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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