Conversational Email

By Ali Hale

One reader, Bruce, wrote in to ask:

I find it curious that the written word now includes expressions clearly intended for verbal exchange. I’m referring to many of the suggestions you provided for email. In an attempt to be accurate and possibly too literal, I have tended to opt out of those uses. Specifically, when using phrases or words such as: “I said”, I use “I stated”, instead of “looking forward to hearing back from you”, I use “looking forward to your response”. What is your take on this?

This is a fascinating question, and there is no easy answer. Ultimately, few people would be surprised or annoyed by the use of “said” and “heard” in emails, even business ones. Here’s a few points that Bruce, and anyone else who’s wondered about the same issue, might want to consider.

How common are verbal expressions in emails?

Searching Google for the phrase “I said in my email” gives 26,500 hits, suggesting that this expression is in fairly widespread usage. (And given that most instances will be in private emails, that are not indexed by Google, this is probably a fraction of the true number.)

Are emails closer to a letter or a phone call?

For those of us who use email daily (probably most Daily Writing Tips readers!), we often feel it fills a gap somewhere between letters and telephone calls. Of course, emails are written, like letters are, but they have the immediacy of a phone conversation, and often a similar degree of informality. This is one reason why many of us tend to drop into using verbal phrases in our emails.

My company has recently switched to using Google Mail, and email threads there are called “Conversations” by Google – again, suggesting that the way we think of email is bound up with verbal ideas.

Perhaps part of the influence comes from instant messaging applications. Just think of the word “chat”, which used to have a verbal meaning – for many people now, the primary association is with “chat room” and “chat client”. When messages are sent through these applications, the format is often “Johnny says…”

How formal should you be in an email?

As I mentioned in my article of email stock phrases, it’s often unnecessary to be as formal in an email as you would be in a letter. To many recipients, Bruce’s “I stated” would sound very formal – even a little standoffish.

If you do need to use formal or official language, though, it is safest to write “As I wrote in my previous email…” rather than “As I said in my previous email…” However, phrases like “Hope to hear from you soon” are appropriate even in a formal email if there’s a chance that the response might come by phone.

Were verbal expressions used in letters in the past?

One of my favourite books is an 18th century epistolary novel (a novel written as a series of letters between the characters) called Clarissa Harlowe, or, The History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson. His character Clarissa is a model of perfect behaviour and excellent letter-writing abilities. Early in the first volume (Letter II), she writes to her friend Anna:

My brother was then in Scotland, busying himself in viewing the condition of the considerable estate which was left him there by his generous godmother, together with one as considerable in Yorkshire.

In her next letter, Clarissa writes to Anna:

(my brother being then, as I have said, in Scotland)

From this, I would argue that the use of “said” to refer to something stated in previous written correspondence is not a 21st century innovation.

What’s your take on this?

Since this is an area with no hard-and-fast rules, it would be great to have your opinions. Do you think phrases like “As I said in my previous email” are appropriate? Would you write “Look forward to hearing from you” if you expected an emailed response?

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17 Responses to “Conversational Email”

  • Jaguar

    I looked up definitions of “say” and “hear”. While both words have many definitions related to sound (speaking aloud, perceiving with the ear, etc.) not all of the definitions fall into that category. Both “say” and “hear” have definitions regarding communication without an the auditory component. Therefore, it would be correct to use “say” and “hear” in written correspondence. However, formality or style may preclude their use.

  • Andrew Brennan

    I received an email yesterday which contained the following sentence –

    “I should like to thank you, on behalf of my client, for your interest and time.” It seems so old-fashioned and stuffy and I have no doubt I would feel exactly the same if it were sent to me via post.

    Another example. British MP, Ann Widdecombe, appeared on the television series Grumpy Old Women bemoaning the fact that the Microsoft paper-clip prompts it “looks like you are writing a letter”, instead of “It appears as if”. Who – apart from an old conservative – really cares?

    I think the email, the web, and even texting, have meant that professional and formal writing styles have had to adapt to the cultural context they now exist in. As a result they are now far more accessible, engaging and easier to read.

  • Ray Ward

    I think it’s okay to say “say” in an e-mail. It’s a literary device, the name of which I can’t remember now — where you use a word literally describing one sense to figuratively describe another. It’s like saying “I see” when you mean “I understand.”

  • Sushanta Kar

    Dear
    Friends of DWT
    I don’t think phrases like “As I said in my previous email” are appropriate . I’ll not write, I don’t write either “Look forward to hearing from you” .Rather I write ‘Looking forward to your next mail or next letter or writing. I personally like to see that people do differentiate between verbal & written communication.
    With Thanks
    Sushanta

  • PaulJ

    This used to bother me, but these days I tend to favour the use of “said” rather than “wrote” in most of my writing, for any purpose, on the basis that writing is a metaphor for speech.

  • Gerry Leaper

    I have forty plus years experience of writing business letters and reports. When I started writing again at the age of 63 [my last part-novel was torn up when I was 25] I had to rid myself of my English business style, and found it quite difficult, still if you have a story to tell everything is possible.
    As far as emails are concerned I treat them completely differently to letters, I consider emails to be replacements of telephone conversations and will use colloquial phrases never contemplated by a letter. What is more I feel quite comfortable with this.
    My letter writing style is still slightly formal, but since re-starting story telling it has relaxed somewhat.

    Gerry

  • Susabelle

    I write formally when it is required, whether that is a letter or an email.

    If I’m shooting off a simple email to a friend, I’m not as formal. I think it really depends on who you are addressing and what you are trying to accomplish in the communication. Sometimes a more formal approach is required, and sometimes a less formal approach is just fine.

  • david

    I am finding there is a lot of lack of emotion in communication via the internet medium. At least with hand writing there are indications to the emotions of a person writing, even the communication via the telephone is much better because one can understand the emotive force behind what is being said. For example, when I write: I am really happy. I could mean it sincerely or I could mean it sarcastically. The question is how will it be interpreted by the other person, which I have a real difficulty in assessing.

  • eve

    I agree with Susabelle, it depends who you are writing to, and the image you are wishing to portray. I like to “sound” professional but not pompous when writing to a business colleague.

    I usually err on the side of informality in an email, eg, ” as I said” not “as I stated”.

  • essay writing

    Email has been part of my daily life now, task delegation to resignation letters. Email has been the new paper, the formality of it actually depends on the things written in it. It can be just a simple casual hi, or a 100 word formal corporate resignation letter.

    Although the class is sometimes lost, like I remember when i do my book reports back in college and wanted everything to be on Class A substance 20 paper, now all you can do is paste it on the email body and try to tweak the fonts and highlights to make it more presentable and to have it stand out.

    But still email is something that we cannot deny that it is becoming the next medium of communication, however unappealing it can be for some of us..:)

  • John Hewitt

    I believe said does not have to be an audible statement. I apply it to any communication.

  • nick – supaproofread

    I think in a business setting that emails should be formal, but so many conversations are going on by email outside of business, meaning that the formality is not there. Now I don’t think this is a bad thing, but it could lead more and more people to use relaxed language and ‘text speak’ in further email conversations in the future.

    I believe that formal writing is needed in a formal setting, but if you are communication with friends and family then a relaxed approach is just fine.

  • Pat Mitchell

    I don’t know any other way to reach you to let you know that I have been unable to open your latest email. Something seems to be wrong with just the email since I am able to reach your web site.

  • Shanika Journey

    I have always written my emails as conversational. They are less likely to get thrown in the trash folder and deleted.

    I actually did a test between the two. My conversational emails were opened more frequently than a sale email, which alot of the top internet marketers love to do.

    Your shield is just not up with a friendlier email. As people see more and more frequently that you are talking to them as a “person”, not a “prospect”, you have gained their attention. And in the future, a response and a sale.

  • amr

    i need to write concise and tactfully

  • Ava Lucanus

    This is such an interesting subject because email is so new to society. Because email is written language and more challenging to generate the intended tone than a telephone call, I find softer indirect language works better. e.g. “You mentioned…” rather than “you said…”

  • Anbu

    Hi,

    Please review the below two statements that I using in my formal email communication and advice me which statement is good way of writing (“so” or “therefore”).

    statement#1:

    We need to confirm the testing time to users for the below activity, so we request to confirm the timing at the earliest today.

    statement#2:

    We need to confirm the testing time to users for the below activity, therefore we request to confirm the timing at the earliest today.

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