How to Format a US Business Letter

By Ali Hale - 5 minute read

background image 116

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. Different types of letters will require different types of subject and reference lines, so choose the one that’s most appropriate to your case.

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”.

Business letter tone

It’s very important that you choose the right voice and tone when writing your business letter. Using the correct format but choosing an improper type of language might affect your desired outcome. Here’s what the guys from thebalancecareers.com wrote about this:

Make the purpose of your letter clear through simple and targeted language, keeping the opening paragraph brief. You can start with, “I am writing in reference to…” and from there, communicate only what you need to say.

The subsequent paragraphs should include information that gives your reader a full understanding of your objective(s) but avoid meandering sentences and needlessly long words. Again, keep it concise to sustain their attention.

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

Want to improve your English in 5 minutes a day? Click here to subscribe and start receiving our writing tips and exercises via email every day.

Recommended Articles for You


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

  • kaily

    Many thanks for another informative post. It’s always good to know (or be reminded of) how to format a business letter – I look forward to seeing your UK version!

    Are you sure you have the closing phrases in the right order? Or is it different in the US? In the UK, I think it is more common to use “Yours faithfully” when one does not know the recipient’s name, and “Yours sincerely” when one does.

  • Charlie

    I am looking forward to the UK version of this subject. It was interesting to read the reasons for specific formatting items. In school we weren’t given the reasons, just the format.

  • Deborah H

    Last month I need to write a letter to a VIP. It was perhaps one of the most important letters I ever wrote. Before I was finished, I had all these books on my desk:

    “Standard Handbook for Secretaries”

    “Etiquette” by Emily Post … the July 1944 war edition

    “Protocol, The Complete Handbook of Diplomatic, Official, and Social Usage” by McCaffree, Innis, and Sand

    “A Pocket Style Manual” by Diana Hacker

    As you can see—I was a wreck over this letter. But I was satisfied by the time I was finished, and received an encouraging response in reply to the letter.

  • Michael R. Gale

    I have been reading your daily writing tips for several months and I generally find them informative. However, I must take exception to your column today regarding business letters. Regardless of whether one uses full block or modified block, the subject matter should be left aligned after the inside address and before the salutation. It would look like this:

    Date

    Inside Address
    Inside Address
    Inside Address

    RE: Subject of letter

    Dear Mr. Jones:

    In my 30 plus years of writing and receiving formal business letters I have never seen the subject after the salutation until today.

    Again, thank you for your tips. I hope you will reconsider your position (no pun intended) on the location of the subject matter.

    Best regards,
    Michael R. Gale

  • sheilagh romero

    Was there a specific word used for the “closing”? Example: Dear Sir is the salutation, what is the “Sincerely” called or is it just “the closing”?

    Thanks!

  • Ali

    Hi Sheilagh,

    I’ve only ever seen it called “the closing”, sometimes “the complimentary closing” … but if anyone else has seen a different name for this section, let us know!

  • Ali

    Michael, after a couple of responses along the same lines as yours, I’ve amended the post above to include the Reference Line and explain when it might be necessary to include one. Thanks for querying this!

  • Ann Massina

    Help, can you please advise is this (below) correct or not

    Yours sincerely
    TPW Consulting
    Per:

    Principal: «partnrName» e: «PtnerEmailAddress»
    Contact: «staffName» e: «StaffEmailAddress»

  • Ali

    Hi Ann,

    I’m not quite sure about your use of “Per:” there. What’s it supposed to signify? If you’re signing the letter on behalf of someone, use “p.p.”

    I would also put a comma after “Yours sincerely”.

    The rest looks fine!

  • chanel denise

    How to write a letter regarding the failure of NVC to recieve the previous letter forwarded to them.I was told to accomplish another documents of the same nature again.How am i to write the letter.

  • Raj Senthil

    After spending more than couple of hours at this website, I really feel that “I have missed it for a long time”. Wonderful effort.

  • Ryan

    wonderful site. saw it on webscape (click on line). Would be nice if you could add like a 100 business letters for reference or to use as an example.
    thank you.

  • Carol

    I am confused as to the correct formatting of the following:

    Should the Subject and Reference lines of a business letter precede the salutation? The business I work for requires the Subject precede the saluation and many times a Reference line is included in the same letter. How should these two lines be formatted? I don’t think this is correct, but would like to know the correct format.

    Is there a sample I can refer to?

  • house

    thanks so much

  • Lilian

    I would to thank for the good training but I have a lot of problem for writing all kind letter especially in my work because am the secretary.

    I would appreciate if you can assist in that issue

    Regards,

    Lily

  • Fabian Yoon

    I have to make a chance to sell our machines to U.S. contractors. So I write a circular mail revealing my mind to customer.
    But I don’t know how to describe that into sentences
    We manufacture so good machines such as concrete polishing machines,concrete grinding machines and scarifiers as well as vacuum cleaner needed for that operations.
    We have made that for 12 years in domestic market and get a good reputation from customers in Korea.
    help me!!

  • Peadar Cronin

    To whom it may concern:

    I have one question: when does one use right-alignment for the text of a business letter? Or is not ever considered appropriate to use right-alignment?
    Thank you for your response.
    Sincerely,
    Peadar Cronin

  • Rod

    Lily you’re hopeless

  • Stalin.D.J

    I want to more business sample letters for my business purpose so, could you please sent this forment and sample as soon as.
    Thanking you.

  • Bob Jones

    Dudes im reporting you to the police for theft of my name!

  • Micheal Jackson

    Please may you send some more info on Business Letter as I have to write a Business Letter to my email. Thanks

  • Rod

    Micheal? may you send…!, a letter to your e-mail? were you not dead?

  • julianah

    if there is attachement to the letter how do you indicate?

  • ahmed belal

    I want know from you that the format of the official letter and internal official letter.Thanks.

  • Beth

    Touché! I’ve just discovered I’ve been putting the date in the wrong place this whole time (that is, unless I’ve been writing to somebody in the UK, which I haven’t been). Thanks for this handy guide.

  • Paul F. D’Eramo

    When enclosing a resume is it appropriate to indicate at the lowest left column

    Enc: resume

  • Kristi

    I have a question actually, if someone wants to help. I am writing a letter for my boss and he requests that there is two signature lines, one for himself and one for his boss. How do you include 2 closing people on one letter?

  • Barbie

    When there is more than one signature, in what order do they go? Highest ranking first? Or lowest ranking first?

  • Nancy C

    how do I format the recipient’s name when it is being sent to 2 people at the same company?

    Mr. Fred Flintstone
    Executive Director

    Mr. Barney Rubble
    Dean of Rock Affairs

    DIno University
    1 Lodge Ave.
    Bedrock, TX 00001

    ?????????

  • Reja

    I want to learn well correspondend to other in English

  • Reja

    learnt something

  • Ali2

    What about signing for your boss as:

    Sincerely,

    My Boss/me

    Is this still appropriate? Where did p.p. come from and can you show it in a closing form please?

  • Cynthia Ashley

    your article about format us business letter can help me to write a job letter, but i need more information for reference, btw your article very help me one more step ahead

    Regard

  • jesstony

    thank for all i know the that i want to because of your good writing, and you give me all example of all forms of business letter pleas..? can i?

  • RB

    I’m writing a proposal to be submitted to a board for review on behalf of a client. What is the correct business writing etiqutte for this? Should i address this is submitted on behalf of ‘client’?

  • vishakha

    i want a sample quotation in us format

  • ProfK

    Standard American business correspondence does not use “yours faithfully” as a complimentary closing; the preferred closing is “sincerely” or “sincerely yours.” In addition, if the name of the person to whom the letter is being written is not known, do not use “Dear Sir or Madam.” Instead, address the letter to the job title: “Dear Customer Service Manager” or “Dear Purchasing Director.”

  • kandas

    Hi there,
    Can I start a formal letter with “Before or “After”?

  • EnglishTeacher

    I agree with ProfK regarding the complimentary close of a letter in the US. We Americans never use ‘Yours faithfully’. That is strictly British usage. We write ‘Sincerely,’ or ‘Sincerely yours,’.

    It is true that the salutation ‘Dear Sir or Madam’ is not common in the US but maybe Americans should adopt it. I think the British term is very courteous, convenient and appropriate. And that’s what my American colleague and I teach our students here in Germany.

  • aun

    i want to say that this formate for the business letter is not easy to understand please mention easy letter for business

  • jk

    I think ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ is more elegant (and chivalrous) than ‘Dear Sir or Madame’. Likewise the more genteel ‘Cordially’, when appropriate, to the rather insipid ‘Sincerely’.

  • Terry

    I LOVE this website. Will use it often. I’m here looking for the meaning of “####, but so far have been unsuccessful.
    Does anyone know what this means?

    Thanks,
    Terry

  • Annie J Solomon

    I wanted to know if you had a sample letter or a template which assisted in how to write a professional letter. I wanted to know the exact number of spaces I should enter, and if I have to double space after each period.

    Thanks
    Annie

  • Behram

    I have found two types of business letter format, but i studied five types, where are remaining?

    Tell me as soon as Possible.

    Best regards.

  • Alexander

    In case your seeking an employment does the letter have to be addressed to the Manager or Human Resource & Administration? eg.

    To: Chief Manager,
    Thro: Human Resource & Administration,
    P.O. Box xxx,
    Eldoret

  • Abigail

    “Terry” and “jk” –

    @Terry, if you’re seeing #### in a press release or raw news article, it indicates something called “boilerplate” language. Boilerplate is basically that blurb at the end of a news article that describes the subject of the article in a neat little tie-together (ie: a company that issues a release to announce a new partner might end with, “Acme Supplies, LLP, is the largest distributor of widgets in the Southeast region. Mr. Partner will work in the Atlanta office.” The idea is that if a publication has to cut the last few paragraphs from the end of the article to fit in a small space, they can run the boilerplate at the end so the article still concludes smoothly. *Side note: This is the same reason news writing is front-loaded with important facts and ends with less important ones.

    @”jk” – How would you use “Ladies and Gentlemen” when addressing a single reader (which I find is usually the case with a formal letter)? Perhaps, “Lady and Gentleman”? “Dear Sir or Madam” is certainly a widely accepted salutation in the U.S.

  • chris

    how do i need to write a letter stating that we are a software web developer looking for the services to give them and becomes a business partners.

  • Stefamoe

    I would like to see a sample on how to use the pp: when signing someones name please

  • stokes

    I am writing a letter of recommendation to a friend and colleague in education. She is a special ed teacher and I offer a program to her kids. I serve in ministry, and over the years own/run as many as three companies. How do I close the letter where titles and companies go under my name?

    Sincerely,

    Stokes ______
    Founder/President
    Company A, Company B, Company C

    Please Help!

  • Mark Ryan

    Two questions:
    1. Is it acceptable for busines letters to indent the addressee to align with an envelope window? It looks odd and like a mistake has been made.
    2. How do you address a letter wiht multiple recipients? That is each person gets and original; not a ‘cc’ situation.
    I would put each name followed by the address under the date but how do you follow Dear ??????
    Mark

Leave a comment: