Emailing in English: some golden rules
Most of our students have to write emails on a regular basis. It might be within the company to foreign colleagues (or perhaps the company language is English) or it may be to foreign suppliers or customers. Whatever the case, unlike speaking, writing is a permanent record and therefore it is important to get the language and the tone right. Writing accurately and clearly is important – we all need to explain, influence or make an impact on our colleagues, clients and superiors. These skills are a little bit more complex than simply summarising information and can take us out of our comfort zone. Let’s look at some golden rules to master this form of communication.
1. Start with the right salutation (and end well too!)
You should always start a business email with the correct salutation and this depends on your reader. If you are writing to a client or superior for the first time, you need Mr or Ms plus surname, for example Dear Mr Jones or Ms Jones (Ms indicates a woman who may or may not be married and is a safe option). If you already have a working relationship with someone, you can use Dear plus first name e.g Dear Paul or Dear Liz. Note: ‘Hi Paul’ or ‘Hi Liz’ is also commonly used nowadays and can even be used with a client or supplier with whom you’ve got a good working relationship. Correspondingly, finish with ‘Yours sincerely (for the most formal relationships such as a job applications), moving onto the more common ‘Kind regards’, ‘Best wishes’ and most informally, ‘All the best’ (in British English ‘Cheers’ meaning ‘thanks’ is also used!). Just ask yourself what fits your style or your company guidelines.
2. Write in short paragraphs
It’s reasonably common that you have a couple of points to make and so the layout and structure of an email is important. Naturally, this is the same in your first language but sometimes we forget some simple rules in our nervousness about getting the language right. So, make sure that each paragraph has a new idea and that idea is developed concisely – each paragraph can have 3 or 4 sentences (as a general guideline). If you have questions to ask or different steps to explain, consider using bullet points. Some useful phrases might be: ‘I’m writing to inform/let you know’, ‘could you organise/arrange/highlight X by + date’, ‘this would help us to +infinitive’. In our classes at Trebinshun House, we might also focus on how to link your ideas with connective devices such as ‘so that’, ‘in this way’ etc.
3. Think about the level of formality
This is particularly important and it’s not always easy to get right. On our intensive courses, we often focus on language which is formal, informal or neutral. Two examples of formal language are full verb forms (I am writing to rather than I’m writing) and more use of certain modal verbs (would and could rather than will and can). More informal would be use of phrasal verbs and informal expressions (‘let you know’ rather than inform; ‘put off’ a meeting rather than postpone). Of course, it’s important that your tone is consistent throughout your email so mixing styles can confuse or even give the wrong impression to the reader. In our working lives, we often have to use a variety of styles according to the content. Therefore, expanding your writing skills so that you can be flexible in your use of language is useful and help you adapt to different cultural contexts.
4. Know some writing conventions
Finally, there might be some writing conventions which are different in your language. A couple of basic ones are:
- make sure your sentences are not too long (12 - 14 words are a good guideline). Otherwise, your meaning gets lost.
- always capitalise “I” and the first letter of proper nouns (names, countries, cities, rivers). Of course, do not use capital letters throughout your writing – this is considered shouting.
The points above should enable you to assess your own emails and make some small changes right away. As we tailor our courses to suit your needs, we can go into more detail where this is necessary or important. We often work (confidentially) with your work emails to help you develop your own style in English and look in depth at the vocabulary you need regularly. Happy writing!