How to Write a Letter in English Page 1


Principles of Letter Writing Forms Notes

Many people seem to regard letter-writing as a very simple and easily acquired branch, but on the contrary it is one of the most difficult forms of composition and requires much patience and labor to master its details. In fact there are very few perfect letter-writers in the language. It constitutes the direct form of speech and may be called conversation at a distance. Its forms are so varied by every conceivable topic written at all times by all kinds of persons in all kinds of moods and tempers and addressed to all kinds of persons of varying degrees in society and of different pursuits in life, that no fixed rules can be laid down to regulate its length, style or subject matter. Only general suggestions can be made in regard to scope and purpose, and the forms of indicting set forth which custom and precedent have sanctioned.

The principles of letter-writing should be understood by everybody who has any knowledge of written language, for almost everybody at some time or other has necessity to address some friend or acquaintance at a distance, whereas comparatively few are called upon to direct their efforts towards any other kind of composition.

Formerly the illiterate countryman, when he had occasion to communicate with friends or relations, called in the peripatetic schoolmaster as his amanuensis, but this had one draw-back,—secrets had to be poured into an ear other than that for which they were intended, and often the confidence was betrayed.

Now, that education is abroad in the land, there is seldom any occasion for any person to call upon the service of another to compose and write a personal letter. Very few now-a-days are so grossly illiterate as not to be able to read and write. No matter how crude his effort may be it is better for any one to write his own letters than trust to another. Even if he should commence,—”deer fren, i lift up my pen to let ye no that i hove been sik for the past 3 weeks, hopping this will findye the same,” his spelling and construction can be excused in view of the fact that his intention is good, and that he is doing his best to serve his own turn without depending upon others.

The nature, substance and tone of any letter depend upon the occasion that calls it forth, upon the person writing it and upon the person for whom it is intended. Whether it should be easy or formal in style, plain or ornate, light or serious, gay or grave, sentimental or matter-of-fact depend upon these three circumstances.

In letter writing the first and most important requisites are to be natural and simple; there should be no straining after effect, but simply a spontaneous out-pouring of thoughts and ideas as they naturally occur to the writer. We are repelled by a person who is stiff and labored in his conversation and in the same way the stiff and labored letter bores the reader. Whereas if it is light and in a conversational vein it immediately engages his attention.

The letter which is written with the greatest facility is the best kind of letter because it naturally expresses what is in the writer, he has not to search for his words, they flow in a perfect unison with the ideas he desires to communicate. When you write to your friend John Browne to tell him how you spent Sunday you have not to look around for the words, or study set phrases with a view to please or impress Browne, you just tell him the same as if he were present before you, how you spent the day, where you were, with whom you associated and the chief incidents that occurred during the time. Thus, you write natural and it is such writing that is adapted to epistolary correspondence.

There are different kinds of letters, each calling for a different style of address and composition, nevertheless the natural key should be maintained in all, that is to say, the writer should never attempt to convey an impression that he is other than what he is. It would be silly as well as vain for the common street laborer of a limited education to try to put on literary airs and emulate a college professor; he may have as good a brain, but it is not as well developed by education, and he lacks the polish which society confers. When writing a letter the street laborer should bear in mind that only the letter of a street-laborer is expected from him, no matter to whom his communication may be addressed and that neither the grammar nor the diction of a Chesterfield or Gladstone is looked for in his language. Still the writer should keep in mind the person to whom he is writing. If it is to an Archbishop or some other great dignitary of Church or state it certainly should be couched in terms different from those he uses to John Browne, his intimate friend. Just as he cannot say “Dear John” to an Archbishop, no more can he address him in the familiar words he uses to his friend of everyday acquaintance and companionship. Yet there is no great learning required to write to an Archbishop, no more than to an ordinary individual. All the laborer needs to know is the form of address and how to properly utilize his limited vocabulary to the best advantage. Here is the form for such a letter:

17 Second Avenue,
New York City.
January 1st, 1910.

Most Rev. P. A. Jordan,
Archbishop of New York.

Most Rev. and dear Sir:—
While sweeping the crossing at Fifth
Avenue and 50th street on last Wednesday
morning, I found the enclosed Fifty Dollar
Bill, which I am sending to you in the hope
that it may be restored to the rightful
I beg you will acknowledge receipt and
should the owner be found I trust you will
notify me, so that I may claim some reward
for my honesty.
I am, Most Rev. and dear Sir,

Very respectfully yours,
Thomas Jones.

Observe the brevity of the letter. Jones makes no suggestions to the Archbishop how to find the owner, for he knows the course the Archbishop will adopt, of having the finding of the bill announced from the Church pulpits. Could Jones himself find the owner there would be no occasion to apply to the Archbishop.

This letter, it is true, is different from that which he would send to Browne. Nevertheless it is simple without being familiar, is just a plain statement, and is as much to the point for its purpose as if it were garnished with rhetoric and “words of learned length and thundering sound.”

Letters may be divided into those of friendship, acquaintanceship, those of business relations, those written in an official capacity by public servants, those designed to teach, and those which give accounts of the daily happenings on the stage of life, in other words, news letters.

Letters of friendship are the most common and their style and form depend upon the degree of relationship and intimacy existing between the writers and those addressed. Between relatives and intimate friends the beginning and end may be in the most familiar form of conversation, either affectionate or playful. They should, however, never overstep the boundaries of decency and propriety, for it is well to remember that, unlike conversation, which only is heard by the ears for which it is intended, written words may come under eyes other than those for whom they were designed. Therefore, it is well never to write anything which the world may not read without detriment to your character or your instincts. You can be joyful, playful, jocose, give vent to your feelings, but never stoop to low language and, above all, to language savoring in the slightest degree of moral impropriety.

Business letters are of the utmost importance on account of the interests involved. The business character of a man or of a firm is often judged by the correspondence. On many occasions letters instead of developing trade and business interests and gaining clientele, predispose people unfavorably towards those whom they are designed to benefit. Ambiguous, slip-shod language is a detriment to success. Business letters should be clear, concise, to the point and, above all, honest, giving no wrong impressions or holding out any inducements that cannot be fulfilled. In business letters, just as in business conduct, honesty is always the best policy.

Official letters are mostly always formal. They should possess clearness, brevity and dignity of tone to impress the receivers with the proper respect for the national laws and institutions.

Letters designed to teach or didactic letters are in a class all by themselves. They are simply literature in the form of letters and are employed by some of the best writers to give their thoughts and ideas a greater emphasis. The most conspicuous example of this kind of composition is the book on Etiquette by Lord Chesterfield, which took the form of a series of letters to his son.

News letters are accounts of world happenings and descriptions of ceremonies and events sent into the newspapers. Some of the best authors of our time are newspaper men who write in an easy flowing style which is most readable, full of humor and fancy and which carries one along with breathless interest from beginning to end.

The principal parts of a letter are (1) the heading or introduction; (2) the body or substance of the letter; (3) the subscription or closing expression and signature; (4) the address or direction on the envelope. For the body of a letter no forms or rules can be laid down as it altogether depends on the nature of the letter and the relationship between the writer and the person addressed.

There are certain rules which govern the other three features and which custom has sanctioned. Every one should be acquainted with these rules.


The Heading has three parts, viz., the name of the place, the date of writing and the designation of the person or persons addressed; thus:

73 New Street,
Newark, N. J.,
February 1st, 1910.
Messr. Ginn and Co.,
New York

The name of the place should never be omitted; in cities, street and number should always be given, and except when the city is large and very conspicuous, so that there can be no question as to its identity with another of the same or similar name, the abbreviation of the State should be appended, as in the above, Newark, N. J. There is another Newark in the State of Ohio. Owing to failure to comply with this rule many letters go astray. The date should be on every letter, especially business letters. The date should never be put at the bottom in a business letter, but in friendly letters this may be done. The designation of the person or persons addressed differs according to the relations of the correspondents. Letters of friendship may begin in many ways according to the degrees of friendship or intimacy. Thus:

My dear Wife:
My dear Husband:
My dear Friend:
My darling Mother:
My dearest Love:
Dear Aunt:
Dear Uncle:
Dear George: etc.

To mark a lesser degree of intimacy such formal designations as the following may be employed:

Dear Sir:
My dear Sir:
Dear Mr. Smith:
Dear Madam: etc.

For clergymen who have the degree of Doctor of Divinity, the designation is as follows:

Rev. Alban Johnson, D. D.
My dear Sir: or Rev. and dear Sir: or more familiarly
Dear Dr. Johnson:

Bishops of the Roman and Anglican Communions are addressed as Right Reverend.

The Rt. Rev., the Bishop of Long Island. or
The Rt. Rev. Frederick Burgess, Bishop of Long Island.
Rt. Rev. and dear Sir:

Archbishops of the Roman Church are addressed as Most Reverend and Cardinals as Eminence. Thus:

The Most Rev. Archbishop Katzer.
Most Rev. and dear Sir:

His Eminence, James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore.
May it please your Eminence:

The title of the Governor of a State or territory and of the President of the United States is Excellency. However, Honorable is more commonly applied to Governors:—

His Excellency, William Howard Taft,
President of the United States.


His Excellency, Charles Evans Hughes,
Governor of the State of New York.


Honorable Franklin Fort,
Governor of New Jersey.


The general salutation for Officers of the Army and Navy is Sir. The rank and station should be indicated in full at the head of the letter, thus:

General Joseph Thompson,
Commanding the Seventh Infantry.


Rear Admiral Robert Atkinson,
Commanding the Atlantic Squadron.


The title of officers of the Civil Government is Honorable and they are addressed as Sir.

Hon. Nelson Duncan,
Senator from Ohio.


Hon. Norman Wingfield,
Secretary of the Treasury.


Hon. Rupert Gresham,
Mayor of New York.


Presidents and Professors of Colleges and Universities are generally addressed as Sir or Dear Sir.

Professor Ferguson Jenks,
President of ………. University.

Sir: or Dear Sir:

Presidents of Societies and Associations are treated as business men and addressed as Sir or Dear Sir.

Mr. Joseph Banks,
President of the Night Owls.

Dear Sir: or Sir:

Doctors of Medicine are addressed as Sir: My dear Sir: Dear Sir: and more familiarly My dear Dr: or Dear Dr: as

Ryerson Pitkin, M. D.
Dear Sir:
My dear Dr:

Ordinary people with no degrees or titles are addressed as Mr. and Mrs. and are designed Dear Sir: Dear Madam: and an unmarried woman of any age is addressed on the envelope as Miss So-and-so, but always designed in the letter as

Dear Madam:

The plural of Mr. as in addressing a firm is Messrs, and the corresponding salutation is Dear Sirs: or Gentlemen:

In England Esq. is used for Mr. as a mark of slight superiority and in this country it is sometimes used, but it is practically obsolete. Custom is against it and American sentiment as well. If it is used it should be only applied to lawyers and justices of the peace.


The Subscription or ending of a letter consists of the term of respect or affection and the signature. The term depends upon the relation of the person addressed. Letters of friendship can close with such expressions as:

Yours lovingly,
Yours affectionately,
Devotedly yours,
Ever yours, etc.

as between husbands and wives or between lovers. Such gushing terminations as Your Own Darling, Your own Dovey and other pet and silly endings should be avoided, as they denote shallowness. Love can be strongly expressed without dipping into the nonsensical and the farcical.

Formal expressions of Subscription are:

Yours Sincerely,
Yours truly,
Respectfully yours,

and the like, and these may be varied to denote the exact bearing or attitude the writer wishes to assume to the person addressed: as,

Very sincerely yours,
Very respectfully yours,
With deep respect yours,
Yours very truly, etc.

Such elaborate endings as

“In the meantime with the highest respect, I am yours to command,”
“I have the honor to be, Sir, Your humble Servant,”
“With great expression of esteem, I am Sincerely yours,”
“Believe me, my dear Sir, Ever faithfully yours,”

are condemned as savoring too much of affectation.

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