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Liz Bangs Jones

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These days, when so much communication takes place by email and phone,
some might question the need to test letter-writing skills in an examination, and
indeed, Anglia will keep this under review. For now and the foreseeable future
however, there are good reasons why the letter-writing element of the exams is
still valuable.

Firstly, writing is not just writing; it comes in various forms and for various
purposes. At these two levels we expect the candidates to show that they have
enough written language to vary not only what they write about and but also how
they write about it.

Secondly, it is a requirement of the CEFR that at the higher levels, candidates
are able to distinguish between formal and informal language and discourse.
Letter writing is an obvious context in which to make that distinction.

Thirdly, letters are still widely used and are also still widely seen by the people who
receive them as a strong indicator of a senders level of literacy and competence in
the language they are using. Letter-writing is, in other words, still a very valuable
skill to acquire.

Formal and informal letters: whats the difference?

The basic difference between a formal and informal letter is that you write an
informal letter to someone you either know personally or might want to get to know
personally and you write a formal letter to someone you dont know personally or,
for the purposes of the letter at least, wont ever need to know personally.

Within this broad definition, it is important to say that there is no black and white
distinction between formal and informal. The table on the next page shows how
different recipients may require more or less formal letters on a scale rather than a
strict division, with (1), (2) and (3) being generally informal and (4), (5) and (6)
being generally formal. It also shows that the decision about the level of formality
required is partly in the candidates hands and not only in the formulation of the
task. For example, if the task says Write a letter to a friend.. the candidate must
supply a convincing letter which indicates how close the friend is. If the task says
write a letter thanking an aunt or uncle for a gift, the candidate must decide
whether this is a formal letter to a much older aunt or uncle who live in England
and whom theyve never seen, or a relative they know very well who lives nearby.
The purpose of the letter may also dictate the formality of the language used. For
example, where would a neighbour fit into this scale? If you were inviting

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him/her/them to a party or to dinner in a quick note, the neighbours would probably
be at (2). If you were complaining about something they had done which was
unacceptable, they would probably be at (5) or even (6). Note also that writing a
letter to a newspaper or magazine is probably not going to need as formal a letter
as writing a letter of application, for example. The purpose of the letter also
changes its language in more ways than just formal/informal. A letter of complaint
about the condition of a local swimming pool may be a campaigning letter if written
to a newspaper, but a business letter if written to the manager of the pool itself.

Letters to:

informal (1)




Very formal
girlfriend etc
Pen-friend Grand-
Teacher Newspaper
Best friend New friend Relatives
you hardly
ever see
Club leader Information
bank, manager
of a business

Structure in formal and informal letters.

Letters, whether formal or informal, need planning and organisation. The
examiners expect to see a suitable opening paragraph, middle paragraph(s), and
appropriate closing lines. Even informal letters have certain conventions about how
to start and end the letter:
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Informal letters (1) - (3) Formal letters (4) (6)
Enquire about the recipients health
and well-being How are you?
Straightaway do what youre writing
for e.g.
-Thank you for
-Congratulations on
Say why you are writing

Im writing to request/enquire

Reference to any previous
correspondence or relevant facts
Provide substance and detail of the
Provide substance and detail of the
Make general statement of your
feelings, hope or expectation
Give an excuse for ending the letter
e.g. Got to go now Dads waiting
to take me to the dentist
Make general statement e.g. about
what you expect the outcome of the
letter to be.
Pre-closing e.g.
Take care,
Write back soon,
See you soon,
Use set expression e.g. I look
forward to hearing from you soon.

Addresses, Greetings and Salutations in formal and informal letters

In Anglia examinations, candidates are expected to set letters out correctly. This
doesnt mean that at Anglia we have house rules about this. There are several
different ways to do this and any consistent way is acceptable.

Here are three diagrams illustrating the accepted British English way of setting out
letters. Even in Britain, this can vary according to the house style of the company
involved, for example, and conventions such as these may well be subject to
different cultural norms.

Formal letter:
A) Is an example of block layout: no commas, no indentation.
B) Is an example of indented layout : this layout has commas and indentation

In either case, if you use Sir or Madam, close with Yours faithfully.
If you use a name, such Mrs J ones, or Mr Smith, close with Yours sincerely

The date may be written 12 June 2006 (this has recently become the most used
version) or 12
June 2006, not the 12
of June 2006 and preferably not
12 06 06 because as different countries have different ways of doing this it leads to
confusion over which is the day and which the month.

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Senders address
Next line
Next line
Next line
Addressees name
Addressees address
Next line
Next line
Full date: e.g.
30 J une 2006
Dear Sir/Madam
Yours faithfully
Name printed legibly
Paragraph one (give the reason for writing)
Paragraph two
Paragraph three
I look forward to hearing from you soon.
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Senders address,
Next line,
Next line,
Next line.

Addressees name
Addressees address,
Next line,
Next line.
Full date
Dear Mrs J ones,
Indent first line of paragraph (give the reason for writing)

Indent first line of paragraph

Indent first line of paragraph

I look forward to your reply.
Yours sincerely,
Print name
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Informal Letters

Senders address
Block or indented

Full date
Dear first name (,)
Block or indented paragraphs (enquire about the recipient)
Love from
First name

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Language in very formal letters.

In very formal letters, the candidate should

make use of set formal expressions (see below)
not use contractions
not use idiomatic expressions or colloquialisms
use indirect rather than direct questions
express ideas in clear, polite language
use the most academic vocabulary he or she knows (usually words of Latin,
Romance or Greek origin)
have a good, organised paragraph structure even for short letters.

Here is a range of formal expressions for letters. This is not an exhaustive list,
but an indication of the kind of language expected in very formal letters.

Opening I am writing to request, complain, thank etc
Request for
I would be very grateful if you would/could .
Apology I feel I must apologise for
I owe you a full apology for
Please accept my apologies for
I apologise for any inconvenience I may have caused.
Thanks Thank you for
I am extremely grateful for
I feel I must thank you for
Would it be possible for you to
Would it be convenient for you to
May I make a suggestion?
Pre-closing If you would like any further information, please do not hesitate
to contact me.
If I can be of any further assistance, please do not hesitate to
contact me.
Thank you for your attention in this matter.
I hope this information has been of some help.
With best wishes
With very best wishes
Closing I look forward to hearing from you.
I look forward to your reply.

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Language in informal letters.

In informal letters, the candidate can

use contractions
sometimes miss out the I subject e.g. Sorry havent written before or Dont
know where the time goes or Must stop now, the dinners burning.
use idiomatic expressions or colloquialisms
show off any current slang he or she may have picked up (its really cool!)
ask direct questions, use exclamation marks, use checking tags (isnt it? ) etc
write as if he or she is talking

However, this is an examination and the candidate should also
have a good, organised paragraph structure even for short letters.
show a good range of vocabulary, such as phrasal verbs, which are often
considered in English to be less academic or formal

There are many openings and closings possible in informal letters, depending on
the closeness of the relationship between the writer and recipient:

Dear Harry
Dearest Harry
My dear Harry
My darling Harry
Hi Harry! (often used in emails now)

Love from Liz
Love, Liz
With love from Liz
Lots of love from Liz
Best wishes, Liz
All the best, Liz
See you soon, Liz

Language in letters which are neither very formal nor very informal

One of the most common forms of semi-formal letters is the campaigning letter,
where a student is asked to write a letter to a magazine or newspaper
complaining about something. In a letter such as this, elements of both formal
and informal language may be appropriate and the best letter writers will be able
to adjust to this. For example, the letter may be set out as a formal letter but
instead of being completely low-key and polite all the way through may make use
of rhetorical questions and angry exclamations to get the points across.