Is e-mailing more like “writing” or more like “talking”?

The Pew Internet in American Life Project released a fascinating report last month on "Teens, Technology & Writing" that concluded, "Teens write a lot, but they do not think of their e-mails, instant and text messages as writing." As a writing instructor, I wonder about the implications of this — especially whether I'm fighting an uphill battle trying to get students to hold e-mail messages to the same standard as formal writing.

My argument for formal e-mails is that students need to learn to express themselves in many modes, in order to meet the expectations of various audiences. You don't communicate with your friends in the same mode that you use with your family members or bosses or teachers. Writing to people such as the latter — who are in a position to evaluate you (e.g. fire you, give you a bad grade, deny you an interview) — in an informal mode seems immature and irresponsible.

Sure, sometimes e-mails are sent from handheld devices and feel more
like a text message than a letter. And instant messaging happens in the same
place as e-mailing (say, in Gmail) so I can see how people could
equivocate the two. But it seems better that students err on the side
of being too formal than being too informal, especially with people
upon whom they're trying to make a professional impression.

Maybe formal communication is just falling by the wayside in an increasingly informal world, where hierarchies are flattened and
more parents or teachers (though, I'd argue, not most employers) are expected to act like friends instead of
authority figures. Maybe I'm just clinging to old-fashioned habits: Back in college, my business-writing instructor taught that all letters needed both a salutation ("Dear So-and-So") and a sign-off ("Sincerely," etc.), and I feel a bit rude when I occasionally omit those in e-mails. Or maybe my background as a professional writer and editor forged an obsession with proof-reading typed words to a degree that other people might not care about or notice.

But my students are, after all, majoring in journalism and communication. If they don't learn to be formal when they send e-mails to me, their writing instructor, will they use the right mode when they apply for jobs to strangers who have little evidence of their abilities other than that e-mail message, cover letter or resume?

I've even toyed with the idea of enforcing formal writing in e-mail messages by returning slapdash e-mails to students for revision and refusing to reply until they've been edited and proofread. Google Labs offers a "canned response" feature that makes this relatively feasible. But still, who has time to be such a stickler?


  1. In a formal e-mail, I almost always tack a “Sincerely” at the end. For less formal, I use “Cheers.” However, I have dropped the introductory “Dear” almost entirely; for me, that word sounds far too personal. Is the head of LIU PR “dear” to me? Not especially, despite the inferred politeness. In the same way “To whom it may concern” sounds both robotic and coldly impersonal. Usually I just opt for “Hi xxx,” or the slightly more personal “Hello xxx.” Friendly, but not invasive.
    Proper grammar, spelling and punctuation in e-mail is a whole other matter. I loathe when single letters are substituted for full words, even more so when the messages themselves don’t make sense to begin with. It’s not enough to simply say, “But I e-mailed you!” Your message HAS TO MAKE SENSE.
    For what it’s worth, I think you should be that stickler.

  2. I can tell that you take your language very seriously, Ian. When you type “sincerely,” do you stop and think whether you really, really mean everything that you’ve written in your message? I’m also a big fan of “yours truly” and “warm regards” — though I use the latter judiciously, on occasions when I have kind feelings toward someone (or maybe if the radiator is working overtime and I can sincerely claim to feel warm.) Okay, with that I’m kidding, sort of.

  3. “Sincerely” is very much a formality. Even if I’m not internally sincere about everything I’m typing in an e-mail, the fact that I’m writing formal correspondence makes me want to give the appearance, at the very least, of being that way. Image is very much everything.

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