Writing a Business Letter

5527 words (22 pages) Essay

8th Jun 2017 English Language Reference this

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Stylistics is a systematic and marginal subject which studies the characters of literature, innate character and its discipline. English business letter is a specific type of writing ,and it is a comprehensive subject that combines English writing and international business practice, the main function of it is transmit information. This article is going to apply the theories of stylistic to the analysis of English business letter from the view of stylistic, and analyze stylistic features in language feature, textual structure features and grammatical features, and it makes many examples to prove them respectively. From the view of linguistic characteristics, the English business correspondence has to follow “7Cs” principle; from the view of text, the standardized structure and complete outline, furthermore normative format, strong logic, clear thought, and precise structure are the characteristics of text structures; from the view of grammar, complex structure of sentence is an important syntactic characteristic of business correspondence. Furthermore, this article is to propose how to follow these features in English business letter writing as well. At last, it makes the estimated effect and research prospect of studying stylistic to integrate with business letter.

Key words:

Stylistics, English Business Correspondence, type of writing, language features, textual features, vocabulary features

Introduction of Stylistics

Stylistics is a systematic and marginal subject which studies the characters of literature, innate character and its discipline. It is a subject that falls between linguistics, art theory, esthetics and psychology, it is a subject that is in the view of linguistics to interpret the objectives of literature and writing styles as well. Actually, it has a long history in studying of linguistics at home and abroad. The study of modern western Stylistic can date back to the study of rhetoric in ancient Greece and ancient Rome. In a long period before twentieth century, the discussion about the styles of stylistics was limited in the subjective impression, and it was studied in rhetoric, literature and the analysis of grammar, so it didn’t have its own status in the area of researching. Until the beginning of twentieth century, after adapting the modern language method, the style analysis started break away from the limit of traditional analysis which based on intuition, and systemized and became scientific gradually. The European historical linguistic and normal linguistic became influential independent subjects in the beginning of twenties century, and integrating with linguistic, stylistics became a inter discipline which had independent status as well.

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Stylistics was initial known as literature criticism in China. But with the development of linguistics, people started to know the substance of stylistics, and tried to apply relevant theories to analyzing stylistics, so that it could promote the rapid development of stylistics. To the time of twenty-first century, ” Liu Shi Sheng who derived Stylistic from style, stylistics ,functional stylistics, textual stylistics and social cultural stylistics which based on Carter’s point of view, and its rationale is based on Foucouh’s point of view that the knowledge and belief of people owns the features of social symbols(Chen, 2003:4)”, it further promoted the development of Stylistic in China.

Stylistic is in the stage of development and improvement currently, yet there are different point of views about the definition of stylistic and the understanding of its meanings among literates. “Stylistic has widened meaning and narrowed meaning: the narrowed one means literary style, while the widened one means language varieties of literary style (Qin, 2001:2)”. Therefore, more and more scholars study and investigate it in the area of theories and practices widely and massively. A numbers of the scholars even apply the theories of stylistic to analyze business writing, which promote the rapid development of studying in this area.

2. An Overview of English Business Letters

In today’s highly developed and competitive society, communication between individuals and groups is becoming more and more important. And it serves to pass on information, to express ideas and to exchange their own feelings as well. Generally speaking, business letters plays an important role in various trading businesses, which is the principle means used by a business firm to keep in touch with its customers. Business letter usually is a formal written style that for external contacts, such as inter-organizations, among organizations and their clients, and it is used for business connection such as getting or conveying business information, business negotiation such as making or accepting an offer and so on.

2.1 The Definition and Classification of Business Letters

“Hutchinson &Waters and Halliday stressed that business letter belonged to the branch of professional English, it was the generic term of English Language Variety adapted by business trade members in business activities, and the use of English in business ways. Robinson used to sum up the characteristics of business English in such ways: (1) content-based; (2) goal-directed; (3) needs analysis; (4) time pressure. (Zhou, 2010:4)”

Very often, letters are a company’s only contact with a client, and through letters, the receivers form an impression of the company. In the present age of information, however, people tend to make phone calls instead of writing letters for the purpose of communication. The rapid development of telecommunication seems to have decreased the importance of letters. Nevertheless, in this age of electronic communication, the business letter not only retains its importance on account, but also is re-born in the form of e-mail and fax.

The purposes of business correspondence are building and maintaining business relationship, promoting business cooperation, maintaining good business relationship, and the expression of business correspondence will influence the economic benefit of the company.

Thus, business letters may be defined as a media or means through which views are expressed and ideas or information is communicated in the process of business activities

Business letters can be classified in such ways as follows:

First, business letters can be classified according to the content of the letter such as request letters, claim and adjustment letters, reply letters, credit and collection letters, sales letters and so on.

Second, classification can appear according to different functions in the process of a business communication. There are letters for establishment of business relations, enquiry letters, quotation letters, ordering letters, payment letters, shipment and insurance letters, claim letters, etc.

Thirdly, business letters can also be classified into personal business letters and official business letters. In personal business letters, the greeting may be formal or informal. And the body is usually intended paragraphs; the typed signature line can be omitted and the full name or the first name should be handwritten. While on the other hand, the official can be more formal in greeting and its body. And the signature is made up of a typed signature with professional or social or company name, under which the Chinese name should be typed by its Pinyin in the next line.

2.2 The Stylistic Features of Business Correspondence

As a branch of professional English, business correspondence has its own characteristics of style. Business letters are now meant for modern businesspeople, so their style should not be long-winded, old fashioned, or jargon-filled, as it was several decades ago. Business letters today should be simple, concise, concrete, and easy to understand, etc. And from the view of characteristics of style, consult letters are usually with direction, request and courtesy; business informal letters are usually tendentious, illustrative and flexible; the formal business letters are usually optional, informative, contactable and courtesy. (Zhao, 2007¼š186).

2.3 The Necessity of Using Business Letters Properly

However, we may misuse the business letters if we are lack of general knowledge of stylistics, and the consequence of misusing business letters maybe serious. So “when we observe language activity in the various contexts in which it takes place ,we find differences in the type of language selected as appropriate to different types of situation(Cheng,1988:3)”。

3. Specific Studies on Business Letters from with the Perspective of Stylistics

English business correspondence is a special type of writing, and it is a comprehensive subject to integrate English writing with international trade, we can analyze characteristics of stylistics from the views of characteristics of language, characteristics of text, and characteristics of grammar.

3.1 Language Feature of English Business Letter

Business letter is a common style used in international business activities. As it comes from and serves for kinds of business, and reflects the relative professional content, its words, syntaxes, meanings and intensions have a strong charm of business. And a business message is considered successful when (1) the receiver interprets the message as the sender intended it, and (2) it achieves the sender’s purposes. The language of it is brief and accurate, the expression is strong but moderate .And its manner of writing follows the principle of “7Cs”, which are Courtesy, Consideration, Completeness, Clarity, Conciseness, Concreteness and Correctness. They tie in closely with the basic concept of the communication process, which are significant for business letters by providing guidelines for the choice of content.

3.1.1 Courtesy

Business letter plays a decisive role in business activities, and “Courtesy is a virtue of all business documents¼ˆWang¼Œ2007¼š8¼‰”,it create so friendly atmosphere of equality that it can promote bilateral cooperation and reach an agreement. However, it is not merely politeness with mechanical insertions of “thank you” or “please”. Instead, it stems from sincere respect and friendly human concern for one another. So “in your business message, you can develop courtesy by putting yourself in your reader’s shoes(Wang¼Œ2007¼š8)”, and observing the following techniques: to be prompt, to be polite, to be on a positive tone.

Firstly, applying promptness is an important way to show courtesy in business communication. Whenever we are asked a question or receive a letter that needs our response, we should reply it within the day. If it is impossible for us to give a prompt reply in detail on the same day, we should write a short note to the customers to explain the reason. Promptness is so good manners that it prompts goodwill. In addition, it indicates efficiency because of its quick process in business letters.

Secondly, the senders should be very polite even in asking the receivers to pay back the debts or refusing their demand, and irksome expressions should to be avoided, particularly when we use with “you”:

Thirdly, Courteous letters should be written in a positive tone, which helps to create or to strength goodwill.

E.g. (1) We are sorry that you misunderstood us.

(2) We are sorry that we didn’t make ourselves clear.

The meanings that the author tries to express are basically the same in these two sentences. However, in the sentence (1), it intents to blame others; while in sentence (2), the author takes responsibility actively and uses courtesy .So the results of these two sentence are obviously.

3.1.2 Consideration

Consideration used in business letters means that the senders should keep receivers in the first place when composing and transmitting the letters, because they are dealing not only with a business organization, but more significantly with the people whose reaction determines what the sender can achieve in transmitting the business letters. “Consideration means using’ you attitude’ in business letter ¼Œwhich is to consider in other’s perspective and be considerate other’s desires and feelings. ” (Yuan & Li, 2010:11) We will compare with the following sentences, sentences (1) adapt “we attitude”, while sentences (2) adapt “you attitude”


We are pleased to announce that

You will be pleased to know

We want you to do that.

You will no doubt do it.

Sentences 1) adapt “we attitude” which are in a rigid tone and express a feeling of ordering others, and it shows that senders think only of themselves and their problem, not about the receivers, while Sentences 2) adapt “you attitude”, that can reflect politeness and tact, emphasize what the receivers want to know, refer to the receiver’s request or order specifically, protect the receiver’s ego and respect the receiver’s intelligence. So “The you attitude also creates a conversational tone”

3.1.3 Completeness

Business letter should fully express the contents and meanings. When the message is complete, it contains all facts the receivers need for the reaction that the senders desire. The function of completeness in business letters is bringing the desired response without the expense of additional messages, both parties can do a better job of building goodwill and averting the costly lawsuits that may result becomes possible, even if important information is missing. You can use “5Ws” and “1H” to verify whether it has fully replied what the other’s perspective’s requests. What’s more, you should give something extra, when desirable. Sometimes we must do more than answer customers’ specific questions. Because they may not know what they need, or their questions may be inadequate. For instance, in the letters of placing an order, it has to explain “What you want”, “When you need the goods”, “to whom and where the goods to be sent”, “How the payment will be made”. And you should explain “why” when you reject the request of the parties (i.e. reject to an offer, reject to settle of claim etc.). The “5Ws” and “1H” question method is especially useful when we write requests, announcements, or other informative messages.

3.1.4 Clarity

In business letter writing, “Clarity is important in such business writing as reports, memorandums ,procedures ,and proposals(Hu&Che&Li&Su,2004:43)” ” clarity means making sure the meaning of letters you have written is clear, and it will not generate misunderstanding (Wei , 2005:6)”,we should avoid ambiguous thought and equivocate phrasing in the letter. And there are three specific ways to help make the message clear: 1. choose understandable words, 2.construct effective sentences and paragraphs, 3.write on the Write on the level of the receiver’s understanding

E.g. As to the steamer sailing from Wenzhou to Italy has bimonthly direct services.

In this sentence, the writer chooses these understandable words such as “sailing”, “direct” to make the receivers understand clearly as there is a strong need for words that are not only familiar and clear, but simple and easy to read. However, the word “Bimonthly” may cause misunderstanding, because it can be understood either as twice a month or once every two months, so it is easy to misunderstand the meaning of this sentence. Therefore, it should be amended as “We have two direct sailings every month from Wenzhou to Italy.” or “We have direct sailings from Wenzhou to Italy every two months.”

3.1.5 Conciseness

Conciseness means that on the premise of not going against the other C qualities, we use words as less as possible to express the actual meanings you are trying to express. Use brief, direct, simple words to prevent unnecessary repetition and ornate words. It gets rid of hackneyed and stereotyped phrases in business letters, saves time and expense for both sender and receiver, aids the receiver in understanding the message, and makes the communication more interesting.

E.g. We use “We have begun to export machines.” instead of “We have begun to export our machines to the foreign countries.” Because the former sentence eliminates the unnecessary expressions–“to the foreign countries”, which express the same meaning with “export”.

3.1.6 Concreteness

The contents of business letters must be detail and clear, especially those letters that request other parties’ reply or will affect contact in after period. So we should use specific facts, figures to achieve concreteness instead of using words that are unclear, generalized or abstract. Because concrete words are direct and vivid, clear, and exact. While abstract words are often intellectual, academic, or philosophical. Using specific rather than general language, using concrete rather than abstract words, using active rather than passive voice will be helpful to compose concrete, convincing messages

E.g. We say “We confirm our goods of January 3th,2011” rather than “We confirm our goods yesterday”. The reason is that the former sentence use concrete words that are clear so that there will be no question in the receiver’s mind as to the meaning intended. And on the other hand, “yesterday” is less clear in meaning and is more likely to create wrong or confusing connotations in the receiver’s mind.

3.1.7 Correctness

The terms and phrases and punctuations should be used correctly in business letters because most parts of business letters involve bilateral right, duty and interest among business communications. And it will cause needless troubles if any mistakes happen. The term correctness, as applied to a business letter, means the sender should use the right level of language and include only accurate facts, words, and figures. And one erroneous digit (for example, $75,000 instead of $750,000) can make a difference of millions of dollars. Even small errors of a few cents can annoy customers and undermine goodwill.

E.g. Using “It is the lowest price we can offer you now.” is more accurate than using “It is the lowest price available to you.”

3.2 Textual Structure in Business Letter

The success of English business letter writing is not only based on its words and sentences, but its structure as well. “Text which is the meaning unit to communicate by using language symbols is made up by sentences, so it can be either short or long. A novel can be a text, a sentence or phrase, even a word can make up text. Business letter is a way of communication that bilaterally communicates in written form (Qin,2001:82)”. In the aspect of text, business letter should indicate the image of writers through orderly and clear structure; indicate the accomplishment of writers through polite language; indicate the goal of letters through accurate and logical expression. So”no matter how simple or complex the business letter is, it is generally concerned on the goal of writing which has clear and standardized structure and complete outline. What’s more, the textual structure should exist with standardized form, logically structured, clear clue, and tight structure.

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First of all, the length of business letter is short and pithy whose language is frankly and condensed, and most business letters have an average sentence length of 20 words or fewer. Short and pithy, and straightforward indicate the terseness and effective of business letter. In contrast, overly long sentences can make the whole message clumsy and difficult to understand and the reader soon begins to lose interest in the letter, thus hinder clear communication.

Next, Paragraph length is also significant in business letters. Because most businesspeople are so busy that they do not have more time to waste through a series of long paragraphs. Instead, they may only skim a line or two in each paragraph. Therefore, paragraphs in business letters should be short enough with the average length between one to eight sentences. Besides, the paragraph should be arranged in a clear, logic order, with the most important idea getting primary emphasis and the less important points placed in secondary positions, which will make the letter more clear and improve the success of establishing business relationship.

Furthermore, the format is standardized in business letter. “A typical business letter consists of seven parts: the letterhead ,the date line ,the inside address ,the salutation ,the body of the letter ,the complimentary close ,and the signature(Chen¼Œ2002¼š11)”.

(1)The letterhead of a business letter shows where the letter comes from, contains details of addresser, such as company name, address, telephone number and so on, which have usually stated in the up-left of the letter. It also expresses the company’s personality and contributes to the company’s image. So a good letterhead is always a soft sell, but should not look like an advertisement.

(2)The date line is generally typed two or three lines below the letterhead and may start from the left margin, or be centered, or appear on the right-hand side, which differs from country to country.

(3) The inside address should be the same as the name and address on the envelope. It is conventional to set it at the left-hand margin in business letters, about two or three lines below the level of the dateline and above the salutation. And the inside address usually includes the full name of the recipient, business title of the recipient, name of the company addressed to.

(4) “Dear Sirs” or “Dear Madams” are usually used as the salutation, which is placed against the left-hand margin with at least two lines under the inside address and two lines above the body of the letter

(5)The schematic structure of body should depend on the alternating goal of business letters whose contents mainly concern on “attention, interest, desire, and action and raising expectations”. For example, letters which reply to the enquires should contain: the expression of thanks to enquire; description of the name, specification, quality, quantity, package, price, payment methods, the date of shipping; the comments on the goods; other relative matters, such as other goods that the other party may interest; and the expression of the desires to establish business relationship with the parties and to look forward to placing the orders.

(6) The complimentary close is a line following the body of the letter that politely signals the end of the letter.

(7)The signature should be signed by the addresser himself/herself, which is four lines below the complimentary close. And signature always contains three or four parts: the name of the company, the signature of the writer, the typed name, and the business title.

The paragraphs of business letters usually exist with hierarchy, which is based on the topic in the introduction. And the sentences are cumulated layer upon layer with conjunctions, so that these multi-layer sentences can be linked in a vertical hierarchy, in which progressive, adversative, causal relationship should be most commonly used.

The complimentary closes usually use “Sincerely” or “Sincerely yours.”

3.3 Grammatical Features of English Business Letter

Complex structure of sentence is an important syntactic characteristic of business correspondence. And these complexly structured sentences can not only express the business meaning, but make the main information be emphasized and make the essay formal.

3.3.1 Use of Complete Sentences and more Compound Sentence.

Business letter is a formal style, the most significant grammatical feature is that sentences are completed, the structure is complex and the sentences are long. And adverbial clause, parenthesis, appositive, and the absolute structure are frequently used. Because the complex long sentences in business letters can not only express complex meanings so that the writing will appear to be rigorous, but also the main information will be emphasized in the form of word order, and strength the degree of formality.

E.g. With the increase of the prices which becomes conspicuous this year, the next consignment will be much dearer, so we recommend you to take prompt advantage of this offer.

This is a compound sentence that compounded by “so”, the prepositional phrase “With the increase of the prices which conspicuous this year” is located in the first half, and the attributive clause is among the prepositional phrase which makes the structure more complex. However, the hierarchy is clear and precise, and it clearly indicates the condition of each other relationship.

3.3.2 Use of Assertive Sentences rather than Negative Sentences.

In order to express polite and friendly relationship, business letters should not use negative sentences too much. Assertive sentences emphasize to the receivers what can be done rather than what cannot be done, thus helping the writer develop and maintain favorable relationships and goodwill. In contrast, negative sentences may generate other unfavorable reactions, and if we point the undesirable things that the other party can’t complete , it will give the impression of disrespect which against the principle of polite, so we should use as more assertive sentences as possible, so that the manner will be circumbendibus and polite.


We cannot fill your order because you failed to send your check.

2) We shall be glad to fill your order as soon as we receive your check.

By comparing these two examples, it can be easily found that sentence (2) is more circumbendibus and polite than sentence (1), which is in accord with the grammar of business letter, and it imparts enthusiasm and confidence.

3.3.3 Use of Common Language

Since the primary purpose in business letters is to transmit information, ideas, beliefs, and emotions, the sender don’t need to impose burden upon the receiver with too difficult words that influence quick and precise communication between both parties. What’s more, business letter is an official letter that is with property of business to business. So we should use common and familiar language to express the politeness and formality of the letter, and these words are gradually fixed to become a routine after long time used in business activities, and now they are widely used in business letters, such as “We offer you” “Enclosed we hand” “we are pleased to inform you” “thank you for..”

3.3.4 Use of Declarative Sentences rather than Imperative Sentences

“Most of the two parties involved in the business letters are business partners, so each other’s statuses are equal. Therefore, imperative sentences will not be used, even if one party wants another party to take some actions, because imperative sentences express the manner of giving orders which seems too arrogant and direct. However, the manner will become so polite if we use declarative sentences to express one’s desire in the letter that building the image of writers will become possible. What’s more, this manner often motivates the other party to take actions (Peng, 2008:198)”.

E.g. It would be appreciated if you could send us your shipping instructions.

What this sentence trying to express is “Please send us your shipping instructions”, however, using declarative sentences will show the politeness of the writer and be in accordance with polite principle.

3.3.5 Use of Passive Voice Properly

The passive voice is a very important way in writing business letter. The passive voice does not emphasis the action of source, which will appear that the action is not imposed on the other party. In business letter, we usually use “It is hoped that the offer is made as soon as possible” instead of “Make the offer as soon as possible.”

3.3.6 Use of the Inversion Sentence Properly

“We use inversion sentence in two situations: one is placing the emphasized component in front, especially when the writer wants to remind that the recipient materials have been posted with the letter; another situation is to express the possibility of uncertainty.

E.g. “Enclosed please find the invoice of 60 bales wool bought by your order.”

In this sentence, the writer place “enclosed” in front of the sentence to emphasis the objective.

3.3.7 Use of Abbreviations

Abbreviation, strictly means a shortening or abridgment word or phrase, and commonly refers to a letter or a group of letters taken from a single word or phrase. Because of its space-saving and time-saving, abbreviations are used frequently in business letters. And most abbreviations have fixed meanings in the business letters, such as FOB=Free On Board, CFR=Cost and Freight, CIF=Cost, Insurance and Freight, UK = United Kingdom¼ŒS.S=steamship, etc.

4. How to Follow Stylistic Features in Business Letter Writing

As business letter has particularity in communication and transmitting on the information, the functions and goals of business letters are not only obviously different from literary activities and daily life, but other business text, such as instant advertisement. So “in the business letter writing, we should grasp the format, use proper words, attentive to the details, and use appropriate tone.

4.1 Grasping the format

Though the basic parts in the business letter have remained the same for centuries, ways of arranging do change. Sometimes a company adopts a certain format as its policy. Three major letter formats are commonly used: Full-Block style, Indented style, Semi-Block style, whose major differences lie in indentation of paragraphs, placement of letter parts, and use of punctuation.

In general, first, we should place the date in front of the salutation; second, the salutations generally use a fixed format “Dear…” then, the body should come straight to the topic; at last, we should end with “sincerely” or “sincerely yours”

4.2 Use of proper words

There is a direct relation between business letter and the success of the business, so we should use fair-spoken, polite, formal and professional vocabularies properly and accurately.

E.g. We trust you will see to it that the order is shipped within 3days, as any delay would cause us no little inconvenience and financial loss.

The writer uses “trust” and “no little inconvenience” in the example sentence to show a so mild tone that the other party will accept it easily.

4.3 Attentive to details

Business letter must be practical and realistic, it should neither exaggerate the vocabularies nor narrow its vocabularies. We should not be careless and be ambiguous in the details of business activities, such as quantity, date, price, the amount and insurance.

E.g. Our offer is a firm offer and remains good until 3:40p.m., 20th January, 2010, Wenzhou.

4.4 Use of Appropriate Tone

Business letter is a mean of written communications, so we should particularly pay attention to the mood, which should be polite, in appropriate manners, objective and formal. They have more life, and can therefore best hold the reader’s attention and interest and build the company image of the sender and show the quality of the employees. Beside, we should select polite language to point the other party’s undesirable things that the other party can’t complete¼Œwhich is to express thank, happiness and satisfaction. E.g. We shall appreciate it if you will make us a firm offer for 60tons of peanuts.

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