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How to Write a Formal Business Letter in English

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A formal business letter requires not only strong grammar and vocabulary, but also appropriate tone, format, and sequence.  

Learning how to write a professional letter in English can be difficult for non-native speakers learning how to write in business English.

In this article, we will show you what to include and avoid when writing a formal letter.

 

Finding The Correct Tone in English

Formality is a tricky thing in English since it isn’t built into the grammar like in Spanish, French, or Japanese. Instead, it is built into our tone of voice (when speaking) and in the vocabulary we use. You can see some good examples of different levels of formality here. (The first example demonstrates the proper level of formality for a business letter.)

 

Here is a quick tip. In general, a good rule to remember is that formal writing is a bit longer. For example:

INFORMAL: Thanks!

FORMAL: I appreciate …

**Remember! This is a general rule. It is not always true.

 

What to avoid in a formal english business letter

Here are some things you should avoid in a formal letter:

  • Emojis – as much as I love these because they “humanize” writing, they don’t belong in anything formal.
  • Exclamation points – These make you sound like a teenage cheerleader.
  • Acronyms like LOL or ICYMI – these are often inappropriate (in the case of LOL) or better spelled out (in the case of ICYMI). They are also easily misunderstood (I knew someone who though LOL meant “lots of love” instead of “laughing out loud.” It seems like a small mistake, but it resulted in some hurt feelings when she sent LOL to someone who had just lost their grandfather.
  • Idioms (a full list of English idioms can be found here) – It’s always better to write what you need to say plainly and directly. Idioms are also cultural and easily misunderstood or misused.
  • Anything that sounds too friendly or intimate. Example: Nice chatting with you yesterday! Instead, write, “It was good to talk with you yesterday.”
  • Sentence fragments – Example: Looking forward to your reply.” (More info here.) These are used often in speech and are usually ok in informal writing, but they don’t work in formal writing because the subject is of the sentence is missing. (I am looking forward to your reply.”

 

Instead, keep your focus on:

  • Meeting your audience’s needs and expectations. Remember, the receiver of your letter might not be your only audience. Other people, particular those above your intended receiver, may also see your letter.
  • Direct, simple language.
  • Strong, appropriate grammar. Know your grammar weaknesses and proofread carefully. If you have trouble with this, use Grammarly.

 

Format

Use block formatting. Every item is left aligned, with no indented paragraphs. There is one line of space between each item/paragraph. You can see block formatting here.

 

Sequence

  • Sender’s Address – The first item should be the sender’s address without the sender’s name.
  • Date – Make sure to use the date format common to your audience and always spell out the month. More info on global date formats here. 
  • Receiver’s Address – Here you need to include the receiver’s name, title, and company, as well as the address.
  • Salutation – Dear Mr./Mrs./Ms. Last name: (Ex. Dear Ms. Jones:)
  • Body text – This is where you include the bulk of your content. Make sure to start with the main point of your communication in the first paragraph, then include more details in the second paragraph, and close with an action eliciting conclusion in the final paragraph.
  • Closing – Sincerely or Best regards followed by a comma is appropriate for most formal situations. (Ex. Best regards,)
  • Four lines of space to sign your name
  • Your First and Last Name

 

Sources:
https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/purdue_owl.html
http://www.instructionalsolutions.com/blog/business-grammar-date-formats-global-audience
https://www.usingenglish.com/reference/idioms/

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Katie Almeida Spencer

About the author

Katie Almeida Spencer

Katie is an experienced Business Writing and English as a Second Language instructor, business writing coach, and teacher trainer. She taught Business and Academic Writing at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She holds a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Rhode Island and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Read Katie Almeida Spencer's Full Bio

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