Stylistic Features of English Business Letter
As a functional style with strong practicality, business English belongs to document style. It includes letter, telegraph, fax, as well as contract, L/C and other documents. For the important role it plays during modern business activities and the particular stylistic features it holds, this paper attempts to analyze it from the following three hierarchies, those are, lexis, syntax, discourse and rhetoric.
Key Words: stylistic features; English business letter; word; sentence
With China opening to the outside world and entering into WTO, and the development of its market economy, foreign trade has improved a lot. China has become a hot spot to expand economic cooperation and investment with more and more countries and companies, which provide not only an opportunity, but also a much higher requirement for foreign trade work. Although the traditional business letter, telegraphy and fax had been taken place by email during the long-term development, the style of English business letter, which is formed among international business relations, reserved its distinct features. This paper will describe them from lexis, syntax, discourse and rhetoric.
2. Stylistic Features at Lexical Level
There is close relationship between words and style, so the men who studies English stylistic features usually quote the sentence defined by Jonathan Swift. That is “set a suitable word in the suitable place”(Wang Zuoliang, Ding Wangdao, 1987).
2.1. Formal esp. big words
English business letter is a comparatively formal style widely used in the trading between merchant and customer, so the words it adopted should not only be precise, but also tactful.
For example, we use “inform”, “market”, “purchase”, “require”, “commence”, “manufacture”, “discrepancy”, “covering” instead of “tell”, “sell”, “buy”, “begin”, “make”, “difference”, “about” in business letter. That is because big words are more formal than small words in most occasions.
1)We would like to work with you to market them in Canada.
2)Such an agreement would not only facilitate our sales promotion, but would also eliminate unnecessary discrepancies between your offers when quoting through different channels.
In the course of study, we usually encounter some component words, such as “inconvenience”, “imperfectness (of packing)”, “inexpensive”, “unacceptable”, ect. These words can express the meaning appropriately. In addition, euphemisms are much easier to be accepted. On the contrary, the meaning of “trouble”, “bad packing”, “cheap”, and “cannot accept” are over-direct and likely to show a disgruntled mood. For instance:
3) Your price is unacceptable.
We cannot accept your price.
Although these two sentences have the same meaning, “unacceptable”, which means “the price is high”, states an objective fact. While, “cannot accept” is much too subjective and unbelievable.
2.2. Special terms
English business letters refer to each tache affected during the whole procedure, and some related documents include bills, documentations, protocols, contracts and so on. Therefore, it has certain features of law English and document English.
2.2.1. Prepositional phrases
4) This offer is firm, subject to your reply which should reach us not later than the end of this month.
The sentence can be paraphrased like this: If your reply can reach us before the end of this month, this offer will not change. So “subject to” in this sentence means “due to”, “attribute”, or “result in”. Some other phrases in English business letters also have special meanings, such as “be interested in/ be in the market for”, “to place an/ one’s order”, “to fill an/ one’s order”, and “be for one’s account”.
Many archaisms seldom used in other fields could still be found in English business letters. These archaisms make business letters rather formal, for example:
5) We hereby authorize you to negotiate for our account draft drawn by Messrs.
6) The respective quantities available for prompt shipment are indicated therein.
In these two sentences, “hereby” is equal to “by this”, while “therein” is equal to “in that”.
On account of the idiosyncrasy and the efficiency, there exists a large number of abbreviations in English business letters, such as “FOB”(free on board)，“CIF”(cost, insurance and freight), “B/L”(bill of lading)，“S/D”(sight draft)，“D/P”(document against payment).
Long time practice and relevant stipulate endued them a certain stable meaning, which is convenient for convey the concept clearly, and will not cause misunderstanding between both parts.
2.2.4. Borrowed words
Since business English is used for international communication, it absorbed many efficient expression from other countries and nationalities to broaden the quantity of its own during the long-term practice(Meng Guangjun, 2000). For example, “status quo” from Latin, “del credere” from Italian, and “rendezvous” from French.
2.3. Polite words & “you attitude”
In the foreign business trade, the achievement of every business is related to the close cooperation between both parts. Thus, polite words and phrases can not only embody that this business worker is cultivated, but also set a perfect image of his company. Then it will make a favorable environment, which is beneficial for further negotiation, and establish a friendly business relationship.
On receiving of an inquiry, offer or order from the contractual joint-venture enterprise, you should express sincere thanks no matter whether it can be accepted. For instance:
7) We are pleased to receive your inquiry of 10th January.
When you are going to convey some information to the other side, polite phrase is very important.
8) Much to our delight, our manufacturers have agreed to advance their delivery to you.
9) Much to our regret, as your price is out of line with the market level; it is difficult for us to accept it.
10) Although we are keen to meet your requirements, we regret being unable to comply with your request for a reduction in price.
Polite words are equally significant if you’d like to bring forward a requirement or expectation.
11) Your prompt attention and cooperation in this matter will be highly appreciated.
Besides, we can follow the “you attitude” principle when writing an English business letter. In another word, place yourself at the other side, and then consider their requirements, profits, willingness and feeling, in order to respect and recognize them.
Compare the following two groups of expression.
12) We thank you for your close cooperation.
Your close cooperation will be highly appreciated.
13) We shall find a ready market for your products.
Your products will enjoy a ready market here.
Obviously, the second sentence of each group is more polite and acceptable. Nevertheless, “you attitude” does not mean to use “you (your)” instead of “we (our)”. Conversely, using “first person” pronoun flexibly at given situation sometimes is a way to bear responsibility and reduce the blame from others, which can exactly show the essence of “you attitude”. For example:
14) As our customers are badly in need of these goods, we hope you will send them at an early date.
In respect that, we should be highly careful to use this principle in an elastic way. If not, the sentence will be self-defeating or impolite.
2.4. Conversion of the word’s meaning
The following words are very common in daily life. They are also widely used in English business letters, however, the meaning of them are transformed because of the specialty business English holds.
15) In reply, we would like to offer, subject to your reply reaching us here before the end of this month.
16) It is our custom to accept orders against confirmed irrevocable L/C, valid for at least 21 days beyond the prescribed date of shipment.
17) We have drawn on you through the Bank of China for this amount at sight with the relative shipping documents for collection.
In the above examples, “subject”, “against” and “collection” means “due”, “in accordance with” and “commission” respectively.
The table on the next page presents some typical words with meaning changed in business letter.
Form this table we can find that, even the part of speech of some words has been changed. As a functional style with strong practicality, the words used in English business letters should be accord with the special situation it took place, which is one of its stylistic features.
Table 1 Typical words with meaning changed in business letters
2.5. Plural form with single meaning
Big corporation and enterprise have some thing in common with government institution, although the correspondence between their customers and them are in the form of business letter in most time. So it belongs to a kind of documents(Wang Zuoliang, Ding Wangdao, 1987). In these letters, “first person singular” is absent. This is partly due to the avoidance of personal feeling. Besides, the “third person singular” is also seldom used. Even the nouns related are mostly presented as plural forms.
(18) We wish to introduce ourselves to you as a state operated corporation dealing exclusively in light industrial products.
These nouns in italicized form in the following sentences have no plural meaning and are usually seen as a single unit, which is a realization of this stylistic feature.
(19) Unfortunately we have found upon examining the parts that their quality confirms neither to the specifications stipulated in the contract, nor to those of your samples.
(20) We regret to find that our suppliers cannot get the shipment ready before the expiration of the shipping time, because…
(21) Please find enclosed our invoice No. 785 for $570 and note that we have drawn on you through our bankers, the Bank of China, for this amount at sight with the relative shipping documents attached for collection.
Besides, some words like “term”, “sale” are often used in their plural form in business letters.
(22) Your payment terms by L/C at sight are acceptable to us.
(23) The stipulations in the relative credit should strictly conform to the terms sated in our Sales Confirmation in order to avoid the trouble of subsequent amendments.
2.6. Vague words
“Vague” is different from “equivocal”. It merges the plasticity and finiteness of some words connotation with the indefinite and infinite of their denotation(Mo Zaishu, 1998).
By using this method, the implied meaning can be easily expressed. For example:
(24) As for goods Art. No. 120, we are not able to make you orders because another supplier is offering us the similar quality at a lower price.
This sentence doesn’t finger out directly whether the price is high. It only uses “another supplier”, a tactful periphrasis, to imply their attitude. Yet, who is “another supplier” or how much is the “lower price”? There is no doubt that their clear attitude has been conveyed out of the vague expression. Another example:
(25) What you mentioned in your letter in connection with the question of agency has had our attention and we shall give this matter careful consideration and shall revert to it later on.
“Has had our attention” and “give this matter careful consideration” in this sentence haven’t show any definite concept or attitude, in another word, no positive or negative mood is shown through. And “revert to it later on” is even much vaguer. Whether this behavior would take place depends on further cooperation between them. Anyway, this expression can not only take the partner’s emotion and acceptability into consideration, but also protect the relationship efficiently.
3.Stylistic Features at Syntactic Level
English business letters emphasis a principle called “3C”. That is, clearness, conciseness and courtesy(Meng Guangjun, 2000). Consequently, we should pay much attention to the sentence structure and voice when reading or writing such letters.
3.1. Preference of declarative sentence
Declarative sentences are used more frequently for narration, explanation and statement in English business letters to maintain a friendly and equal relationship between both parts. Imperative sentences are seldom used even if you hope the other part to do something, for example:
(26) We suggest you reconsider your price, and bring it into line with the international market price.
(27) It would be appreciated if you could send us your shipping instructions.
Some imperative sentences can be found in business letters. However, these sentences aim to express a request rather than give an order or command.
(28) Kindly mail us your catalog and details of your specifications.
As for interrogative sentences, they are not used for inquiry or question, but as a suggestion. This is another typical representation of courtesy.
(29) May I suggest that you cut down the quantity of your order by half?
On the contrary, negative sentences or over-direct statements will leave your business partner an impression of being impolite and hard to get along with. So in the following two examples, sentence (31) is preferred.
(30) We cannot fill your order because you failed to send your check.
(31) We shall be glad to fill your order as soon as we receive your check.
3.2. Content-packed sentence
Content-packed sentences like compound sentences, complex sentences and extended simple sentences are often found in business letters, which correspond with the function of document writings.
Firstly, this kind of structure can leave others the impression of being formal and logic. Secondly, to make the business conditions and possible results clear in one sentence can avoid misunderstanding, which will reduce any dispute in later time.
(32) We are glad to have filled your order after long delay and trust that the goods will reach you in time to meet your urgent need and that they will turn out to your complete satisfaction. (compound sentence)
(33) Referring to our letters and telexes in respect to Order No. 2170 for 1,000 metric tons of Tin Foil Sheets, so far we have no definite information from you about the delivery time, although these goods are contracted for shipment before the end of last month. (complex sentence)
(34) In accordance with the contract, you are kindly requested to open within ten days after receipt of this preliminary shipping advice, with the Bank of China, the relative L/C in our favor, to be advised to us by the Union Bank of Switzerland, Zurich.( extended simple sentences)
3.3. Periodic sentence
Different arrangement of the sequence of the main clause and the dependent one of a sentence will cause different linguistic effect. As a basic structure we used in daily communication, loose sentence is more convenient for organizing and understanding. However, periodic sentence is made by writer or speaker intentionally in most time. Placing the secondary clause in the beginning of a sentence can direct the reader’s attention to the real typical information. The later main clause occurs, the stronger of suspense atmosphere(Wang Zuoliang, Ding Wangdao, 1987).
In written English, the capital information are usually put at the end of the whole sentence. This principle also holds true in English business letters. It will not merely enhance the formality of this style, but also highlight the real significant information.
An ordinary way to write an inquiry:
(35) It will be appreciated if you will cable us a firm offer.
When the “–ing” form or prepositional phrase used as adverbial in the sentence:
(36) In reply to your enquiry of the letter in June, we’re enclosing…. Owing to the late arrival of the L/C, we are unable to make shipment according to the date specified in the S/C.
“If-protasis” or pro forma subject/object structure should be put in front of the sentence, following the mainly information:
(37) If you do purchase this kind of commodity, we can supply the quantity you require. (38) It is impossible for us to accept your counterbid.
3.4. Inverted sentence
Commonly, we use inverted structure in order to balance the whole sentence, or to emphasize certain part of a sentence. In business letters it is often used when a material is attached to the letter.
(39) Enclosed pleased find a full range of catalogues covering the textile accessories inquired in your letter of…(enclosed is…)
(40) Should there be any breakage, please do not hesitate to let us know.
(41) Upon receipt of your advice, we shall open the L/C immediately.
“Enclose” in the first sentence derives from the traditional way of sending letters. As a matter of fact, nowadays, people are more likely to use email instead of regular letters. However, this habit has already accepted by most people.
3.5. Passive voice
The use of passive voice in business letter aims to make the statement more objective and tactful, for example:
(42) In case no settlement can be reached between the two parties through negotiation, the case under dispute shall be submitted for arbitration.
4. Stylistic Features at Discourse Level
Text is a language unit, which possesses a certain communicational function. English business letter has its own textual features for the special associates in the business trading.
A formal business letter usually consists of the following parts:
A. Stationery and letterhead/ return address
B. Date line
C. Inside address
It covers the name of the receiver & corporation and its address.
The traditional formal salutation is Madam, Dear Sirs (Mesdames), or Gentlemen. If you are familiar with the receiver, such salutation as Dear Mr. Smith or Dear Miss Jones can also be used. In modern times, the salutation becomes more and more informal, just like Dear Manager, Dear Export Department, etc. It is even omitted in some situation.
E. Subject line
Subject line and Caption are often written in the middle above the body.
It is the main part of the whole letter, and consists of two, three or four brief paragraphs.
G. Complimentary closings
There are different forms of complimentary closings, such as “Yours faithfully”, “Yours sincerely”, “Very respectfully yours”, “Truly yours”, “Sincerely”, “Respectfully”. “Yours faithfully” is favored in British, while “Yours sincerely”, in American Business.
I. Reference initials
If you have some documents enclosed, write down “Encl(s)…” as well as the name and quantity of it.
Postscript is a necessary part if additional information is needed as supplement, we can write it down with “P.S.” at the bottom of this letter.
English business letters often express a single case in one letter to avoid misunderstanding, which is convenient for getting the accurate reply from the other part. However, if it is necessary to bring forward several questions into one letter, you’d better add titles and insist on a principle called the general rule of one paragraph for one point (Mo Zaishu, 1998).
Generally speaking, the body of a business letter is composed of three parts, which are opening paragraph or sentence, purpose paragraph or actual message and closing paragraph. We should adopt different text structure according to different situation.
4.1. Direct approach
By direct approach, we mean putting the satisfactory information at the beginning of the letter, and concluding the letter with a polite tone, for example:
(43) We are pleased to inform you that the following goods under our Contract No. CC1200 have now been shipped by S.S. Dongfeng sailing tomorrow from Guangzhou to Sydney.(opening paragraph)
Copies of the relative shipping documents are enclosed, thus you may find no trouble in taking delivery of the goods when they arrived.(purpose paragraph)
Availing ourselves of this opportunity, we wish to thank you for your close cooperation.(closing paragraph)
4.2. Indirect approach
To avoid the possible bad influence on trade relations caused by over-direct expression when we are going to convey dissatisfactory information, we choose an indirect way, which is dividing the whole letter into five parts: neutral statement, reasons, refusal, alternative, goodwill ending.
We adopt this approach to ease up the tone and get rid of the abruptness as possible as we can. After reading the neutral statement and feasible reason, one could easily accept the refused content. Alternative and goodwill ending can further eliminate the unhappy feeling of your business associate. For instance:
(44) Dear Sirs,
We are in receipt of your letter of 8th June and regret to note your complaint respecting the Woolen Goods we sent you by S.S. “Dongfeng”. (neutral statement)
We have booked up the matter in our records, and was evidenced by the B/L. It is therefore, quite obvious that the damage complained of must have taken place in transit.(reasons) In the circumstances, we are apparently not liable for the damage (refusal) and would advise you to claim on the shipping company who should be held responsible. (alternative)
At any rate, we thank you for bringing this to our attention and if you feel it necessary we shall be pleased to take the matter up on your behalf with the shipping company concerned. (goodwill ending)
5. Rhetoric Feature
English business letters have a stylistic feature of clearness, formality, courtesy and conciseness. As a result, how to choose appropriate adjectives, mood and figure of speech becomes greatly important.
5.1. Descriptive adjectives
At the beginning of establishing trade relations, companies tend to make an necessary introduction about t hemselves in order to create a good environment and gain the credence from the trading partner. Then, it exist a large number of descriptive adjectives with laudatory meaning.
For example, we use “well-developed”, “well-established” and ”well-managed” to modify companies or corporations, use “good”, “crisp”, “great” to modify demand, use “profitable”, “promising” to modify market, “reasonable”, ”competitive”, “rock-bottom” for price, “affirmative”, “positive”, “favorable” for reply, “favorable” for terms, and so on.
These adjectives are used frequently in business letters because of the uncertain but vivid feeling they conveyed. They mean to arouse a favorable impression of the receiver, and never limit any business action of themselves’.
Just imagine that if we adopt “best”, “absolute” which are widely used in advertisement to modify our products, the associates may care about the products and think over the real purpose of this business trading.
5.2. Euphemism & subjunctive mood
In daily life, subjunctive mood are mostly used to understate the speaker’s point, advice, or give out a requirement, invitation, recommendation or suggestion in a polite way(Meng Guangjun, 2000). Similarly, we use euphemism and subjunctive mood in business letters to make the mood seem more courteous. This feature is obviously presented in the following examples:
(45) We shall be very glad to place our order with you if your quotation is competitive and delivery date acceptable.
(46) May we ask for the favor of your advice, in confidence, as to the prudence of our allowing credit to the extent of US$5,000 to the firm named at the foot of this paper.
(47) Should you be prepared to reduce the price by, say, 5%, we would place trial order with you.
As a further kind of figurative language, metonymy refers to using an interrelated object to talk about a certain thing(Huang Ren, 1996). We also choose “part” to replace “whole”. For example, “hands” in “They were short of hands at harvest time.” means “workers”, “laborers” or “helpers”.
From the following two sentences, we can easily find that “metonymy” fits quite well with the “conciseness” principle of business letters.
(48) Five boxes were damaged. (“boxes” refers to “boxes of goods”)
(49) The substitute order we are shipping you today by airway express should reach you shortly. (“order” refers to “the goods ordered”)
Other figure of speech like “antonomasia” may also be found in English business letters. For instance, we briefly use a well-known brand stands for the product with this brand.
The most prominent feature of document style is the formal written language it used, which presents in three aspects. Firstly, try to avoid personal point and feeling for it on behalf of government. Secondly, the expression should be precise and tactful, and sometimes vague. Thirdly, it has lots of special terms and structures. For English business letter belongs to document, it has stylistic features such as conciseness, clearness, courtesy, formalness, concreteness, consideration and correctness. The lexis, syntax, discourse and rhetoric of it are deeply influenced by the vocational characters and the special situation in which the trading takes place. With the rapid development of modern trade, we should master it flexibly and precisely only by more reading, writing and summarizing.
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