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Hello IELTS General candidates, if you’re struggling with writing keep reading because you can’t neglect Writing Task 1 – the letter. 

It’s actually worth 33% of your mark and could be the difference between the score you want and the score you get; and one of best ways to improve your score is to get the formality or the ‘tone’ of the letter just right.

Overview

Before we look at the 8 dos and don’ts of maximising your score for tone, we need to understand the difference between:

  • Formal
  • Semi-formal, and
  • Informal letter letters

What does formality mean in terms of language? Let me give you a quick analogy.

Imagine you are invited to a wedding at Buckingham Palace. This is obviously a very formal event; you’re going to meet the queen! And you rock up, in informal clothes.

Or, imagine that one of your friends is having a backyard cricket match and BBQ and you decide to wear a three-piece suit!

So language is kind of similar to fashion – just like you need to choose your outfit to suit the occasion, you need to change your language to suit the setting as well. This is what the IELTS call ‘tone’. 

Download our free IELTS General Writing Task 1 PDF

How to choose the tone for my IELTS letter?

Now, on test day they don’t tell you what type of letter you need to write– formal, semi-formal or informal. It’s not indicated anywhere on the page. Instead, you need to infer it. What I mean by that is that you will need to look carefully at:

  1. who you’re writing to – that pretty much gives it away
  2. what your relationship is with the person you’re writing to – whether you’re close or not
  3. whether you know the person or not
  4. and why you’re writing the letter. 

It’s actually pretty easy to infer this information, but let’s do a little bit of practice. Take a look at this prompt and tell me if it’s a formal, informal or semi-formal letter.

You recently purchased an item of clothing from a local clothing store. Upon returning home, you noticed that the item was faulty.

Write a letter to the Manager of the clothing store. In the letter,

  • Describe where, when and why you purchased the item
  • Explain the problem with the item 
  • Request a refund or an exchange

You can infer from this letter that you need to use formal language. Why? 

  1. who you’re writing to – a manager
  2. what your relationship is with the person you’re writing to – not close
  3. whether you know the person or not – don’t know
  4. and why you’re writing the letter – to suggest different opening hours

Purpose of the letter

Now that we know we need to write a formal letter, we need to think about the purpose of the letter. This is because the purpose and tone of the letter are inextricably linked, and the language choices you make depend on what you’re trying to achieve.  

In formal or semi-formal letters you may trying to:

  • Complain about someone or something – for example, a noisy neighbour or a broken computer
  • Request something – like a refund or an exchange
  • Enquire about something – such as the ticket prices and start times of a show
  • Recommend someone or something – maybe recommend a colleague for a job promotion or recommend a particular website to your boss
  • Suggest something – perhaps you would like more exercise bikes in your gym

This is not a complete list but it gives you a pretty good idea of the different purposes – or reasons for writing – you might have to deal with using formal or semi-formal language.

With informal letters, it may include some of the previous list but also might include:

  • Inviting someone somewhere – like a friend out to dinner or on a holiday
  • Thanking someone – maybe someone bought you a great birthday gift

So, let’s take a closer look at how to complain formally, semi-formally or informally:

Complaining in your IELTS Writing Task 1 Letter

Compare these three sentences:

Formal: I would like to make a complaint about a t-shirt I recently purchased from your store.

Semi-Formal: I am disappointed with a t-shirt I recently purchased at your shop.

Informal: I’m not very happy about that t-shirt I picked up at your garage sale.

Ok, first of all, it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll have to complain to a friend – or, in other words, write an informal complaint letter. But nevertheless, what I want to show you is what constitutes or makes up formal vs informal language. Let’s take a closer look at that first sentence:

I would like to make a complaint about a t-shirt I recently purchased at your store.

First, notice the modal verb: would – I would like to. Formal writing often contains the modal verbs could and would.

Second, notice the noun: complaint – make a complaint. Because this is formal writing I have used a noun instead of a verb. Put another way, I have written make a complaint about rather than complain about

Third, notice the word purchased. Can you think of a simpler synonym? What about bought. When we compare purchase vs bought you can see that purchase is more formal vocabulary.

Let’s now take a look at the semi-formal sentence I wrote:

I am disappointed with a t-shirt I recently purchased at your shop.

This sentence is a little less formal that the one we just looked at. But it isn’t informal either. You probably wouldn’t say this to a friend. So what makes it semi-formal?

First, there’s not contraction with I am. I have not written I’m. 

Second, I have again used the word purchased instead of bought or even a less formal way of saying purchased or bought which is picked up.

Third, I’ve used shop instead of store which is a little less formal because it’s a little less common.

So this sentence kind of sits between the formal and the informal sentence. Let’s take a look at the informal sentence, and again, it’s unlikely that you would complain to a friend in writing, but nevertheless let’s look at how the language changes.

I’m not very happy about that t-shirt I picked up at your garage sale.

First, notice that I’ve used a contraction “I’m” rather than I am. 

Second, I have used ‘not’ as in ‘not happy’ where I could have said ‘unhappy’ if it were more formal.

Third, I’ve used ‘not very happy’ to soften the tone because I’m speaking to a friend. There is a difference between ‘I’m not happy about’ and ‘I’m not very happy about’ – it makes it a bit friendlier.

Download our free IELTS General Writing Task 1 PDF

Fourth, notice that I have not used the word purchase or buy; instead, I’ve used ‘pick up’. If you pick something up from a shop, for example, it means you purchased it or you bought it but it’s a lot less formal. This is called a phrasal verb and you should certainly use these in your informal writing.

Okay – so we’ve had a look at some of the formal, semi-formal and informal language around complaining. Now let’s do it one more time but look at how we might make a request using different levels of formality.

Requests in your IELTS Writing Task 1 Letter

FORMAL – Could I kindly request that the volume of the music is decreased in the cafeteria during lunch times?

  • Notice the modal verb could
  • Notice the adverb kindly
  • Notice the word request as opposed to “ask”
  • Notice the passive sentence “is decreased” rather than “you decrease”
  • Notice the word decrease as opposed to “turn down”
  • Notice the word cafeteria as opposed to the shortened form “café”

SEMI-FORMAL – Would you be able to make sure the music is not too loud in the café during lunch times?

  • Notice the modal verb would
  • Notice the phrase be able to
  • Notice the phrase make sure
  • Notice the phrase not too loud
  • Notice the shortened form café as opposed to cafeteria

INFORMAL – Can you please turn down the music in the café during lunch? 

  • Notice how direct this question is: Can you please…
  • Notice the phrasal verb turn down as opposed to decrease

So, what have we learned about the use of language to manipulate formality? Well, we’ve learned 8 things about formal, semi-formal and informal language use. Let’s step through them one by one.

First, formal language reduces the use of subjects such as I and you – where possible.

Second, formal language is less direct. 

Third, because it’s less direct formal language uses more passive sentences such as “Could the volume of the music be decreased?” rather than “Could you decrease the volume of the music?”

Fourth, formal language uses modal verbs could and would

Fifth, formal language uses less common but more precise vocabulary such as purchase or decrease

Sixth, formal language tends to use nouns rather than verbs such as “complaint” rather than “complain”

Seventh, formal language does not use contractions… so you say I am rather than I’m or could not as opposed to couldn’t. 

Eighth, formal language uses adverbs such as “kindly” or “quite” to boost formality

Eight things to consider when writing in a formal way.

  1. Informal language uses more subjects such as I and you.
  2. Informal language is more direct.
  3. Because it’s more direct, informal language uses more active sentences than passive sentences.
  4. Informal language uses the modal verbs can and will
  5. Fifth, informal language uses more common – or less fancy – words and phrasal verbs such as “buy” or “pick up” “turn down”. 
  6. Informal language tends to use verbs rather than nouns – like “I need to complain about” rather than “I would like to make a complaint about…”
  7. Informal language uses contractions, so you say “I’m” or “can’t” or “won’t”. 
  8. Informal language uses adverbs such as ‘very’ or ‘really’ to make language friendlier

Eight things to consider when writing in semi-formal language.

  1. Semi-formal language uses subjects such as I and you some of the time
  2. Semi-formal language is more direct than formal language and less direct than informal language
  3. Semi-formal language uses both active and passive sentences where appropriate
  4. Semi-formal language can use could, would, can or will depending on the sentence.
  5. Semi-formal language should use the ‘in between word’ so, not purchase or pick up but ‘buy’.
  6. Semi-formal language can use verbs or nouns depending on what you’re saying so you can say “I would like to make a complaint” or you can say “I am writing to complain about”
  7. Semi-formal language does not use contractions.
  8. Semi-formal language uses adverbs to soften or harden language

Download our free IELTS General Writing Task 1 PDF

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