In the UK, Debrett’s has long been the recognised authority on etiquette, influence and achievement. It is responsible for listing publishing the The Peerage a listing of hierarchy and titles in the UK. Debrett’s has also long been synonymous with the best of British etiquette and tradition through their range of popular publications, which include the Guide for the Modern Gentleman, Debrett’s Wedding Guide and Debrett’s Handbook. This expertise and authority informs their training academy, which offers coaching globally to corporate and private clients in social and interpersonal skills, building confidence and success in both social and professional arenas. So, it is only right that their opinion should be sought when asking the question …
“What is the correct way to write a letter in English?”
The problems in this area are numerous. For one, letter writing is an art form that is slowly being forgotten in favour of e-mail, and the 140-character limit of Twitter. Additionally, which English? There are as many differing forms of English as there are languages in the world. So what is right for British English may not be for American English. So, with the caveat that this is not definitive information, what does the foremost authority of British etiquette have to say about letter writing?
Always use quality stationery for correspondence, whether business or personal. Personal letters should be handwritten on white, ivory or cream paper, with a minimum weight of 100 gsm to avoid show-through. Use a lined under sheet to keep text straight, and use black or blue ink.
A personal letterhead should include postal address, telephone number and email address, but never your name. If budget allows, have letterheads engraved. The envelope should match the writing paper and have a diamond flap. Always date personal correspondence. Don’t frank pieces of personal correspondence – use a stamp
Business letters must be typed, on A4 paper which includes the company logo, postal address, telephone number and email address. If any of this information does not appear on pre-printed business letters, be sure to add the pertinent contact details yourself. Type the recipient’s name and address at the top left-hand side of the letter.
The date goes beneath this, also on the left-hand side. Use ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ if you don’t know the name of the recipient, although every effort should be made to discover their name. If you are familiar with the recipient, use their first name only, e.g. ‘Dear David’. If in doubt, follow how they have styled themselves in previous correspondence. Otherwise, opt for formality.
Add a ‘subject line’ after the salutation – centre and embolden/underline it. This will be useful for sorting, prioritising and filing. Aim not to exceed one sheet of paper – it goes without saying that brevity and precision are vital attributes of business correspondence.
The sign-off depends on the salutation. As a broad rule, if you addressed the letter to ‘Dear Mr Townsend’ the sign off is ‘Yours sincerely’. If addressed to ‘Dear Sir/Madam’, then ‘Yours faithfully’ is correct.
So there you have it! And don’t forget that engraved letterhead 🙂