Number one for English language teachers

Loud and clear

Type: Article

Mark Powell sounds a note of caution for email correspondence.

Let’s face it, email is an accident. It’s as if a business letter went on a blind date with a private phone call, drank a little too much, one thing led to another and… Yes, well, you get the picture.

Unsurprisingly, then, as the offspring of this romantic entanglement, email is half documentation, half conversation. So before you click ‘send’, you’d better read it aloud.

For email is not about keyboard skills. True, if you meant to write, ‘Hello Jim, are those figures ready yet?’ but in your haste missed the ‘o’ off hello, you may be in the soup with Jim. But what really matters is how you sound, not how you spell. Never mind the typos, get the tone right.

So, before you go rattling off your next email, ask yourself: does this sound:

Too familiar? ‘Dear’ is always safe, ‘Hi’ a little chummier, ‘Hiya’ a bit too jaunty and ‘Yo!’ completely off the map. ‘Well done’ – yes. ‘Way to go!’ – no. ‘How’s it going?’ – fine. ‘How’s it hanging?’ – well, you don’t need me to explain. Aim for a register e-writing guru Dianna Booher calls ‘business casual’.

Too stuffy? As well as killing off the usual suspects – longwinded noun phrases (bores) and passives (cowards) – also steer clear of discourse markers of more than two syllables – ‘Plus’ rather than ‘Moreover’.

Too nice? Politeness (depending on how you say it) can sound like sarcasm. So skip the likes of ‘Would you mind’, ‘Thank you so much’, ‘If it’s not too much trouble’, ‘Excuse me for asking’ and ‘Please explain’. ‘Please’ in particular is a devious little word. We’re taught to use it liberally, but in print it always sounds snooty.

Think of email as another kind of voicemail and all you have to do is find the right voice.

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Readers' comments (4)

  • I thought that I've been doing it right all along. I thought that being polite was good in email writing but I guess in a business letter it isn't the case. Thank you for this article. I have to re-learn writing emails now.

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  • Hello Tanya Bale,

    Thank you for you comment, we are pleased with have offered you some insight into this matter.

    Best wishes and happy teaching,

    The onestopenglish team

  • Jeez! I thought I was doing it right/ and now it seems I'm too polite.

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  • A well done article with some good examples for Business students. Thank you.

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  • Great article; but teaching non native speakers to be 'casual' is a challenge!
    standard phrases are easier because the audience is not always a native speaker.

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