Basic formal letter

On being polite & clear ...

The best way to teach Formal Letters is to be quite straightforward: it is the most conventional of writing types, it has a set of simple rules, and this is what you do. That said, the writing of formal letters can be remarkably subtle - as often with conventional forms, there are all sorts of possibilities of playing with, if not directly breaking, the expected conventions. For instance, if you follow a long, perfectly correct and tediously polite complaint with a sudden descent into the directly frank ("And if you don't, I shall sue you for every last penny you have."), this will have all the power of violent contrast.

The key advice to students must be (1) follow the simple basic format, and (2) above all, be clear. This certainly applies in real life, and it is very good advice for writing Formal Letters in English B exams. "First be clear ... and only then be clever (if you really can)" would be another way of putting it.


  Basic formal letter: format + example - a layout of the basic format of a formal letter (p.1) and an invented example illustrating the format in action (p.2)  

The basic format

This model is presented as a straightforward diagrammatic layout - give this sheet out to the students, and make sure that they understand all of the annotations.

This is a basic version. We could argue all night about whether the addresses are to be on the left or the right (or even, the recipient's at the bottom?). The reality is that there are many varieties of layout, and these are often determined by the taste of the department head, or what sort of envelopes have been bought ... there is no reliable orthodoxy, other than that the layout should look neat, organised and clear. And that dictum is precisely what applies to the marking of Formal Letters in English B exams.

An invented example

17 Impaler Boulevard
06660 Zslrp

3 September 2010

Mr Willm Vyctim
c/o Fawlty Towers Hotel
Little Wittering
United Kingdom

Dear Mr Vyctim

You contacted this office some two months ago asking for information concerning our RadicallyDifferent! Budget Tours of Transylvania. It appears from our records that you were not sent a reply. Sadly, the employee concerned has transferred to another form of occupation and cannot be contacted (at least, during office hours). If you have already received a reply, please accept our apologies.

With regard to your specific enquiries:
1. It is certainly possible to reserve a single bedroom throughout the tour. Indeed, from our point of view, this is desirable, and we recommend this service for all of our clients.
2. The reason that the schedule of the tour becomes nocturnal during the second week of the tour is due to requests from previous customers, who have found the night-life of Transylvania fascinating, if not compelling.
3. The reason that return flights are not indicated on the booking form is that we are happy to arrange such flights to suit each client's personal wishes, and experience has shown that many wish to extend their stay.

It is regretable that you may have received misleading publicity about possible risks to travellers in Transylvania. Please be reassured that we take great care of the health and safety of everyone who books a RadicallyDifferent! tour. The TransylTravel Medical Centre is available at all times, with guaranteed personal attention, elaborate facilities, and a wide variety of resources, including the full range of blood types.

TransylTravel hopes to be able to welcome you on one of our tours in the near future. Please contact this office if we can be of any further assistance.

Yours sincerely,

Vladimir Trypp

Notes on format

You will have noticed, I hope, that this is playing with the Dracula myth! Whether or not your students pick that up straight away will depend on how alert they are - but I would tend to deal with the matter-of-fact details of style, vocabulary and phrasing first of all. Stress the following details:-

  • Address is personal, but simply factual ("You contacted this office...", not "I hope you are well...")
  • Impersonal forms are used regularly, when personal address is not necessary ("It appears...", "It is regretable...") - to make the point, you might ask students to re-phrase those phrases in a more personal way.
  • Stock, conventional phrasing is shown in blue, here on-screen. These are 'chunks', and are only really used in this type of text - would anyone say, in normal conversation, "Well, darling, can I be of any further assistance..." ?
  • Sentences and paragraphs are short, clear and to-the-point - aside from the conventional clichés, content is presented succinctly.
  • The 'main body' section employs numbering, and could have used bullet points. This is, once again, for the sake of simplicity and clarity. Good formal letters avoid wasting time.

Reading between the lines

Once the students have noted the essential basic features of the text, we can discuss the implications ... is TransylTravel all that it seems? Is the courteous Mr Tripp to be trusted? He may be striving to be honest in his responses, but why exactly are single bedrooms "from our point of view ... desirable"? Why is he so specific about "the full range of blood types"?  And the missing employee - why can he not be contacted during daylight ... sorry, office hours?

Did the ingenuous Mr Vyctim ever reach Transylvania ? Ah, that's another story ...

Links & extensions

Humour & wit... if you want to explore ways that humour is expressed in English, there is a rich selection in the site. Here are some pages, dealing with a range of different subjects in different ways...

Twitter, brevity & wit ... a page based on the idea of 'brevity is the soul of wit' - several collections of sayings exploring the idea of the difference between rambling on Twitter and real razor-sharp wit...

What have the Romans...? ... a famous moment from 'The Life of Brian' - comedy based on satire...

Darth Vader ...  a Lego treatment of an Eddie Izzard comedy sketch, imagining the Dark Lord in the staff canteen of the Death Star - from the evil sublime to the commonplace ridiculous...

Class, jokes, and linkers  ... discussing trends in humour, and why humour often depends on social stereotypes...

The English are best  ... a famous comic song, presenting (tongue in cheek) why the English are simply and obviously better than anyone else in the British Isles, and indeed in the whole planet...

April 1 travel ... a well-known classic of the April Fool tradition, where various UK media (and possibly elsewhere) have a tradition of including one made-up fantasy story on 1st April ... in this case from the Guardian, presenting a travel feature about the island of San Seriff (what do you mean, you've never heard of it?)...

Humour & technology  ... a short comedy sketch about medieval monks struggling to deal with a complex new technology...

Dinosaurs ... a fantasy dialogue about how dinosaurs decided to develop wings... putting everyday language into weird imagined situations...

Bloody Men ... witty little poem about how women sometimes despair of men - based on the application of analogy...

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