If you are keen on the idea of making more social connections, or increasing your job prospects then you will have to write a message at some point. Letter writing skills are sadly in decline, and emails are becoming more and more unreadable as they are quickly composed and sent. The English language is still strict on formal and informal use, and knowing the difference is crucial when communicating.


You will want your letter or email to look professional, but you may also lack the time to polish it in today's busy world. In the following article I am going to give you some hints and tips that will allow you to make sure your English is easily understood in writing.



Formal or informal?


Most people will try to be polite with people they do not know. You should also be polite when speaking with people of authority such as doctors, police officers etc. We consider this to be formal, and will often use formal titles when addressing people such as: Sir, Madam, Doctor, Mr and Miss.


If you know someone very closely, such as a friend or family member, then we can be informal and use their first name and so on. We can also communicate to them using slang or technical terms we know they will understand.



Formal letters


For the most part, letters written today are formal. We've grown used to either emailing, snapchatting or calling our friends and relatives on the telephone. We now write letters mostly to apply for a job opening, to make a complaint, or to ask for building permission.
We are trying to make a good impression in these circumstances and we will use formal introductions such as 'Dear Sir/Madam', and keep our language clear and free of jargon or slang.


As an example, I am going to draft a complaint letter below and we'll look at how the letter communicates professionalism:



18th January 2018


Mr Santa Claus
Santa Claus Main Post Office
FI-96930 Arctic Circle

David Smith (aged 6)
14 Finch Lane
Manchester, M99 8DZ
United Kingdom


[email protected]


Dear Mr Claus,


I wish to thank you for all your years of hard work and dedicated service.


However, I am also writing to you to make a minor point. This year you delivered to my house a 65 inch flat screen television, but forgot to also deliver a new PlayStation.


As my Father is a lawyer, I have discussed the matter with him and must unfortunately write to lodge a formal complaint. I wrote to you in October of last year and made categorically clear that I needed a new PlayStation. When the said item failed to materialise, my Father's colleagues examined your delivery contract and found that you were in breach of it.


Therefore, would you please send the PlayStation at your soonest convenience but without delay.


Yours sincerely,
David Smith



The date of the letter is placed correctly and we can see the letter is addressed to Santa Claus as his address is on the left of the page. The letter has come from David Smith whose address is on the right of the page. The formal introduction of 'Dear' has been used when addressing the recipient of the letter.


When writing a letter of complaint always be polite and avoid being rude. I have worked in several companies where someone has received a rude letter and has thrown it in the bin without bothering to reply to it.


If you must send a letter of complaint, enclose within the first paragraph a message of thanks for a previous success or another polite opening. This sweet first paragraph will make the medicine go down a lot easier.



Consider the structure


Like any language, English can become complicated if more words are used than are needed. Ideally, your complaint letter or letter of introduction for a job should not exceed four paragraphs. Make your information easy to read and its meaning clear. Take some time to draft a plan for your letter. Once written, examine the letter to see if any sentences can be reduced. As an example see the below sentence:


  • I was becoming more and more concerned about this ongoing issue.


This rather long sentence could be reduced to six words which give the exact same message and meaning:


  • I am worried about this situation.


In David's letter we can see he has carefully structured the letter. After the first paragraph the letter outlines the issue, then the effect this has had, and then the letter proposes a solution to the problem. Each paragraph contains a new idea yet the paragraphs connect to each other to create a storyline. There is also some use of persuasion. This is when you subtly make mention of a fact more than once, you create a visualisation in the reader's mind of a possible outcome. David mentions on more than one occasion that his Father is a lawyer. This suggests that Santa Claus could be on the receiving end of a lawsuit.



Show interest in the other person by using 'You'


In David's letter to Santa Claus, he has used the word 'You' more often than the word 'I'. This makes the letter far more effective as it makes the recipient feel the letter is more about them than the person who has sent it. When writing to people try to make the letter about them such as how you can help their interests. You are more likely to get a response than if you use the word 'I' all the time, which will give the impression that you can think of no one but yourself.



Vary your vocabulary


When you've finished writing your letter, check your sentences to make sure they don't all begin with the exact same word. Also check each paragraph to see if you keep using the same word over and over again when composing sentences. If this is the case, invest in a good thesaurus and replace words which are overused. This will make your letter look better and it will also be more interesting to read.



Informal emails


It is tempting to write a quick email and send it without reading it through. I would suggest avoiding this, ask yourself how many emails you've received in the past which have been unreadable or were misunderstood?


As with a formal letter, consider the structure of your message and amend it into some kind of order. With the ability to cut and paste text the idea of reshaping a paragraph will really not take that much of your time.


The two main differences between formal letters and informal emails are how we greet the reader and later say goodbye. We can use 'Hello' or 'Hi' if we are on friendly terms with the person we are emailing. We can also omit the use of 'Yours sincerely' and substitute this with the more informal 'Regards' or 'Best Regards'. The informal tone of an email can also be used by some people to demonstrate cynicism or sarcasm:



Hi David,


Thanks for your letter about the PlayStation I failed to deliver. I'm sorry to say I am not in breach of contract as the item was out of stock when I called at Walmart. This should exonerate me from any legal wrongdoings.


By way of an apology, I would like to invite you to visit me in Lapland.


First, I must warn you that it can be especially difficult to get a visa for Lapland. Secondly, our immigration department can be quite suspicious at this time of year. They may take a dim view of any spoilt bad little boys who come to visit.


You have a nice Christmas next year.


Santa Claus



Hero image by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash