
- Thank you for your help
- I look forward to hearing from you – (Note that after “to” there is a verb in gerund, don’t write:
I look forward to hear from you)
- Thanks in advance
- Please, feel free to contact me if you have any questions
- If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me
- Let me know if you need anything else (a little less formal, but just as valid)
Note: When my English was under-intermediate, and I had to write formal emails, many times I ended them with the phrase: «I am at your disposal».
It is not that this phrase is not correct, but the truth is that it sounds quite bad, a little weird, because “disposal” also means “disposal of garbage, waste”.
As I say, the expression is perfectly correct, but I, as a personal option, I would not use it if you can substitute it for others like the ones, I’ve suggested above that do not lead to pestilential confusion :-p
Phrases and expressions to say goodbye
- Best regards,
- Best wishes,
- Kind regards,
- Yours sincerely,
- Yours faithfully,
- Yours cordially,
The signature in English generally includes:
- Work position
- Name of the company
- Contact information (phone, website, email address)
Tips and links
- Use an email address as neutral as possible. Do not write from the address firstname.lastname@example.org. If you don’t have another email address, create one just for work correspondence, it’s free and necessary … if you want to be taken seriously.
There is a resource that I love, and it is FREE.
It’s called Grammarly. It is a handy Chrome extension if you have to write essays, essays, or letters in English.
What the extension does is, as you type:
- Remove GRAMMATICAL ERRORS (example: “You have used the wrong verb tense ..”
- It offers you SYNONYMS to create a clearer and more direct text.
- Warns you about punctuation errors (example: “You are missing a comma after the X connector”)
Take a look, and you will surely find it super useful for writing anything in English!
Now I leave you some links that can help you a lot to write the perfect email or formal letter:
- The Top 12 Email Mistakes
- Sample Business Letter
- Sample Semi-Formal Letter
- A Business Email of Response