In the General Training module, Writing task 1 requires you to write a letter of at least 150 words. The task consists of a scenario and three points that you must cover in your letter. For example:
|You are working for a company. You need to take some time off work and want to ask your manager about this.
Write a letter to your manager. In your letter
· Explain why you want to take time off work
· Give details of the amount of time you need
· Suggest how your work could be covered while you are away
There are three forms for letters – formal, semi-formal and informal/personal – and it is crucial that you respond to the task using the appropriate form.
What is meant by formal, semi-formal and informal/personal?
The key factor here is tone. Tone is conveyed through your choice of vocabulary, grammar and conventions (eg. sentence formation).
We use different language and expressions, and therefore use a different tone, when we talk to our friends (our equals) as we do when we talk to our boss or principal (a status that is superior to ours). We also tend to be more distant and polite with people we don’t know, or from whom we require something.
It is important to adjust the tone of your writing depending on who you are writing to and your reason for writing.
Below is a list of the different types of letter you may be asked to write.
- An invitation
- A request (for action, information)
- An explanation
- An apology
- A complaint
- An application
- A resignation
- To make arrangements
- To provide information
The type of letter does not necessarily dictate whether it should be formal or informal. Most types can be either. For example:
An invitation to a friend to a party or to go on holiday would be informal whereas an invitation to an expert to visit your school to give a lecture would be formal.
A request for your friend to do you a favour would be informal while a request for information from the university you are applying to would be formal.
An explanation or apology for missing a friend’s birthday party would be informal but an explanation or apology to a client for cancelling an appointment would be formal.
A complaint, an application and a resignation are always formal because they require a great degree of politeness.
A letter making arrangements and giving information can be either formal or informal depending on the person being written to and the type of arrangements and/or information.
How can you tell what tone you should use in your letter?
It will be clear from the instructions. First, you must identify who you are writing to. Then you must identify the reason for writing the letter. Compare the three examples below:
1) A friend has agreed to look after your house and pet while you are on holiday.
Write a letter to your friend. In your letter
- give contact details for when you are away
- give instructions about how to care for your pet
- describe other household duties
In this example, you are writing to your friend. It is clear that you know them well enough to ask them a favour and that you trust them with access to your home and the care of your pet. Therefore, you would use an informal tone.
2) Your neighbours have recently written to you to complain about the noise from your house flat.
Write a letter to your neighbours. In your letter
- explain the reasons for the noise
- apologise for the noise
- describe what action you will take.
In this example, you are writing to your neighbours. Obviously, being neighbours, they are not complete strangers to you so you do not need to use a formal tone. However, you can assume that you do not know them quite so well, since they have written to you to complain rather than having a face to face conversation with you about the noise issue, as a friend would. Also, you owe them an apology. For these reasons, you would use a semi-formal tone.
3) You live in a room in college which you share with another student. However, there are many problems with this arrangement and you find it very difficult to work.
Write a letter to the accommodation officer at the college. In the letter,
- describe the situation
- explain your problems and why it is difficult to work
- say what kind of accommodation you would prefer
In this example, you are writing to someone you don’t know and who has a position of authority within the university. You are also making a request of this person and therefore need to be most polite. Therefore, you should use a formal tone.
A general rule-of-thumb is, if the instructions mention a friend or social arrangements, it is likely to be an informal letter. In contrast, most letters that are transactional in nature, ie. making a request or making a complaint, are usually (but not always) formal, as are letters that relate to work or study. However, this is not a hard and fast rule. Consider how well you know the person to whom you are writing. The less-well you know them, the more formal your tone should be.
Next week, we will look in more depth at the kind of language needed to convey these three tones, with examples of vocabulary, grammar and other conventions.