Language tips for email writers

This page brings up some aspects of writing in English that email writers often come across. Links are provided to other sections of AWELU with further information.

In English, both 'email' and 'e-mail' are used, although 'email' is much more common nowadays.

Formal or informal style?

Sometimes it is difficult to know how formal or how informal an email should be. The level of formality is not always a matter of what is correct or incorrect, but rather a decision you make in order to present your message in an appropriate way. What decides the level of formality is usually what you wish to say and who you are saying it to.

Purpose and audience

Let the purpose of the email and who you are writing to guide you, and consider how you wish your email to be perceived by the recipient:

Purpose: What do you want to say in your email? Do you want to answer a brief question or do you wish to share important information?

Audience: Who will read your email? Are you writing to someone you know (a colleague, a student?) or will your email be read by someone you have not previously been in contact with?

In professional emails, you may wish to consider the following language aspects:

Although there are no set rules here, the following differences are found between formal and informal email writing.

In formal writing, full forms are often used:

  • I will not be able to attend the meeting tomorrow.
  • We will need to look at this as soon as possible.

In informal writing, short forms and abbreviations are often used:

  • I won't be able to attend the meeting tomorrow.
  • We'll need to look at this asap.

Note that abbreviations and emojis may be difficult to understand and should only be used if you know that the reader of your email will appreciate and understand them.

Although there is usually no need to use complex words, knowing about the following aspects of word choice might help you find a level that suits your style and aim:

Work-related terminology

Always use clear and consice terminology so that your reader will understand what you refer to. For university-related terms, see

How do I know if a word is formal or informal?

Dictionaries provide much useful information. They give examples and often link to synonyms of different levels of formality. See:

Be polite

It goes without saying that politeness is important in professional correspondence. However, it can be difficult to know how to express politeness and also what the person you correspond with will consider to be polite.

Here are a few strategies to consider in polite correspondence:

If there has been a misunderstanding or mistake, assume responsibility instead of indicating that your correspondent has made a mistake:

  • I am sorry if our instructions were unclear. Please get back to us no later than 15 October.
  • Apologies if our previous email was unclear. We will need your response by 15 October.

Pose questions with modal verbs (such as could, would, might) or use the past tense:

  • Would it be possible to set up a meeting next week?
  • Could you please send me the report this week?
  • I was wondering if the exam is ready for copying?

Use the active voice

In emails, an active voice is easier to understand, especially if it helps clarify to the reader who will do what:

Use active verbs......instead of passive verbs
We will investigate the matterThe matter will be investigated.
Please fill out and return the form
to me by 20 May.
The form should be filled out and
be returned by 20 May

 

Read more about how and when to use active and passive voice here:

Beware of false friends

A false friend is a word that looks very similar to a word in another language but that does not mean the same thing. Below we list some common false friends in Swedish and English.

 

We will eventually succeed. The English word eventually means finally, in the end, whereas the Swedish word eventuellt means maybe, perhaps.

Next semester starts in early September. The English word semester means term (a part of the academic year), whereas the Swedish word semester means vacation.

These are the actual figures. The English word actual means existing, real, whereas the Swedish word aktuell means topical, current.

He went to the gymnasium. The English word gymnasium means gym, whereas the Swedish word gymnasium means upper secondary school.

She followed protocol. The English word protocol means a system of rules of accepted behaviour, whereas the Swedish word protokoll means meeting minutes.

The meaning was clear. The English word meaning means the understanding of a word, whereas the Swedish word mening often means sentence. This false friend is tricky: the Swedish verb mena is similar to the English verb mean, but the Swedish noun mening can mean both the English meaning and sentence.

I have the blanket in my office. The English word blanket means a wool cover for the bed, whereas the Swedish word blankett means a form (to be filled out).

The students were happy after their exam. The English word exam means test, whereas the Swedish word examen means graduation.

This is a personal matter. The English word personal means private, something that has to do with one person, whereas the Swedish word personal means staff. Note, though, that the English word personnel means staff.

Some university-related terms are easily mixed up as they are or resemble so-called false friends. Below we list some examples.

You will find university-related terminology here:

Swedish word English word Comment
UniversitetsrektorVice chancellor
  • The English word rector is often used for a member of the clergy.
  • Heads of schools are referred to as headmaster in British English and principal in Americal English
GymnasieutbildningUpper-secondary education
  • The English word gymnasium means gym.
  • The US equivalent of the Swedish gymnasieutbildning is (post-16) high school education
HögskolaUniversity college
  • High school in (American) English means upper-secondary education
  • An English translation of the Swedish term folkhögskola is independent adult education college
TerminSemester / Term
  • The English word semester is mainly used in the US, but is the preferred word at Lund University since it indicates the two-part academic year whereas the British English word term is used for academic years divided into three study periods.

How to write dates

Several formats can be used for dates. A common format in British English is date followed by month:

  • The conference dates are 2-5 October.
  • Our next seminar is on 10 May.

We recommend this format as it is not easily misunderstood.

Formats using numbers for months, such as in 10/5, can be read as 10 May by those used to a day-month format (used in Sweden and Britain, for instance), whereas by those accustomed to a month-day date system (used in the US, for instance), it will be read as 5 October.

Page Manager: aweluluse | 2021-12-02