Skillset New Zealand Blog

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business writing

Let's get controversial.

Business letters in formal English are not more professional. They're just odd. They're not better service; they're aloof and cold and say, 'This is our routine letter because we couldn't be bothered writing one especially for you'. 

If your teachers taught you 'Commercial English', they were wrong to suggest it was the professional way to write.

You want some evidence? Fair enough. I'll prove to you soon that commercial English has been officially condemned since early last century, but let's be clear what we're talking about:

"Enclosed please find..."
"I refer to your letter of ..."
"I am writing to you regarding..."
"Your letter of June 30 refers, and we confirm..."
"We advise that as per..."
"Pursuant to Section 5 of the agreement..."
"If you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact the writer."

You could add a long list of report cliches modelled on the ivory-tower academic style.

Yes, many people do still write that way. We find that even millennials use at least a sprinkling of formal business language and academic cliches they picked up at university (often in a seemingly random combination with casual language).

They're missing the opportunity to engage their readers, build a rapport with them and give them better service. Many believe that formal business or academic cliches will make their writing more credible. The research shows the opposite.

So is this another argument for plain English?

Yes, but it's also much more than that. It's an argument for appropriate informality. Appropriate means appropriate to the relationship and the occasion, just as it would in a business conversation. Too much business writing is still inappropriately formal - to be frank, stuffy or lofty.

Look at it from the reader's point of view. Suppose you've called one of your suppliers, had the usual informal Kiwi business conversation and the rep says, 'I'll get back to you'. Two days later a letter arrives. "We refer to your enquiry of July 1 and wish to advise that the product discussed has been ordered and it is expected to be available within two weeks. We trust that this action meets with your approval". It's a string of formal clich├ęs. Is this the same person who seemed so welcoming and interested on the telephone?

Think of the reader - always

Imagine you are talking with your reader as you write. Your language will be more informal and you can add some of the other qualities of conversation. Put humans in your email or letter, especially your readers.  Keep showing how what you are saying is relevant to them, just as you would in a good conversation.

You'll  need some evidence to show that your colleagues are wrong to believe that formal writing has official approval.


Let's bring out the Ed Hillary of English usage. In Fowler's Modern English Usage, Henry Fowler provided the examples of formal writing in the first list and labels them 'commercialese'. I think we're safe in saying he doesn't approve. He quotes a whole committee of authorities who describe it as an 'evil tradition'. Evil? Wow!

Have I destroyed your faith in your stock formal phrases? Oh good. But let me offer some suggestions to at least open your emails or letters more informally.

'Thanks for your email telling us about...'
'It was good to hear from you on Tuesday. I was especially interested in your comments about...'
'Thanks for the meeting on Friday and for your interest in hearing more about...'
'Thank you for your proposal. We accept.'
"I have been thinking about your comments on Thursday. You were right, and we must take action immediately.
'I have some disappointing news for you.'
'Good news!'

Forget the cold, dry, meaningless formulae. Let's engage our readers.

Join the campaign.



This article was first published in New Zealand Management.


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