The first thing to note about formal English in modern business is that it’s not nice. It’s not polite or charming, it’s a weapon that you use to defend yourself against an anonymous public or to intimidate acquaintances who incur your wrath. This means that, in an email relationship, switching from your usual friendly style to formal is a declaration of war. As always, think twice before going into battle, but if you have to fight, you’re going to need some tools.
Keep the subject line fairly cool: a standard reply with, at most, the word “Urgent” added. In the mail itself, some launch hostilities immediately by changing their usual “Hi” to a chillier “Dear” and maybe even dropping first names to regress to “Ms/Mr”, but for me this sounds excessively petulant. Less is more in formal English (Vito Corleone in The Godfather is a great role-model if you can understand him) and one final twist of the knife is sufficient. Start with your usual, cheery “Hi Don” but allow yourself the satisfaction of a sinister “Yours sincerely” when you close, followed by your first name.
The rules of formal writing are not so rigid these days, but the details are less important than the objective: to sound strong and serious. First, stop using contractions: “will not” packs more punch than “won’t” and if the tone of your regular mails is suitably friendly, this change alone should be enough for contacts to know they’re on the naughty step. Just ensure that you’re consistent throughout your mail, and check for slips with contractions or any other areas before you send. It’s acceptable to make some mistakes when you’re writing in a foreign language, but others are just sloppy, and serve to make you less scary.
Vocabulary and Grammar
Using long words like “nevertheless” is one way to sound formal, but they take time to write and don’t impress me much, at least. You really don’t need any vocabulary that you’re not already using for business mails. In fact, you need less, with no need for social expressions and cold, Latin words like “expel” or “compensate” replacing friendlier phrasal verbs like “throw out” or “make up”.
To flex your formal muscles, your best weapons are grammatical, starting with passive-aggressive uses of the passive voice, all of which will be dealt with in my next blog. Y
You can see how formal is too formal in this post: