One of the most usual uses of English language for non-native speakers is writing letters in English: e-mails, congratulations, questions, requests etc. Yet this genre is often challenging even for those who otherwise have no problem expressing themselves. Formal letters can be particularly intimidating, you have to keep in mind that just using big words and overly complicated sentences won’t make you sound smart.
As an (real) example for today I chose a letter I’m writing to a very distinguished academic. Obviously, for the real letter, I will choose a formal register, but just for the sake of learning, let’s first see how the same e-mail would look considering different recipients.
Writing to a friend or acquaintance…
Hey man, what’s up? I lost you after the lecture, where did you go? Trying to be the first out of the building again? 🙂 Anyway, you told me about a video I could use, and I really need it right now. Please send it to me whenever (but ASAP :-).
Thanks, see you soon, P.
- contractions allowed (won’t, what’s)
- smiley faces allowed (don’t overdo it, though 🙂
- short sentences, teasing, honesty, virtually no introduction
Writing to someone you don’t know, to a professional contact…
Subject: Video for the press – request
I hope you had a successful conference and arrived home safely. I am writing in order to ask you about the video we were talking about after the main event.
My boss thinks this video would go well with the article I am writing. Would you be so kind and send me the video so we can use it? I am terribly sorry to bother you on the weekend, it is sort of urgent, the article will be published Monday. I hope you and your organization will be pleased to see the video being viewed by so many people.
Thank you very much, have a great weekend,
editor at Newspaper
731 123 456
- contractions not recommended
- smiley faces not recommended (maybe, just maybe you can make fun of yourselves)
- longer introduction, reasoning, making our intentions clear, polite apology, long full signature
Very formal letter
Writing to an academic, highly regarded professional, CEO etc.
Dear Prof. Important,
I am writing You in order to continue our short conversation in Prague after your absorbing, inspiring lecture. You mentioned that you do not send your presentations to journalists, but you mentioned there is a video of your lecture accessible on-line.
In order to allow our readers to experience your lecture, we would like to link this video in the article about your lecture. Would you be so kind as to send me a link I could use for these purposes? Ideal time frame would be this weekend, but we can, of course, add the link anytime later.
Thank you again for your time, for you amazing lecture in Prague and for taking the time to explain your research to the public. Your presentation was the highlight of the whole conference.
editor at Newspaper
731 123 456
- no contractions
- no smiley faces
- long introduction, explanation, very polite
Other useful resources for letter writing: