What Your Students Need To Know About Emailing

Alex Case
Things you need to cover to really teach the vital skill of emailing in English.

There is so much that you could teach about emailing that it is well worth doing a (formal or informal) needs analysis first. Things to find out about the students’ present and future emailing needs include:

  • Who they are writing to (nationality, position, supplier or client, etc)
  • Typical topics (e.g. products, the markets, leisure activities)
  • Typical functions (e.g. complaining, responding to complaints, applying for jobs, asking for and giving information, apologising, reminding, and making arrangements)
  • Most useful levels of formality

They are likely to need a range of all the above, especially an understanding of a few different levels of formality. This could include typical sentence stems for each level of formality, e.g. the two extremes of “If you need any further information, please do not hesitate to contact me” and “Any questions, just drop me a line”, plus a few in between. All students will need a range of formalities of typical first and last lines of the emails, plus the bits that become before and after those (e.g. from “Dear Sir or Madam” to “Hi” and from “Yours faithfully” to “CU”). The functional language mentioned above (asking for information etc) will also vary depending on the level of formality.

It is also possible to make generalisations about formal and informal language. Someone writing in formal language tends to:

  • Avoid contractions (I’m, we’ve etc)
  • Use longer words (e.g. ones including suffixes like re-deploy-ment) and sentences
  • Use language which is unlike normal spoken English (e.g. “Please find… attached”)
  • Totally avoid exclamation marks
  • Not start sentences with “and” and “but”

Informal and very informal emails might include some of:

  • Sentences with no subject and auxiliary verb (e.g. “Going to the meeting?”)
  • Phrasal verbs and other idioms
  • Friendly social language (e.g. “How’s it going?”)
  • Abbreviations (e.g. btw for “by the way”)
  • Emoticons

Students will also need to know how to choose the right level of formality. The best tip is to tell them to copy the emails that they receive. For example, someone signing their email with just their first name is usually a sign that your next email back should start with “Dear Alex” rather than “Dear Mr Case”.

Two things that make choosing the right level of formality difficult are that even very friendly business emails vary from ones to your friends and family (e.g. “Lots of love” is only for the latter) and that there is also a class of very short but rather unfriendly business email, like this:

Here’s the info you asked for. Can you have a look and get back to me asap?

There are also memos (short for “memorandum”), which are internal emails sent to a group of people telling them things like new company policies. They tend to include things like “To:” in the salutation and “Thank you for your cooperation” to end, both which are rare in other kinds of emails but over-used by students.

Levels of formality and typical emailing phrases are things above are usually covered fairly well in textbooks and books on emailing. Something they often forget is that there is also quite a lot of vocabulary that is specific to or useful for emailing or talking about emails, e.g. CC, BCC, forward and re. It is therefore possible to start the topic of email with individual words.

Students also have often have problems with the opposite, which is putting their ideas into paragraphs, sometimes thinking that it isn’t important in an email. Just as in an essay, a paragraph is one topic and a new paragraph means switching to a new topic. You can also teach typical paragraph structures for typical emails, e.g. apology + reason + promise future action for responding to complaints and why I want the job + why I am the best person for the job for job applications.

A related point is punctuation. In emails paragraphs are almost always divided by a blank line, with no indent, but there is still so influence of letters in the use of some people of no blank line with an indent for a new paragraph. The same is true about commas at the beginning and end, with “Dear Mr Jones” being much more common than the traditional “Dear Mr Jones,” version that is still common in letters. Generally, students should use commas both there and in “Yours sincerely,” or avoid them both.

Other general differences between emails and letters that might be worth pointing out include:

  • Yours/ Best regards are common in even formal emails, whereas that level of letter would generally still use “Sincerely yours”, “Yours sincerely” or “Yours faithfully”.
  • “Attached” for emails but “enclosed” for letters
  • Formal letters are signed off with initials, family name and title in brackets, e.g. A. M. Case (Mr). This is rare in emails.

There are also other phrases that are okay but rare in emails, including “Dear Sir” (considered a bit old-fashioned and maybe sexist), “To whom it may in concern” (only usually used in legal documents and open job references, and not the same as “Dear Sir or Madam”) and Hello + given name (rarely the right level of formality, with Hi or Dear + given name almost always being better). Students sometimes over-use these due to out of date self-study materials or translation from L1.

Cultural differences in emailing are many and include starting each sentence on a new line, much less clear paragraphing in most languages, and students starting every email with “Dear John. Hi” or “Dear John. This is Kyung-Mi”. There are also quite a few differences between British and American emails, for example:

  • Mr, Mrs etc need to be Mr. Mrs. etc in American English (this would be wrong in British English)
  • American English is much stricter about similar things like etc. rather than etc
  • In American English “Best regards” is (according to some) the same level of formality as “Sincerely yours” or “Sincerely”, whereas it is a bit more informal than “Yours sincerely” in British English. Also note the differences in the phrases with “sincerely”
  • Informal British emails often finish with “Cheers”
  • Americans sometimes use a colon after the salutation, e.g. “Dear Sir:”
Written by Alex Case for EnglishClub
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic blog.