In international environments—academic or business—professional correspondence in English is the norm. Look out for common mistakes, avoid ambiguity, and stick to proven frameworks.
I will outline common mistakes, Dos and Don’ts, and practical advice on how to write to your instructor or a business contact.
- In all your professional correspondence:
- be a bit formal without being too “cold”
- get to the point, state the writing objectives clearly
- pay attention to the beginning of the correspondence. This is where you get your reader’s attention
- pay attention to the end of your correspondence. This is where you request specific action(s)
Remember that other cultures may have different communication styles. When sending letters or emails abroad, consult a knowledgeable person to make sure that you do not offend your reader.
Always proofread your correspondence before it is sent. Mistakes in grammar, punctuation and, especially, in spelling can make you (and your organization) look careless, unskilled, uneducated, lazy, uninterested, or simply unprofessional.
There are four parts that a professional email should contain:
- Subject line
- Adhere to email protocols: explicitly indicate copying, forwarding, quoting, replying, using attachments, etc.
- Always include previous email correspondence when replying or commenting
- Be concise but not abrupt
- Remember that an email is never private
- Try never to argue, reprimand, or complain by email. Do not send emails when emotional (e.g. in anger)
- Consider who you include in your email answer, does everyone need to be involved or are you answering someone directly
- Do not use
- capitalization (e.g. “READ THIS”)
- slang (e.g. “I wanna…”)
- abbreviations (e.g. “don’t”, “it’s”, “I’d”, etc.)
- emoticons (e.g. ;-D or 😉)
- bolding or italics
Do not use:
I’ve / don’t / can’t
I am going to
is not / are not
I have / do not / can not (cannot)
Never leave it open—people are busy and they want to know at a glance what the email is regarding. It should be specific and informative.
Think of two or three keywords that describe the content of the email or what you hope to communicate.
Question regarding X (ABC class)
Request for a meeting (ABC class)
Absence (ABC class)
Inquiry regarding internship
Meeting Schedule (XYZ project)
The salutation should be appropriate to the professional role.
Hi Prof. John
Dear Professor Smith
Unless encouraged by the person you address, err on the side of politeness. Once you established an email correspondence, you can adjust your salutation.
- Use short paragraphs (text from screens is twice or four times harder to read than printed text)
- Put white space around paragraphs
- Use an easy-to-read font in 12 points (no fancy and/or exotic fonts! Do not use color – leave all the text black)
- Include your full name, title, and contact information at the end
- Avoid adding non-pertinent information such as pictures, quotes, or unnecessary disclaimers, etc.
Take into consideration, that formal letters go out of your organization and get read “outside,” which will affect the image of your organization.
- Usually, letters use this conventional formatting:
- Heading: your complete address (but not your name) and the date. Spell out words (e.g. Street, not st.)
- Inside address: name and address of the person to whom you are writing.
Use title and position
- Subject line: e.g. “Re: Request for proposal”.
Include project numbers when necessary
- Salutation: e.g. “Dear Mr. Smith:”
- Body of letter:
- in first paragraph, state your reason for writing;
- in the second paragraph, detail your ideas;
- in the third paragraph, transition to other ideas or conclude by requesting action
- your name and job title with a space above for you to sign the letter
- Enclosure notations:
- if you enclosed something, write “enclosure” at the page’s bottom
- Distribution list:
- (below “enclosure”) list the people who should receive this letter
Letters are always single spaced. The only exception is when the letter carries a lengthy report. In that case, make it double-spaced to facilitate the reading
- The font size must be 12 or 10 points
- For letters with more than one page, use page numbers
- If the letter is very short, center the body of the letter on the page
Formal Letter: Example
176 Lafayette Court
177 Baton Rouge, Louisiana 70810
September 2, 2002
Mr. Anthony Fazio
Capra Con sultants, Incorporated
9223 Taft Street
Grand Rapids, Michigan 49507
Subject: Request for proposal
Dear Mr. Fazio:
We invite you to submit a proposal for the design and implementation of an inventory control system.
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The enclosed documents describe our current inventory system. If you are interested in submitting a proposal, please call so that I can send you further information. I can be reached at 571- 555-1212.
Cc: T.L. Klein