Writing E-Mail: Where to Draw the Line Between Formal and Informal

A YouTube viewer recently asked for materials on writing business e-mail. I’ll likely go the direction of mixing media. A combination of short videos, screencasts, and interactive quizzes should be effective.

Before I start creating my materials, I have to answer a few nagging questions concerning formality. The rules of writing e-mail are not clear. At best, we can offer guidelines and examples to students. Some say e-mail is by nature less formal than traditional business letters. However, I get taken aback when business e-mail is sent to me in an overly familiar tone. Am I alone? I realize that being too formal can also sound awkward, but I think writing is not all that different from choosing what to wear. I was taught that it’s better to be overdressed than underdressed. I think showing up in a dress shirt and tie at a casual party is not as bad as arriving at a wedding in a t-shirt and torn jeans. Do you see my line of thinking?

I’m starting to develop a list of guidelines. Please feel free to make suggestions and additions.

6 Basic Guidelines for Writing Business Email

  • Use Hello John, or Dear John, as a greeting. “Dear” is usually considered more formal but appropriate for someone you must show respect to: a client, a job interviewer, etc.
  • Use Hi John, for a close coworker.
  • Try to find out the first name of the person you can address your message to. If you’re unable to, you may simply use Hello. Use the appropriate titles for doctors, ministers, and other professionals with unique titles: Dear Dr. Wilson, or Hello Reverend Corbin.  Use Dear Sir or Madam only for very formal correspondence and when you don’t know who exactly the recipient will be.
  • Abbreviations and contractions are generally acceptable in business e-mail. However, it’s best to match the language of the person you are corresponding with. In all correspondence, avoid non-standard grammar, such as gonna and shoulda.
  • Observe correct punctuation, but don’t indent paragraphs. Skipping a line between paragraphs is enough.
  • Sign off with standard closings. More formal: Sincerely, Respectfully. Still formal, but with good wishes: Best regards, Best wishes. For close coworkers or colleagues: Best, Take care.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Samiullah Pashadwal says:

    Excellent notes!!!!!!

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