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17.03.2016

English for Purchasing: Writing e-mails and business letters

Formal and informal – what’s the difference? The way to create a professional sounding letter in English is easy if you know which words to choose.

The professional letter in English© GianlucaCiro Tancredi /​ fotolia.com

Du und Sie bleibt immer “you”

In English, as you probably already know, there is only one form for “Du” or “Sie” and that is “you”. This makes it  difficult for Germans and other non-native speakers to control the tone of a letter or email and keep it professional,  and maintain a distance to the reader. Or, you may wish to be professionally friendly, but don’t know how to find that  “goldene Mitte”. You may think that your message doesn’t sound professional or have as much of a “Sie” feeling that you would like. The way to create a professional sounding letter in English is easy if you know which words to choose.

Let’s start with the opening line:

  • If you are writing someone for the first time, or want to keep your relationship with your business partner or colleague formal, use the formal “Dear Mr./Ms.”.
  • If you are on a first name basis with the recipient, you can write “Hello Jim”.
  • If you have no idea who will be reading the letter, you can write “Dear Madam or Sir,” but this is unusual and very  formal.
  • If you know the person’s name, but aren’t sure if it is a man or a woman, you can just write the name without a Mr. or Ms. in front: “Dear Chris Freeman”.
  • The informal opening is “Hi Mary” or, just “Hi”. If it is a quick note and not a long email, this is fine if you know the  person well.

Americans put a comma after the opening, but not in British English.

Now, the closing line:

  • Best regards,
  • Kind regards,
  • Warm regards,
  • Best wishes,

The above examples are neutral closing lines, not too formal and not too informal for old business contacts. A more  formal closing line option would be:

Sincerely,
OR
Yours sincerely,
Respectfully,
OR
Yours respectfully,

If you are writing a thank you letter, the formal closing line could look like this:

Thank you for your time,
Thank you for your consideration,
Thank you for your attention to this matter,
Many thanks,
Thank you for your help,

If you are writing to an old business contact or a colleague that you know well, the informal closing to a thank you  e-mail could be one of these:

Thanks so much,
Thanks for all your help,
Thanks and take care,
Thanks and hope to hear from you again soon,

To whom and why

Depending on to whom you are writing and why, it is really important to choose the right words to keep the tone  professional, professionally friendly, or just friendly.

Are you writing a payment reminder? Then the tone should be professional and firm.

Are you writing to an old business contact about a project or exchanging information about accounts, sales, etc.?  Then keep the tone professionally friendly. Is the e-mail to an old business contact and you write to each other often? Then the tone should be friendly and informal.

To demonstrate the difference between other formal and informal vocabulary, I’ll use the words in sentences and then  maybe it will be easier to understand.

informal formal
because due to
get receive
about concerning/ referring to
trouble inconvenience
to be sorry about sth. regret
change amend
happen occur
send back return
thanks thank you
answer reply
wrong incorrect

Here are some examples with the informal words in the first sentence and the formal words in the second:

Because of your late payment, we can’t send you the goods.
Due to your late payment, we cannot send you the goods.

Tip

Here you can separate the short versions of can’t/don’t/won’t to make the tone more “serious”. Cannot is written as  one word, but do not and will not are separated.

We hope to get your e-mail by this afternoon.
We hope to receive your e-mail by this afternoon.

The invoice about the shipment from 12 October was wrong.
The invoice concerning the shipment from 12 October was incorrect.

We’re sorry about the trouble.
We regret the inconvenience.

The invoice number was changed last week.
The invoice number was amended last week.

If this happens again, we have to cancel the contract.
If this occurs again, we will have to cancel the contract.

Just send back the wrong items.
Please return the incorrect items.

Thanks for your answer.
Thank you for your reply.

I hope the difference between the formal and informal sentences is a bit clearer when they are used in context.

The tone of a letter

The ability to control the tone of a letter is difficult and is even more difficult for beginners, but it might be useful to  have a few standard phrases ready to copy and paste to your regular e-mails.

Generally, the longer the sentence, the more diplomatic it sounds. If you prefer a shorter sentence, then it is important to choose the words carefully so it doesn’t sound too sloppy or unprofessional.

Unfortunately, the e-mails that I read from overseas colleagues are mostly very informal and almost always start with a “Hi” or just the person’s name, like “Klaus”. This doesn’t mean that you have to use the same tone.

If you feel more comfortable using the “Dear Ms. Smith,” then feel free to do it. Finding your individual style is  important too, and is easy if you know which words to use, and how to use them. It is also important to proofread your e-mails and check for spelling mistakes before they are sent.

A few more tips:

Only use capital letters for names, days of the week, months, and holidays.
Abbreviations (short forms) are only for informal letters, such as ASAP (as soon as possible) , BTW (by the way) or FYI  (for your information).

With some practice and using the above examples, I hope you can find your own personal style and improve your communication skills.

English Vocabulary List

maintain = erhalten, aufrechterhalten
recipient = Empfänger
consideration = Berücksichtigung
paymentreminder = Mahnung, Zahlungserinnerung
firm = hier: nachdrücklich
in context = in Zusammenhang
sloppy = schlampig
feel free to do it = gerne können Sie es tun

Autor: Markus Lemme 

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