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Dear Sir or Madam ...

Dear Sir or Madam tests your knowledge of formal letter writing.

In these days of text and e-mails, 'good old-fashioned formal letter-writing' may seem to be a bit of a lost art ~ but it has a style and conventions all of its own, and as an advanced EFL student you should be just as aware of this as of anything else.

If you open a formal letter that begins 'Dear Sir or Madam', what else might it be about to tell you?

  1. As a temporary resident in Britain, you receive a letter on behalf of a Government department, opening it eagerly for news of your status. Which of these opening phrases would you instantly regard as MOST worrying?
    The one word 'regret' suggests you should prepare yourself for bad news. It is very unlikely that the civil servant who wrote the letter has any emotional involvement in your case, but this form of language is still used as a 'shielding formality'.
  2. Which of the following openings, of an otherwise similar formal letter, would be most likely to offer you hope and relief?
    Answer 4 suggests that the letter, plus any enclosed / attached documents, should formally guarantee that you have been granted whatever it was that you had applied for.
  3. According to traditional convention, if the letter began 'Dear M/r/s X., ... ', what phrase should correctly be used to sign it off?
    Answer 3 is correct with regard to formal / official letters, between people who know one another's name but have probably never met. The element of 'sincerity' conveys slightly greater warmth than ‘Yours faithfully’ which, while meaning broadly well, is effectively a bland greeting between strangers. Meanwhile Answers 1 and (the virtually imaginary) 2 almost suggest that the writer of the letter does not quite expect you to believe what they have said.
  4. WITHOUT looking at any actual letters or envelopes, which of these is the correct way to lay out a British address?
    Answer 2 is correct, with the name of the addressee (person being written to) at the top, and going downward by stages to the wider elements of the address, except the postcode at the bottom.
    Note the format and punctuation of British postcodes.
  5. As a fairly well-known member of the expatriate community where you are living/staying, you receive a formal invitation as follows; which would (officially) be the appropriate way to reply?
    'On behalf of the Boghampton International Twinning Committee
    The Mayor and Mayoress of Boghampton request the pleasure of the company of
    ( ... your name ... )
    at a Drinks Reception in the Civic Suite at Boghampton Town Hall
    from 7:15pm on Friday 31st June
    Lounge Suits
    R.S.V.P.'
    The formal 'third-person' invitation requires a matching Answer, i.e. as in no.2.
    Answer 1 is too informal and does not confirm who is sending the reply (i.e. 'you'!) ; similarly with No.3; No.4 is well-intentioned and clear, but not the standard way of doing things (though they would very probably forgive you, as a 'foreigner / non-native', for not quite knowing!).
  6. You are reading the local news ~ always a good way of keeping your language fresh, along with your memories of places and people you met there ~ for a part of Britain where you previously spent some time (maybe as an au-pair in a family, or as a longish-term homestay TEFL student), and which you therefore remember particularly fondly.
    To your dismay, there has been a murder in this town or village (quite a small community, and now fairly obviously shocked at what's happened). The report ends by saying:
    'A local man in his late twenties is currently helping police with their enquiries'.
    What does this tell you?
    Despite the sinister circumstances and the feel of the phrase, there is no specific suggestion (as in the false Answer 3) that the man is guilty ~ though it may turn out that he is: along the lines of the infamous Ian Huntley, caretaker at the Soham school where two young girls were murdered in 2002.
    You may wish to contact your old friends in the area to let them know you are thinking of them ...
  7. Following from Question 6, a need may sometimes arise for you to write 'in condolence' to express your sadness that someone you met has died. The ways of doing this will vary more or less infinitely depending on who you are, who they were, how you were connected and who you are writing to afterwards; but which of these might be the safest reasonable start?
    Answer 1 may seem rather formal but it is sincere enough and expressed in measured language. Answer 2 is far too informal (unless you knew/know Grace pretty closely); Answer 3 is heavily overstated and probably not very helpful ~ how would you like to be reminded of the obvious in such a heavy-handed, cliche-ridden way? Answer 4 is probably too brisk and casual for the circumstances, and once again the cliche offers little real comfort.
  8. Another potentially uncomfortable situation in which you would have to 'weigh your words' would be when writing to make a formal complaint to some organisation that had treated you badly. These days a first approach would more likely be made on the phone or online, but as a 'prelude' to formal written procedures (maybe even, eventually, involving lawyers) you would wish to register a firm and objective complaint, so you write to the highest level of Manager that you can identify. How might your letter best begin?
    Answer 4 offers the most appropriate such 'barebones' letter, though the Real Thing would presumably include further circumstantial details in a second paragraph.
    Answer 1 is worthy but pompous and longwinded with its long, convoluted unpunctuated sentence that is somewhat overstated and cliche-ridden. Meanwhile the middle two Answers are far too colloquial and rough-and-ready if you are hoping for a constructive, collaborative response from one of the senior people at the firm that made this defective unit.
  9. You are writing to a company with whom you were persuaded ~ during an earlier visit to England ~ to take out some form of membership or subscription. You explain to them that you no longer need their service/s and wish to terminate your subscription.
    Which of these would be the most appropriate and diplomatic way to conclude your letter?
    Answer 1 is rude and dismissive, and a sad way to put an end to what should have been a helpful and constructive association with the company; Answer 2 may happen to be true, but why need you be so blunt about it? Answer 4 is pompous and exaggerated, but Answer 3 manages to steer a reasonable middle course between these various temptations. It is also correctly signed-off, and the use of a (slightly 'arch') rhetorical question does at least raise the feint suggestion of dialogue ~ or at least, open ongoing communication ~ between you and the company, with no hard feelings invoked either way.
  10. You have been invited, by a British organisation, to submit a Character Reference for a longstanding friend. You do not wish to make him out as unbelievably perfect: like anyone else, he has his 'good days and bad days', is occasionally unpunctual, and will not always just 'take it on the chin' when he is treated shoddily by managers or customers.
    What fairly standard phrases can you safely use to hint at these quite normal human qualities, without it sounding unduly critical?
    Answer 1 covers most of the details given in the description, in a way which is reasonably accurate and positive; the alliterative F's on the two adjectives are a slight cliche but help to add a touch of style to the description.
    Answer 2 is perhaps just a little too upbeat; it also begs the question as to whether or not he meets these standards of his own (which apparently he doesn't, as sometimes, we were told, he can be unpunctual and/or lose his temper).
    Answer 3 is too personal and lacking in the kind of detail that would be helpful to the organisation; Answer 4 is similarly unspecific and altogether too 'chummy' in tone.

Author: Ian Miles

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