Letters (Framework and Construction)
From Mechanics in Guide part of ABC of Plain Words by Sir E Gowers (1951)

The secret of devising the right framework for an official letter lies in finding the right answers to two questions. One is: how am I to start? The other is: to whom am I to attribute the sentiments, opinions and decisions that the letter contains? The old-fashioned full-dress official letter presents no difficulty. That must begin with the traditional

"In reply to your letter of . . , I am directed by the Secretary of State for . . . to state for the information of the Lords Commissioners of . . . ".

It must continue in the same strain. The signatory must efface his personality. He is nothing; his parliamentary chief is everything. Decisions and opinions must have an introductory "I am to say that . . ." or "the Secretary of State (or for variety Mr. . . . , or for further variety Mr. Secretary . . . ) has decided that . . .". The style is perhaps pompous, but it has the charm of ancient custom, and it is quite easy to learn. It is easy to overdo also, and a warning not to overdo it is the only advice that need be given about it. Do not be too free with its well-starched frills — "I am moreover to observe", "The Secretary of State cannot conceal from himself", "I am to ask that you will cause your Minister to be informed" and all that sort of thing. Even in the traditional field there is a salutary movement towards simplicity.

We find ourselves in more difficult country when we come to new fields of governmental activity, and the correspondence that grows in such profusion there. I mean that part of an official's duty which consists in explaining to members of the public the provisions of the innumerable laws and regulations by which they are protected, guided and restrained. For these the traditional style will not do. Not only is it too stiff, remote and unfriendly, but also it is really too ridiculous to go on pretending that the Ministerial head of the department has been told anything about such letters. Everyone knows that they are sent on the responsibility of one of his subordinates, exercising a delegated authority. A new framework must be devised. Since a wholly satisfactory one has not yet, I believe, been found, it is worthwhile to examine the problem in some detail.

Everyone's inclination is to follow tradition at least to the point of beginning all replies "In reply to ( or 'with reference to') your letter of . . . " That brings us to our first difficulty. If we are forbidden to follow our natural inclination to continue "I am directed", as we have seen we must be, how are we to go on?

In detail the possibilities are infinite, but the main forms are few. "I have (or 'I am') to inform you" used to be — perhaps still is — the most common. But it is unsatisfactory, not to say silly, with its mysterious suggestion of some compulsion working undisclosed in the background. "I would inform you" is another popular variant. It is passable, but not to be commended, for its archaic use of would in the sense of "I should like to" makes it stiff, as though one were to say "I would have you know". "I should inform you", in the sense of "it is my duty to inform you" is also passable and sometimes useful. But it will not do always; it is less suitable for beginning than for picking up something at the end ("I should add", "I should explain however") I beg to inform you " will not do. "I regret to inform you" and "I am glad to inform you" will do nicely when there is anything to be glad or sorry about, but that is not always. "In reply to your letter . . . I wish to inform you" (which I have seen) is crushingly stiff; this also is almost like saying "I would have you know". The passive ("you are informed", "it is regretted", "it is appreciated") has an impersonal aloofness that ought to rule it out conclusively, but I have noticed that it is common. There remains the device of plunging straight into saying what you have to say without any introductory words. But this will not do as a continuation of "In reply to your letter ". What is in reply to the letter is not the information but the giving of it. It is nonsense to say "In reply to your letter of ... you have already had all the petrol you are entitled to", or "In reply to your letter of . . . the Income Tax Law on personal allowances has been changed ".

Must we then conclude that in this type of letter we ought to abandon the stock opening "In reply to your letter " unless we can continue naturally with "I am glad to tell you ", or "I am sorry to have to tell you ", or some such phrase? Perhaps. Nothing would be lost. There are plenty of other ways of beginning that will not lead us into the same difficulties. The trouble about "In reply to your letter"is that it forms the beginning of a sentence which we must finish somehow. If we turn it into a complete sentence we shake off those shackles. This must be done with discretion; some attempts are unfortunate. For instance:

With reference to your claim. I have to advise you that before same is dealt with . . .

There is no need to start with an ejaculatory and verbless clause. All that was needed was to begin: "Before I can deal with your claim ". (For the misuse of advise and same in this example see Advise and Same.) Or again:

Your letter is acknowledged, and the following would appear to be the position.
Receipt of your letter is acknowledged. It is pointed out . . .

Here again is the inhuman third person. The right way of saying what these two were trying to say is "Thank you for your letter. The position is (or the facts are) as follows . . . "

I believe that a common opening formula during the war was:

Your letter of the ... about ... We really cannot see our way ...

I am told that this is fortunately dying out, perhaps because it is becoming less difficult to see our way.

Another not very happy effort is:

I refer to recent correspondence and to the form which you have completed . . .

There is a faint air of bombast about this: it vaguely recalls Pistol's way of talking ("I speak of Africa and golden joys"). Probably "Thank you for the completed form " would have been an adequate opening.

There are however many possible ways of turning "with reference to your letter " into a complete sentence without getting ourselves into trouble.

I have received your letter of . . .

Thank you for your letter of . . .

I am writing to you in reply to your letter of . . .

You wrote to me on such-and-such a subject

I have looked into the question of . . . about which you wrote to me

and so on. All enable you to say what you have to say as a direct statement without any preliminary words like "I have to say " or "I would say ".

There remains the second question. To whom are you to attribute the opinions and decisions which, having got over the first hurdle, you then proceed to deliver? In a large and increasing class of letters the answer is simple. These are the letters sent from those provincial offices of a Ministry that are in charge of an official who has a recognised status and title and who signs the letters himself. Such are Inspectors of Taxes, Collectors of Customs, the Regional Controllers of various Departments, Telephone Managers, and others. Everyone knows that these officers exercise a delegated authority; those who draft the letters for them to sign can use the first person, and all is plain sailing.

But a great many letters, sent from other branches of Government Departments, are signed not by someone of known status and authority, but by some unknown person in the hierarchy, who may or may not have consulted higher authority before signing; that is a matter of domestic organisation within the Department and is nobody else's business. To whom are the opinions and decisions conveyed in these letters to be attributed? It cannot be the Minister himself; we have ruled that out. There are four other possibilities. One is that the letter should be written in the first person, and that the official who signs it should boldly accept responsibility, tempered perhaps by the illegibility of his signature. The second is that responsibility should be spread by the use of the first person plural. The third is that it should be further diluted by attributing the decisions and opinions to "the Department ". The fourth is that responsibility should be assigned to a quarter mystically remote by the use throughout of the impersonal passive. To illustrate what I mean, let us take what must today be the most common type of letter; one turning down an application:

I have considered your application and do not think you have made out a case.

We have considered your application and do not think you have made a case.

The Department has (or have) considered your application and does (or do) not think you have made out a case.

Your application has been considered and it is not thought that you have made out a case.

I cannot pretend to be an authoritative guide on the comparative merits of these; no doubt every Department makes its own rules. But there are three things that seem to me important.

First, in letters' written in the first person be very careful to avoid giving the impression that an all-powerful individual is signifying his pleasure. If the letter grants what is asked for, never say that you are making a "concession". If it refuses a request never say, as in the example given, I do not think you have made out a case. Imply that what you have to do is not yourself to be your correspondent's judge, but merely to decide how the case before you fits into the instructions under which you work.

Secondly, it is a mistake to mix these methods in one letter unless there is good reason for it. If you choose an impersonal method, such as "the Department", you may of course need to introduce the first person for personal purposes such as "I am glad" or "I am sorry" or "I should like you to call here," "I am glad to say that the Department has . . . " But do not mix the methods merely for variety, saying I in the first paragraph, we in the second, the Department in the third, and it is in the fourth. Choose one and stick to it.

Thirdly, avoid the impersonal passive, with its formal unsympathetic phrases such as "it is felt", "it is regretted", "it is appreciated". Your correspondent wants to feel that he is dealing with human beings, not with robots. How feeble is the sentence "It is thought you will now have received the form of agreement" compared with "I expect you will have received the form of agreement by now".

It will be fitting to end this section by giving an example of what seems to me an admirably written letter.

I thank you for your letter of the 14th October, applying for telephone service F.... n 2462 made available by the removal of Mr. X from 25 Station Road. I regret however that owing to the large number of applicants who have prior claims to the line it will not be possible to allow you to take over that telephone installation.

I am sorry to have to give you this decision since I realise just how useful a telephone would be to you.

If you would like to have your name placed on the waiting list for a telephone at 25 Station Road, I shall be glad to have it recorded and to notify you as soon as telephone service can be given.