This week we continue looking at establishing tone in letters for Task 1 Writing of the General Training module. In last week’s post, I mentioned that the difference between formal and informal styles is mainly in the vocabulary used and the way sentences are constructed.
Formal language is less personal and less direct than informal language. It is used when writing for professional or academic purposes like business letters, job applications, complaints or university essays. Formal tone establishes a distance between the writer and the reader, which makes the writer seem more polite and/or professional. Specific conventions are used to politely and respectfully convey a writer’s displeasure or complaint or any other strong emotion.
Formal tone is conveyed through
- Sentence structure
Vocabulary – An interesting feature of English is that there are formal, neutral and informal versions of words, for example:
Informal: to start up/start off; to quit
Neutral: to begin; to end
Formal: to commence; to terminate
In formal letters, you should always use, at the very least, the neutral version. You are likely to score high if you can correctly and appropriately use the formal version. You should definitely not use idioms or slang (known as colloquialisms) or words that over-exaggerate strong emotion, like using ‘awesome’ when you really only mean ‘good’.
Phrasal verbs are an example of informal vocabulary and should be avoided at all costs in formal writing. Always use a one word verb, as in the example above, rather than a phrasal verb.
Grammar – there are certain grammatical features of formal language, which include:
- Use of the Passive Tense – in formal language, there is less focus on the agent of the action (who did it) and more emphasis on the object and action itself. For example, instead of writing We got your letter on the 4th January, in a formal letter this would be expressed as Your letter was received on the 4th January.
- Modals – formal language uses could and would instead of can and will
Sentence structure, also known as syntax, is the way that phrases and clauses are used to form simple and complex sentences. In general, the sentence structure in informal sentences is longer and more complex, with the intention of creating a respectful distance between the writer and the reader. A specific feature of formal letters is the use of indirect questions. It is considered rude to ask a question directly to someone you don’t know or who has a position of authority. Instead, it is possible to make a request in an indirect way, which still conveys clearly to the reader that it is a question but just sounds more respectful.
Will you get the TV fixed as soon as possible? (informal)
I do hope it will be possible for the television to be repaired as a matter of urgency. (formal)
Punctuation in formal letters should not include contractions, for example, ‘you’re, I’d, haven’t’, etc. You should always use the long forms. Instead of using exclamation marks to emphasise your point, you express yourself with an appropriate choice of strong words and phrases. Since you will use more complex sentences, you should use commas to separate the clauses.
Conventions, in the context of letters, are set phrases used for beginning and ending letters. They are different depending on whether it is a formal or informal letter. Formal letters start with “Dear Sir/Madam” if you don’t know the name of the person you are writing to, or alternatively “Mr/Mrs/Ms/title + surname” if you do. They end with either “Yours faithfully, <full name>” if you don’t know the name of the reader or “Yours sincerely, < full name> if you do.
Look at the example task below:
You recently stayed in a hotel in a large city. The weather was very unusual for the time of year and the heating / cooling system in the hotel was quite inadequate.
Write a letter to the manager of the hotel. In your letter:
- give details of what went wrong
- explain what you had to do to overcome the problem at the time
- say what action you would like the manager to take
Now read the model response:
I am writing about an issue we experienced while staying at your hotel recently and to express my dissatisfaction with the way the situation was handled.
As you will remember, in the first week of March this year, Saigon experienced an unprecedented heatwave. Throughout this time, the air conditioning system in Room 101 in which my elderly parents were staying did not function properly and therefore the cooling of the room was completely inadequate. Despite reporting this to both the reception staff and maintenance workers on a daily basis, the problem was not rectified for 5 days.
Due to the fact that my parents are so frail, it was necessary to check out of your hotel prematurely in order to seek accommodation elsewhere, for the sake of their health. The situation was very stressful and caused us all great inconvenience, spoiling the first week of our holiday.
I strongly urge you to investigate the failure of your staff to resolve the situation promptly. It would appear from reviews on the internet that air conditioning problems are a recurring issue at your hotel and negatively affecting your ratings. My parents would also appreciate a letter of apology.
Features of the letter that make it formal:
Beginning: Dear Sir
Opening line: I am writing about an issue…
Stating the purpose: …to express my dissatisfaction with the way the situation was handled
Formal choice of language:
Formal verbs: to express; function; rectified; to seek; urge; to investigate; to resolve
Formal vocabulary: issue; situation; experienced; unprecedented; inadequate; prematurely; a recurring issue; negatively affecting
Complex sentence structure: in which my elderly parents were staying; the cooling of the room; despite reporting this…;
Grammar: the situation was handled (passive); the problem was not rectified (passive);
Formal letter conventions: to express my dissatisfaction; as you will remember; and therefore; due to the fact that; it was necessary to; caused us great inconvenience; I strongly urge you to; the failure of your staff to; to resolve the situation promptly; it would appear that…; would appreciate
Ending: Yours Faithfully, Andrew Porter
Do’s and don’ts for informal letters in the IELTS exam:
- Don’t use colloquial words/expressions like kids; guy; awesome. Do use the original alternative, for example, children; man; wonderful.
- Don’t use contractions. Do write the words in full.
- Don’t use the active voice. Do use the passive voice.
We received your letter on… (informal)
Your letter was received on… (formal)
- Don’t use informal exaggerations or clichés. Do be precise.
There were loads of problems… (informal)
There were several issues… (formal)
- Don’t use abbreviated words, eg. photo, TV. Do use the full versions, eg. photograph, television.
- Don’t use imperatives. Do use less direct alternatives.
Read the paragraph where it says ‘Delivery by the 4th…’ (informal)
Please refer to the paragraph where it is written that delivery will be… (formal)
- Don’t use direct questions, eg. Can you deliver by the 4th…? Do use indirect questions, eg. I wonder if it would be possible to deliver by the 4th.
Finally, one of the main differences between a formal and an informal letter is how you express emotion. In an informal letter, you can discuss the issue in a personal way and emphasise how it made you feel. In a formal letter, you should instead state your points confidently but respectfully and you should back up your claims or argument with evidence and examples. You must not risk offending the person receiving your letter.