Learning the Parts of a Letter

Letter writing is one of the oldest forms of written communication. As a mainstay in communication, the letter has gone through transformations to accommodate personal and professional use. Today, the general consensus is that there are 5–7 parts of a letter that outline the standard letter writing format for personal or business communication. The website English Plus has handy guides that are broken down In this blog.

The Personal/Friendly Letter

Personal letter format (obtained from English Plus)

English Plus outlines five parts of a personal letter, not used in a business setting.

1. The heading

This includes the address, line by line, with the last line being the date. Skip a line after the heading. The heading is indented to the middle of the page. If using pre-addressed stationery, add just the date.

2. The greeting

The greeting always ends with a comma. The greeting may be formal, beginning with the word “dear” and using the person’s given name or relationship, or it may be informal if appropriate. (Occasionally very personal greetings may end with an exclamation point for emphasis.)

Formal: Dear Uncle Mike, Dear Ms. Jillian

Informal: Hi Darryl, Greetings!

3. The body 

Also known as the main text. This includes the message you want to write. Normally in a friendly letter, the beginning of paragraphs is indented. If not indented, be sure to skip a space between paragraphs. Skip a line after the greeting and before the close.

4. The complimentary close

This short expression is always a few words on a single line. It ends in a comma. It should be indented to the same column as the heading. Skip one to three spaces (two is usual) for the signature line.

Formal: Sincerely, Best

Informal: All my love, Eagerly awaiting your response

5. The signature line

Type or print your name. The handwritten signature goes above this line and below the close. The signature line and the handwritten signature are indented to the same column as the close. The signature should be written in blue or black ink. If the letter is quite informal, you may omit the signature line as long as you sign the letter.

Optional is a postscript. If your letter contains a postscript, begin it with P.S. and end it with your initials. Skip a line after the signature line to begin the postscript.

The Business Letter

Two formats for business letters. From left to right, “Modified Block Style” and “Block Style” (Obtained from English Plus)

A business letter is more formal than a personal letter. It has two crucial components: (1) A margin of at least one inch on all four edges and (2) written on an 8.5-inch x 11-inch piece of unlined paper. There are six parts to a business letter.

1. The heading

 This contains the return address (usually two or three lines) with the date on the last line.

Sometimes, it may be necessary to include a line after the address and before the date for a phone number, fax number, E-mail address, or something similar. Often a line is skipped between the address and date. That should always be done if the heading is next to the left margin. (See Business Letter Styles.) It is not necessary to type the return address if you are using stationery with the return address already imprinted. Always include the date.

Third format for business letter: “Semiblock Style” (Obtained from English Plus)

2. The inside address

This is the address you are sending your letter to. Make it as complete as possible. Include titles and names if you know them. This is always on the left margin. If an 8.5-inch x 11-inch paper is folded in thirds to fit in a standard 9-inch business envelope, the inside address can appear through the window in the envelope. An inside address also helps the recipient route the letter properly and can help should the envelope be damaged, and the address become unreadable. Skip a line after the heading before the inside address. Skip another line after the inside address before the greeting.

3. The greeting

Also called the salutation. The greeting in a business letter is always formal. It normally begins with the word “Dear” and always includes the person’s last name. It normally has a title. Use a first name only if the title is unclear–for example, you are writing to someone named “Sam,” but do not know whether the person is male or female. The greeting in a business letter always ends in a colon.

4. The body

The body is written as text. A business letter is never hand-written. Depending on the letter style you choose, paragraphs may be indented. Regardless of format, skip a line between paragraphs.

Skip a line between the greeting and the body. Skip a line between the body and the close.

5. The complimentary close 

This short, polite closing ends with a comma. It is either at the left margin or its left edge is in the center, depending on the Business Letter Style that you use. It begins at the same column the heading does.

The block style is becoming more widely used because there is no indenting to bother with in the whole letter.

6. The signature line 

Skip two lines (unless you have unusually wide or narrow lines) and type out the name to be signed. This customarily includes a middle initial but does not have to. Women may indicate how they wish to be addressed by placing Miss, Mrs., Ms. or similar title in parentheses before their name. The signature line may include a second line for a title, if appropriate. The term “By direction” in the second line means that a superior is authorizing the signer. The signature should start directly above the first letter of the signature line in the space between the close and the signature line. Use blue or black ink. Business letters should not contain postscripts, and certain companies may have house formats that vary slightly.

Mastering the art of the personal and business letter is invaluable to your communication skills. Although email, text, and other social media chat options have dominated the communication space since the 1970’s and the 1990’s, letter writing is still a skill that demands expertise.

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3 Comments on “Learning the Parts of a Letter”

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