How to Format a US Business Letter

By Ali Hale

Whatever you do – whether you’re a student, employed in an office job, or working as a freelancer – I can guarantee that at some point in your life, you’ll need to sit down and write a formal business letter.

It might be to a customer, to an employer with a job that you want, or to apply for university funding. Perhaps it’ll even be to a literary agent or publisher who just might take on your undiscovered novel. Of course, you’ll want the letter to be well-written – but almost as important is knowing how to format it correctly. This article is about US business letter format (for UK readers, don’t worry, I’ll be writing a follow-up one for you.)

The main formats for business letters in the US are called full block format and modified block format.

  • Full block format means that all the elements of the letter are left-justified so that the start of each line is at the left-hand margin. This is the more formal style, so use it if you’re unsure which to go for.
  • Modified block format means that some elements of the letter are shifted over to the right. Nowadays, this style is appropriate in most contexts.

Here’s a full block format letter

And a modified block format one:

Let’s break those down into the main elements, in top-to-bottom order:

Your Address

Your address, also known as the “return address”, should come first. (Note that this applies when using standard plain paper. If you have letter headed paper, you should omit this.)

123 Acacia Avenue
Newtown
Anywhere
AN 98765

Your return address should be positioned:

  • On the left-hand side if you’re using full block format
  • On the right-hand side (tab across, rather than right-aligning) if you’re using modified block format

Why put your address? Even if the recipient has your details in their address book, you want it to be as hassle-free as possible for them to reply – you’re likely to receive a speedier response.

The Date

Directly beneath your address, put the date on which the letter was written:

May 15, 2008

To avoid any confusion, especially if you are writing to a business abroad, it is best to put the date in word rather than number form, and you should omit the “th”.

The date should be positioned on the left-hand side, for full block format and for modified block format

Why put the date? It’s standard practice to include the date on which the letter was written. Correspondence is often filed in date order. It makes it much easier for the recipient to send a timely reply, and easier for you to chase up an answer if necessary. Eg. “In my letter of May 15…”

Reference Line

I’ve not included this on the diagram as guidance varies on where it should be placed. You may include a reference line, starting with “Re:” This is often used when corresponding with large companies, or when applying for a job. The reference line can either appear beneath the date, OR beneath the recipient’s address.

If you use a reference line, you should usually omit the subject line (see below).

The reference line should be left-aligned for both full and modified block formats.

Why put a reference line? You should use a reference line if the recipient has requested specific information, such as a job number or invoice number, or if you’re replying to a letter. This makes it easier for the recipient to get a speedy response to you.

Recipient’s Name and Address

Beneath this, you should put the name and address of the person you’re writing to, just as it would appear on the envelope. If you’re using a window envelope, this should be aligned on the page to show through the window – but even if it won’t be visible until the letter is opened, it should still be included.

The recipient’s name and address should be positioned on the left-hand side, for both formats.

Why put their address? If you’re writing to someone in an office, it probably won’t be them who opens the post. An administrator is likely to do so – and letters may be separated from their envelopes at this stage. Particularly if there are multiple departments within one building, or if you are starting your letter “Dear Bob”, a name and address ensures your letter reaches the correct recipient.

The Greeting

After their address, you should leave a line’s space then put “Dear Mr Jones”, “Dear Bob” or “Dear Sir/Madam” as appropriate. Follow this with a colon.

The greeting, sometimes called the “salutation”, should always be left-aligned.

Why put a greeting? Business letters are a formal type of writing, and it’s considered polite to start with a greeting. Although you can get away with starting emails “Hi” or “Hello”, letters follow more conservative conventions.

The Subject

Optionally, you may wish to include a subject for your letter. This is becoming more common, perhaps as people have become used to the subject lines of emails. If you do put a subject line, it should be in uppercase, directly below the “Dear name:”

The subject (if you include one) should be left-aligned for full block format, but can be either left aligned or centred for modified block format.

Why put the subject? It’s a good idea to include a subject so that the recipient can see at a glance what the letter refers to. Try to be succinct but include as much information as possible, eg. “Funding application from Joe Bloggs, candidate 222-456”.

The Text of Your Letter

Now, finally, you can write the main body of your letter. Your text should have:

  • Single-spacing between lines
  • A blank line (NOT an indent) before each new paragraph

(And, of course, you should conform to all the usual rules of grammar, punctuation and spelling: for example, ensuring that you start each sentence with a capital letter, and finish with a full stop.)

Why leave blank lines? In the business world, it’s standard practise to put a blank line between paragraphs. This helps to break up the text on the page and make it more readable.

The Closing

After the body of text, your letter should end with an appropriate closing phrase and a comma. The safest option is “Yours faithfully” (when you don’t know the name of the person to whom you are writing, ie. when you began “Dear Sir/Madam”) or “Yours sincerely” (when you do know their name). If you are already acquainted with the recipient, it may be appropriate to use a phrase such as “Best regards”, “With warmest regards”, or “Kind regards”.

The closing should be:

  • Left-aligned for full block format
  • On the right (tab across so it matches up with your address) for modified block format

Why use these phrases? Although “Yours sincerely” and “Yours faithfully” might sound archaic, they are time-honoured ways to close a formal letter.

Your Name and Signature

Put several blank lines after the “Yours sincerely,” or “Yours faithfully,” then type your name. You can optionally put your job title and company name on the line beneath this.

Joe Bloggs
Marketing Director, BizSolutions

Your name and signature should be:

  • Left-aligned for full block format
  • On the right (tab across so it matches up with your address) for modified block format

Why leave a blank space? The blank space is so that, when you’ve printed the letter, you can sign it with your name. This is taken as proof that the letter really is from the person whose name is typed at the bottom. Sometimes, another person may sign the letter on your behalf. If this is the case, they should put the letters “p.p.” before their name, which stands for the Latin per procurationem meaning “by agency”.

Enjoy writing your letters, and use the examples above to help you with the formatting if you do get stuck.

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77 Responses to “How to Format a US Business Letter”

  • Tharwat

    I have been receiving some business letters where they have put the recipient name, address, title etc. at the bottom of the page after ending the letter beneath the senders signature?
    can any one please clarify whats this new type of format? and is used correctly in writing letters?
    Thanx

  • Kirk Carter

    There is much to say in the world of writing business letters, however I try to be as personable as I can, never trying to seem too scripted, just try to get to the point as fast as I can and get on with the day…short and sweet is my motto!

  • venqax

    Hmmm…What comes through in the above is that when it comes to business letter formatting, either there really is no universally accepted “correct” standard (either anymore or ever), or no one is really able to say authortitavely what it is. Maybe even both, as confounded as this seems. You’d think that something as common as a business letter would be something easily standardized to a degree that no one even gave it much thought. Sort of like the format for addresses (at least in the US, don’t know about elsewhere). But then I have to explain the generic address block from the example:

    123 Acacia Avenue
    Newtown
    Anywhere
    AN 98765

    Huh? Is Anywhere the state? Do zip codes begin with letter prefixes? If so I think they’re classified top secret. Is this supposed to be:

    123 Acacia Avenue
    Portland
    Oregon
    XX 98765

    What kind of address is that? Not American, AFAIK. So I guess NOTHING is settled, finished, and done. I still use question marks for questions, right? ?

  • Charlie

    These formats are a mix of personal and business because they are addressed to the person. A business letter should be addressed to the company, and then to the attention of the person. This is from my 7th grade typing class in 1962. Apparently the article’s form of address is another one of those errors that has crept into popular use so much that it is no longer considered wrong — by those who don’t know better.

  • Annellen Barr

    Is the correct spacing between sentences within a paragraph
    two or three? I was told that 3 spaces is correct in computer typing whereas the old typewriter was 2 spaces.

    Help from this astute group please.

  • Marie

    This was extremely helpful. Thank you. I needed to write a letter to a judge concerning a case. I wanted it to be correct.

    The only thing I might ask to be added is a list of appropriate greetings for certain officials. “Dear Mr. ” may not always be the only choice. You could add things like The Honorable, or Your Excellency… depending on what the official title of the person you are addressing. I had to look elsewhere for that. But everything else was covered here!! Thanks!

  • E & L Reible

    We are trying to find direction for proper positioning of a pair of signatures, w/ their respective, typed ‘who from’ names.

    Should the block area be lg enough for two, or as the case may be, more hand signatures, OR should each signature be partnered w/ its typed name?

    P.S. i came back !) to see what just happened & 2) to correct my spelling.
    Thank you! Despite my apparent duplication, i have no
    assurance that i will even see assistance, until next-never-day, as my Mother used to say the phrase.

  • E & L Reible

    As i just typed in, but lost it while i returned to the heading of this website to learn the name – which now i SEE, just above all this – forgive me, i am new to web-land…

    Husband and i are trying to figure out the proper manner in which to sign our mutual banking letters, using both of our signatures and typed names.
    Shall we block an area lg enough for the both of us to sign together, w/ our typed names below them, OR should we type our two names, leaving areas for each of us to sign, above our own respective names?

  • Anne

    Thank you very very much ! This is most helpful. Finally the differences between US and UK business letters explained and clarified …

  • T. Smythe

    “Why do so few people understand puncuation. After “Regards” there should be a full stop, not a comma.

    Regards is a one word sentance and is a shortned version of “Thanks for reading the above.” Putting a comma means that you are thanking (or giving regards) to yourself, as in “Thanks for reading the above, Mr Simmons.””

    Actually, the comma IS correct. The single word ‘Regards’ is no more a sentence in and of itself than your name. As such, it does not need to follow proper sentence structure. The period, or full stop, is no more necessary than ensuring that the (to use your term) ‘sentance’ [sic] has a proper subject and predicate, or that the verb, or lack thereof, matches the subject.

    You are reading far too much into the ending of the letter. The signature block was never meant to be read as if it were yet another ‘shortned’ [sic] paragraph. Perhaps you should read up on the matter.

  • Marty

    Thank you for the refresher course on Business Letter Formats. When you are finished don’t forget to use the spell check i.e. practise vs. practice, above and behind “Why leave blank lines?” {:>)

  • Shelby

    When writing a modified block letter how far or how many inches to the right do you tab too. I have heard that you tab straight to the center and start writing, but it doesn’t seem to look right. Is tabbing further right considered business acceptable or no?

  • Irven Kuykendall(kirk-kin-doll)

    I hope I can, so you’all will understand what I’m trying to do in my email writing. I would like to know the procedure to start this sentence under “email writing?”

  • R Simmons

    Why do so few people understand puncuation. After “Regards” there should be a full stop, not a comma.

    Regards is a one word sentance and is a shortned version of “Thanks for reading the above.” Putting a comma means that you are thanking (or giving regards) to yourself, as in “Thanks for reading the above, Mr Simmons.”

  • Nirmal

    Dear Sir ,

    I am Nirmal from UAE, working in a freight forwarding company .I need to different types of emails like information , problem solving emails , instructions etc….to customer , shipping line , broker and local transporters . Here i request to you send some good official sense eamils

    Thanks
    Nirmal

  • Anas Thaha

    Dear Sir ,

    I am Anas Thaha from Saudi arabia , working in a freight forwarding company .I need to different types of emails like information , problem solving emails , instructions etc….to customer , shipping line , broker and local transporters . Here i request to you send some good official sense eamils

    Thanks
    Anas

  • samueljnolewis

    that was very helpfull to me because i did not know how exactly to write a letter of corespondance

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