Punctuality Rules!

MM: Letterquette

MM: Letterquette


People don’t write letters as often as they used to–emails, yes; text messages, yes; the occasional hand-written note, even, yes … but actual letters? Not so much. Especially outside of normal business hours.

So, let’s review the essential elements of a basic letter, shall we?

  • Return Address: On both personal and business letters, the very top of the page should be the address of the letter’s sender. It can be on the left or the right margin, it just needs to be at the top. Naturally, if you’re using some kind of letterhead paper, this is already covered (even if it’s just a logo at the top, with the address in the footer).
  • Recipient’s Address: This is more for business letters, but in formal letters, it’s usually a good idea to put the address of where the letter is going, as well. This is particularly important if you’re using a window-envelope to mail it in (grin), but also helpful for future reference. You can skim through your old letters and see exactly where they went, without consulting your address book.
  • Date: The date of the letter–definitely important. My personal feeling is that this is essential, even on personal notes where I might skip the addresses at the top. The bare minimum for the header, is the date.
  • Salutation: “Dear _____,” This is where the real action of the letter starts–addressing the recipient by name. The word “Dear” is almost always included, but for personal notes, can be left out and just the name be used (“Dave,”). I honestly can’t think of a substitute for “Dear,” although there certainly might be one, but it IS the standard. As to the punctuation, personal letters usually end the salutation with a comma; business letters with a colon. At least, that’s the traditional format, though those rules have gotten “squishy” and these days it seems like either is acceptible.
  • Body: The actual text of the letter.
  • Closing: This is your chance to say, “Sincerely,” “With love,” “Cordially,” “Yours truly,” “Waiting with bells on,” or any other phrase you choose, but the one thing to remember is that only the first word of the Closing should be capitalized. Never write “With Love,” it should always be “With love,”. And, of course, the closing’s closing punctuation is the comma.
  • Signature: In a handwritten letter, this literally is just your signature, but in a formal, or typed letter, there is space left (traditionally 3 carriage returns) for the actual signature, followed by the written name, and titles if any. (“John Smith, Lead Adventurer”)

That’s essentially it. Granted, there can be other pieces–things like “cc” annotations for carbon copies, or whatever–but this is just about everything you need.

Again, a personal note to a friend isn’t going to be as formal as a business letter, and so might not need all these pieces. You can scrawl a note with just three pieces: “Dave, Got your note. Looking forward to seeing you on the 12th. John.” It certainly gets the job done, but then, it’s a note, not an actual letter. What’s the difference? Length, maybe? Structure, perhaps? Something like that (grin).

Incidentally, I did this post out of my memory of “Writing Classes Past”–did I miss anything??

7 thoughts on “MM: Letterquette

  1. --Deb

    Thing is, a lot of these pieces are there in an informal note, too–you don’t have to CALL it by its formal name for it to be there. My personal letters always have a date on the top, a salutation, a body, and a signature … sometimes I’ll jot in where I’m writing the letter from, and sometimes I’ll have a closing (“Love,”) but the other pieces are THERE. I’m just not thinking about them HAVING to be there (grin).

    –Deb’s last blog post..MM: Letterquette

  2. Kelly


    I love real letters. I feel good when I’m sending one and thrilled when I receive one that’s formatted well. They are rare enough that they make a very good impression, in business as well as in “life.”

    Re: dates. I even date post-its or other little memos. Sometimes the recipient hangs on to (buries) my “suggestion” for a while, and a date helps the person to know when it’s been a bit too long and they should get right on whatever it was.

    This post is a great reminder. Thanks!



    Kelly’s last blog post..Let’s Go Out and Not Come Back Tonight

  3. JC

    I know that it sounds odd and perhaps immature but the appropriate closing used by the president of the United States when writing other heads of state is “Your friend”. Cute, huh?

  4. Melissa Donovan

    @Deb, What do you think about emails that don’t have a salutation? I always try to start mine with a greeting unless I get into a really fast-paced conversation with short emails flying back and forth at a rapid rate. Then it’s more like an IM discussion. I notice many people forgo salutations on emails, especially after the first pass.

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..How to Face the Blank Page When Your Muse is on Vacation

  5. --Deb Post author

    I don’t think it’s fair to apply letter formatting to an email unless it’s VERY formal, because it’s a completely different format–you can’t expect them to be the same any more than television and movies are the same. There are some basic similarities, but still, different!

    Actually, if anything, I think of them more like memos rather than letters–they’ve got the To/From/Date/Subject format that a memo has, and memos don’t NEED salutations and closings. they’re just a statement. That said, I’m pretty casual about my emails. I’ll put the person’s name on the top, and put my name on the bottom of the first email, but if an exchange/conversation kicks up, don’t worry about it. At that point, I figure we know who we are!

    But, hmmm, I think now I’ve got my topic for next week’s MM!

    –Deb (signed on purpose)

  6. Pingback: Punctuality Rules! » Blog Archive » MM: Email–a Memo or a Letter?