Formal vs. informal emails in English

So, now that we’ve broken down how to write formal and informal emails let’s take a look at some of the major differences between the two and some of the mistakes you should avoid.

Ask: Who is the reader?

Let the reader help you write the email.

If you need to ask for a favor or set up a meeting, it’s okay if you get to the point pretty quickly.

But if, for example, you’re pitching an idea to someone new or trying to make a new network connection, it’s okay to take a little more time to make a personal connection first so that they feel they can trust you and get to know your personality a little. Then present your ideas, and ask for them to take some kind of action.

The truth is that many of the emails you write in English mix the formal and the informal. 

With an informal email, rambling and talking about how things are going is okay! 

But with a formal email: Stick to the point as much as you can.

Grammar

In a formal English email, you should avoid:

The last bullet point sounds obvious, of course, but grammatical errors in a formal email can make you look like you didn’t put enough time or attention into your writing.

Figure out which grammar structures or tenses that you struggle with, and practice them. Here are some grammar structures you might be struggling with:

Take a screenshot of this list if you need to, and take your time to work through each of these structures and practice with them in your writing and emails.

And, if you’re in doubt, use a correction software like Grammarly to help you double-check your emails.

Content

I’m sure you’ve seen the viral meme with a man holding a sign that says, “That meeting could have been an email.”

But, the reverse can be true, too. So, make sure that your English email doesn’t need to be a meeting.

Keep it concise and direct. You want to make sure that everything in your email belongs there.

You should avoid:

  • stories or anecdotes

  • jokes

  • inspirational quotes, unless they’re essential

  • long, unbroken paragraphs of more than three lines.

If you’re writing a follow-up email after a meeting, break your content into small paragraphs, or use numbers or bullets to make your content more digestible.

Tone

Formal does not mean cold. It’s okay to be warm and friendly. 

Here are some things to avoid:

  • emojis or emoticons

  • jokes, slang, or idioms you’re not very familiar with

  • Words like “gonna” or “wanna.”

  • too many (or any) exclamation points

But it would be best if you were warm and friendly. But it doesn’t mean that you should be overly polite or apologetic, as in,

In fact, directness is much more effective if you want to get things done. Take it from me, someone who apologizes too much.

If your tone is too apologetic, and if you don’t make it clear that you want someone to do something, they may not do it. They may think you are only making a suggestion instead of asking for them to do something.

Take a look at the examples below to see what I mean. The first sentences are a little too polite and indirect:

  • I have attached a contract below.

  • Please read and sign the contract before sending it back to me.

  • When are you available for a meeting?

  • Let me know when you’re available to meet.

  • It might be good if you reached out to Barbara.

  • Can you please reach out to Barbara?

If that still feels too direct to you, you can always soften it a bit with:

  • If you let me know when you can meet, I’d appreciate it.

  • If you wouldn’t mind reaching out to Barbara, that would be great.

We’re still asking for them to do something, but we’re using some indirect language. 

Trust your judgment on this. If you’re writing to someone you don’t know, or if you’re writing to someone who prefers a more indirect style, it’s okay to write that way. But it’s also perfectly fine to be fairly direct. 



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