There are many ways to write a business email or professional-style message in English, and many reasons why you may need to write one.
In some cases, you may not need to worry too much about the style or format of your email, because these aspects of writing in English have become more informal since the invention of the Internet.
In other cases, it can be important and very helpful to write in a formal style. For example:
- You are writing a message to a person you have never met or talked to.
- You need this person (who works perhaps at a government agency or a big company) to do something for you (like send you some information).
- You want something that many people may also be competing for (like a job).
In these cases, a formal email can show the reader that you are a professional, and avoid creating a bad first impression.
Before reviewing the common features and phrases of formal style, however, it is helpful to start with a clear example of what it looks like.
Example of a Formal Email
Below is an example of a cover letter, which is typically sent with a CV (or résumé, as it is commonly called in the US).
Dear Ms. Smith,
I was delighted to read your recent post on Facebook for someone to care for your children this summer.
The job sounds well-suited to my skills and experience, so I hope that you will consider me among your candidates for the position.
In my attached CV, you will see that:
- I have extensive experience working with young children like yours, including most recently a six-year-old boy with asthma and a ten-year-old girl with cerebral palsy.
- I possess a variety of skills that are useful when entertaining children, e.g. painting with watercolors, playing guitar, and swimming.
- Last year I completed a course in First Aid from the National Safety Council, which includes CPR training and sports injury prevention.
If you think I may be suitable for the position, I would love the opportunity to speak with you further by video chat.
I am also happy to provide you with the contact information of families I have worked for in the past, who can attest to my patience, reliability, and professionalism as an au pair.
Thank you in advance for your consideration.
I look forward to hearing from you!
Features of the Professional Format
Notice what is included in (and absent from) the beginning of this email.
The writer does not include the reader’s first name or any ‘small talk’ at the start (Dear Ms. Smith, I hope you are well…) which is common in a semi-formal business style (common when writing to colleagues, professors, and other people you have met before).
Instead, the writer gets down to businessget down to business: to start talking about the main subject in a discussion or presentation and explains the reason why she is writing. After one sentence, the reader already understands why Jane Doe has sent her this email.
Notice also that the writer does not make a mistake that is very common in cover letters and job application emails: focusing on her own goals and wishes.
She does not write, for example: I would like the job because I need money and I want to travel and I like children.... These details are not relevant to Mary Smith, whose goal is to find someone to care for her children this summer. If Ms. Smith is on the fencebe on the fence (about something): to be unable to choose or decide about something about Jane, these details will not help her make a decision.
When Ms. Smith reads the résumé, she will look for reasons why Jane is a good (or bad) candidate as quickly as possible. (She posted her message on Facebook, so she could have received dozens or hundreds of messages.)
In her cover letter, Jane has already started to create the list of Reasons Why Jane Is a Good Candidate. Instead of telling Mary that Jane is helpful, she is showing her helpfulness to Jane through her writing style.
(In the same way, Jane shows that she is professional by making sure her grammar and spelling are correct.)
Lastly, notice the phrases that Jane uses to express her strong interest for the job: I was delighted… I hope you will consider me… I would love the opportunity… I look forward to hearing from you…
Common Phrases in Formal Emails
Below are a few more useful phrases you can use in professional emails:
- Dear Sir or Madam. In situations where you don’t know the name of the person you are writing to, it’s OK to use this phrase to begin your email or letter. It’s more polite than To whom it may concern (which sounds cold, and is used only when you want to deliver some information – not when you want someone to help you or give you something, like a job).
- I hope this email finds you well. This phrase can sometimes be good to add as the first sentence of a formal email. It is a warm but generic phrase, like Good morning (which is rarely used in emails and letters, because you don’t know when the reader will read your message). Another warm (and slightly more informal) phrase is I hope you are doing well.
- Your name was given to me by your colleague, Susan Queue. In some cases (such as when you are trying to get a job), it is helpful to include the name of a person your reader already knows. If Mary Smith receives 100 emails but one of the emails is from someone who knows one of Mary’s friends or colleagues, then this person will jump to the top of the list, above the 99 other people.
- I am writing to inquire about your Facebook post, dated January 31. Perhaps the topic of your email is not something that you ‘delighted’ or happy about. In such situations, you can use this cold phrase to start your email, or other neutral phrases like I am writing with regard to or I am writing in reference to.
- With regard to my schedule this summer, I can begin June 1. The phrase with regard to can be used when you want to introduce a subtopic that is related to the main topic. You can also use regarding or concerning: I am curious to know more regarding travel costs… / You can find more information in my CV concerning my first aid training. These words are similar to the word about , but sound more formal and professional.
- Kind regards. This is another common phrase (which is an old phrase meaning ‘with positive feelings toward you’) to end a formal email. You can also use the word Sincerely (which means ‘with honesty’). However, other phrases like Cheers / Best wishes / Yours truly are not commonly used in formal emails because they usually sound too informal or intimate.
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