A formal letter has a conventional structure. The sender’s postal address goes in the top right hand corner. The recipient’s postal address is written to the left and slightly below this with the date underneath.
A letter then opens with the greeting ‘Dear…’ If you do not know the name of the person you are writing to (for example if you were emailing a company about a product, rather than a particular person that works there), the convention is to start your letter with: ‘Dear Sir/Madam’.
The initial paragraph usually outlines the overall aim of the letter, and the conclusion summarises the main points.
Conventionally, there are different ways to end a letter, depending on the addressee.
If you have named the recipient at the start, (eg Dear Mr Banks/Dear Freya) your letter ends with ‘Yours sincerely’.
If you haven’t named the recipient at the start (eg Dear Sir/Madam) your letter ends with ‘Yours faithfully’.
In a formal letter, the convention is to use Standard English. The tone of your letter will vary depending on your purpose.
Here is an example of a job application letter (minus the sender's postal address and recipient's address). The writer’s overall purpose is to persuade the reader of their suitability for the role.
20th July 2016
Dear Mr Hopkins,
I am writing in response to the recent advertisement for the position of sales assistant that has become available in your shop. I would like to be considered for the position.
I am currently working in a local coffee shop, where I am responsible for the service and distribution of food and drink to customers. I am a key holder for the premises, and my daily duties include taking orders, dealing with customer queries and managing the till takings at the end of the working day. I work as part of a small team to ensure that the needs of the customers are met.
Before working in the coffee shop, I spent several years working as a sales assistant in a bookshop. In this role, I gained extensive experience of organisation, stocktaking and meeting specific requests for customer orders. In this full-time role, I developed interpersonal skills and confidence within customer service.
In addition to this I can offer competent skills with Microsoft Office software and I am currently completing an evening course in accounting. I have included details of my GCSE qualifications in my attached CV.
Thank for you taking the time to read my application; I look forward to hearing from you.
The opening paragraph outlines the purpose of the letter to the recipient. The writer then explains their previous experience in sales and refers to their qualifications to show that they are suitable. The closing paragraph refers back to the overall purpose, and assumes that the writer expects to hear from the recipient - this shows confidence.
Formal language is used and the writer ends her letter with ‘yours sincerely’ because she has used her recipient’s name at the start.