Stewarts Corner
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Letters, faxes and E-mails in English:  a 10-point checklist

1.Keep to one standard: British English (BE) or American English (AE)

There are differences in how letters start and end in BE and AE. There are also differences in spelling, vocabulary and how dates are written. Most people in Norway use British English standards in letter writing.

2.Always use a salutation (greeting) in English

First, BE: In formal letters, the salutation, is normally «Dear Sirs,»/»Dear Sir or Madam,».

In standard letters, the salutation is «Dear Mr Jones,»/»Dear Ms Jones,». In letters to colleagues/friends, the salutation is «Dear Mary,»/»Dear John,».

In AE, the phrases and punctuation are slightly different and corresponding salutations are; «Dear Sirs:»/»Dear Madam or Sir:» (formal); «Dear Mr. Jones:»/»Dear Ms. Jones:» (standard); and «Dear Mary,»/»Dear John,» (letters to friends/colleagues).

Letters of recommendation usually have the salutation: «To whom it may concern,».

The salutation is placed above the letter heading.

3.Always use the ending that matches the salutation

In BE, formal letters end «Yours faithfully,». Standard letters end: «Yours sincerely,» and most letters to colleagues/friends end «Regards,/Kind regards,».

In AE, the corresponding endings are «Sincerely,» (formal); «Sincerely yours,» (standard); and «Regards,».

4. Salutations and endings in E-mails

Most people will never use a formal salutation/ending in E-mails which are usually more informal than letters. Nevertheless, a salutation should still be used. A typical E-mail using the BE standard starts with «Dear Mary,» and ends «Yours sincerely,» (to stress a businesslike tone) or «Regards,» (a more personal tone). Salutations like: «Hi,» and «Hello,» are substandard. If you do not know who will read your E-mail, one solution is to use «Dear colleague,» as the salutation.

5.Always try to round off a letter, fax or E-mail with «-ing forms»

Verbs with «-ing» show that you have an on-going relationship and there is unfinished business. Some examples are: «We are looking forward to receiving your comments on this report, by the end of May.» - «We are considering your proposals and are looking forward to discussing matters with you in London on 27 May.»

6.Never write the date like «12.5.98» in English

A date written like 12.5.98 is ambiguous. Most people who use BE will understand this as 12 May 1998; but users of AE, where the month comes first, are likely to think of December 5, 1998. As the next millennium will bring confusing dates like «02.01.03» or «3.2.01», I suggest two solutions. One is to always write the month in letters, like: 12 May 1998, the second is to use to follow the International Organization for Standardization (ISO 8601, complete representation) for all-digit dates, as SINTEF does, so that 12 May 1998 is 1998-05-12 (CCYY-MM-DD).

7.Never write the place-name in front of the date

Do not write «Trondheim, 12 May 1998» at the top of a letter in English. Just write the date.

8.Never use exclamation marks (!) in formal or standard letters

An exclamation mark in English is used to express astonishment, surprise or very strong feelings. Thus you are unlikely to need such punctuation in normal letters, faxes or E-mails. A letter or E-mail in English that starts: «Hello!» or «Hi!» is possibly all right for a note to a close friend, but is otherwise a signal of an immature writer.

9.Never use short forms like «I'm» and «don't» in formal or standard letters

These should only be used in informal, conversational writing and when reporting speech. Sometimes short forms are used in E-mails. Using short forms is a typical cause of mistakes like confusing the genitive «its» with «it's», the short form for «it is».

10.Never capitalize «you» and «your» in mid-sentence

Many people have told me that they were taught in school to capitalize «You» and «Your» in mid-sentence in English. As this custom disappeared hundreds of years ago in English, some teachers must be extremely long in the tooth.

Enlightening English

In China, Pepsi's «Come alive with the Pepsi Generation» was translated as «Pepsi brings your ancestors back from the grave».

In Italy, Schweppes Tonic Water was translated as «Schweppes Toilet Water».

Closer home, someone offering help with translations enlightened NTNU's NETTopp with: «Do no let grammatical errors detract from your professional reputation. Remenber that in English, language errors are taken more seriously than in Norwegian.»

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