Teach and Learn English

Formal and Semi-formal Emails - How to write an email in English? Dos & Don'ts

In majority of offices it is now an every day chore – to write emails in English, to compose them, to answer them, to deal with different problems connected with written communication in English. Today I'll try to show you a few characteristic features of formal and semi-formal emails, give a few dos and some don'ts on the topic ;)

First let's take a look at the structure of an email:


This is how you open your email, greet the recipient of your email. There are a few standard ways of greeting the recipient in a more formal way, eg.:

Dear Sir/Madam, 
(this salutation is especially used when we want to be very formal and in situations when we do not really know who the recipient is exactly, we do not know if it is a woman or a man, etc.) However, this salutation has also been criticised recenly, mainly due to the fact that we live in the era of the internet, which means that you can almost always check who your recipient is, if it's a woman or a man, what their position/title is, etc. Some people even claim to delete such emails from the start when they see Dear Sir/Madam, in the opening lines, but it is a bit of a radical approach. Instead, what is advised in such situations when we are not sure about the sex of the recipient, is to open the email in such a way:

Dear Customer Service Staff,
Dear Claims Professional,

So, we would use the job title instead, which will not be offensive in any way.

Dear (name), 
(eg.: Dear Mr Brown,)

In a more informal, semi-formal emails you could also greet the recipient by using his/her first name. It is quite common in offices when you correspond with somebody you know by name but they are not really close to you:

Dear Mark,
Dear Sue,

We often correspond not only with one person but with a whole group of recipients and then the most common salutations are probably these:

Dear Colleagues,
Greatings Colleagues,
Dear All,

The above forms are comparable with a small difference which may be important in some office situations. Namely, not all your recipients may be your colleagues and then Dear All is better. Remember also that colleagues in English doesn't mean friends. I found that for some students this word sounded a bit inappropriate in an office environment basically because of the fact that they associated it with Polish koledzy which sometimes really sounds more informal. Another thing worth remembering about colleagues is that it is, so to say, unisex. It applies equally to men as well as women. You do not have to worry about being or sounding a bit offensive then.

A salutation which is controversial these days is of course Dear Sirs, . I avoid teaching it at all, however, it turns out that many students ask about it. The problem is that it sounds and it is offensive and can be even sexist – just imagine what it sounds like when one of the recipients you address this way is a woman (!). It is definitly to be avoided these days.

If you have some more time to dig in this topic of salutations, especially the controversial ones, I recommend reading the following:



These are the few sentences you open your mail with. Basically, you need to remember to be clear about stating why you are writing. This is also the place for a reference to the email you got earlier, etc. 
Some typical or standard beginnings of sentences would be as follows:

Following our phone conversation/last meeting/etc.
With reference to your last email/your question about/our last conversation/etc.
Regarding our...
I am writing to...
I am contacting you from/to...


The main body is the essence of your text, so you write all the information here that needs to be passed to the recipient. The number of paragraphs is up to you, but remember to keep it reasonable – it is an email which is supposed to be a shorter and briefer form of writing. On the other hand, avoid building one long paragraph, which is difficult to follow and read in general.


This is the part where you write a sentence which will wrap up the text and signal the finish. Typically, we can find these sentences in formal emails:

If you (should) require/need any more information, please contact me/us.
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me/us.
I/We look forward to ... (doing business with you/meeting you soon/hearing from you soon/et.)
Thank you very much for your interest.


In this part you kind of say goodbye in a more formal way ;). Some standard phrases would be:

Best wishes,
Best regards,

In a really, really formal style you could also make use of these:

Yours sincerely,
(this is traditionally written when we know the person's name and we used it in the SALUTATION, eg.: Dear Mr Brown, then we can sign off with Yours sincerely,)
Yours faithfully,
(when we started the email with: Dear Sir/Madam,)
Yours truly,
(American English)


Nothing else than your name and surname and possibly the job title.

This is it as far as the elements of a more formal email are concerned. What is also worth remembering is that the language and syntax we use when we write in a formal style is also quite specific. However, in the age of electronic communication many style guides recommend using more semi-formal style for business communication.

What grammar/language is traditionally typical of formal style?

  • longer, more complex sentences:
With reference to our last meeting of 6th January, I would like to thank you for inviting me to give a presenation at your conference organised by Business Women's Association this March.
  • indirect questions:
I would also appreciate it if you could confirm the details of our next meeting.
We would like to know if you are still interested in collaborating with us.

*Indirect questions are questions which are not asked directly. We always start them with some kind of an opening phrase like: I would like to know if..., or Could you please tell me why..., etc. What is necessary to remember here is that you need to reverse the word order from the one typical of a question (question word + auxiliary + subject + verb) to the one typical of a statement (question word/IF + subject + verb).
  • passive voice
The cause of your complaint has been investigated.
The meeting will be conducted by Marion High.
  •  formal vocabulary and rather old-fashioned expressions:
purchase, endeavour, commence, terminate, etc...
As spoken in...
Please revert to me...
Should you require any further clarification...
Please do not hesitate to...
  • lack of contractions (short forms), abbreviations, acronyms, phrasal verbs or colloquial terms:
I am (not I'm)
We have (not We've) etc.

Let's meet 
Come around for a chat 

Just as I have mentioned before, many style guides nowadays advise against using some more formal, old-fashioned or long-winded expressions. The same goes for expressions and salutations which might be considered offensive these days.

I have already mentioned Dear Sirs, as an example of an expression which should be avoided these days. Below you have a list of some other slippery or risky expressions/language to avoid. Of course it's not everything, but at least it can give you a hint of what not to use ;)


  • Do not overuse long, complex sentences! Some style guides even talk about the KISS principle (Keep It Short and Simple)
  • Do not overuse passive voice! Use it only when necessary and also make sure that it doesn't make your text difficult to understand.
  • Avoid Kindly, Kindly be.., Herewith etc., as it is archaic. The same goes for the expressions like: Please be informed...
  • Do not write things like: Enclosed/attached please find... The reason is simple – only use please find... when you have lost something and you want your reader to find it... (Instead use: Here is; Enclosed is; Attached is; I have attached/enclosed; The attached document shows..., etc.)
  • Forget To whom it may concern! If you still remember it... ;)
  • Do not use too informal language – acronyms or abbreviations like ASAP or gr8, lol, thx might feel too informal!
  • Maybe it's obvious, but... Avoid CapsLock! and capitalising everything – it's like shouting directly to somebody's ear...

Some useful tips to remember about:

  • KISS (mentioned above)
  • be ABC (Accurate  – check facts, include details and proofread; Brief – keep it short, use simple but not simplistic language, avoid jargon if the recipients do not know it; Clear – use plain English, natural style and avoid formality or radical informality)
  • If you are not sure about the level of formality to use – if possible follow the style of the email you have received from your correspondent.
  • I found that in many big companies there is something like 'common email practice' which tells workers what style/language or phrases are used. It is not usually written, but it 'exists' in the bowels of the offices ;) Use it!
  • make your email look clear and ordered – look above at my plan for an email and remember about spacing between paragraphs!

I used some of the tips from the following sources:
Model Business Letters, E-mails & Other Business Documents Sixth Edition, Shirley Taylor, 2004
and my own teaching experience from office environment ;)

Last but not least!

Have fun!

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