All business letters should contain either a letterhead or a return address.
Business letterheads provide the following information to the recipient of the letter:
Legal name of the organization
Address of the organization, including street
name and/or post office box number, suite
number, city, state, and full ZIP code
Area code and telephone number(s)
Departments, branch offices, and company officers may have their own letterheads that contain specific identifiers.
In addition, the letterhead may also include the company logo, fax number, and email address.
When letterhead stationery is not available, a return address with the same information that a letterhead contains is placed immediately above the date line in the letter.
The date line appears two or three lines below the letterhead (or as many as six or seven lines below if the letter is short). If no letterhead is used, the date line appears directly underneath the return address.
The date line should never extend into either margin.
The normal order of elements in the date line are month, day, and year, e.g., July 15, 2005. However, in the U.S. Government and many foreign countries, the preference is to present the day before the month, e.g., 15 July 2005. In either case, abbreviations are not used.
Reference Line or Block
Reference lines should be used when the letter refers to several invoices, letters, or telephone conversations. They eliminate the need to include such information in the opening paragraph.
Reference lines or blocks appear immediately below or two lines below the date line, depending upon company preference. They can begin with RE or References.
If several references are listed, each may be preceded by a number or letter identifier to facilitate ease of referral (by number or letter) within the body of the document. In documents of multiple pages, reference lines may appear under the date in the heading of all pages.
Special notations, e.g., PERSONAL, CONFIDENTIAL, CERTIFIED MAIL, REGISTERED MAIL, SPECIAL DELIVERY, appear two lines below the date or reference line. When an inside address is included, the special notation appears between the date or reference line and the inside address. Capital letters are used to ensure visibility.
When two or more notations apply to a single letter, each appears directly beneath its predecessor without the inclusion of any blank lines.
To fulfill their intended function, special notations should be clearly visible.
The inside address appears below the date or reference line, and its content is consistent with the spelling, format, and punctuation shown on the receiving organization's letterhead or return address. It usually includes:
Letter length dictates the number of blank lines that are inserted between the date or reference line and the inside address.
The only abbreviations that may be used within an inside address are the standard two-character U.S. Postal Service abbreviations for states.
When the name of the intended reader is unknown, the letter should be addressed to a position title. If the letter is written to an organization, it should be addressed to the name of the organization (or the department within it).
An attention line is used when the inside address does not include either the name of an individual or the name of the department. It appears two lines below the inside address.
The word attention may have an initial capital letter or appear in all capitals. The use of a colon after the word is optional.
If the word "ATTENTION" is written in all capital letters, the name following should also appear in all capitals.
The salutation helps to establish the tone of the correspondence.
The salutation appears two spaces beneath the inside address and usually begins with the conventional greeting Dear followed by the title and name of the addressee. No punctuation follows the salutation in open punctuation style. In standard punctuation style, a colon (formal letters) or comma (informal letters) follows the salutation.
When the addressee's name is unknown, several options are available:
Ladies and Gentlemen: (or the reverse) Ladies: (all women) Dear Sir or Madam: (or the reverse) Gentlemen: (all men) Dear Friends: Dear Colleagues:
Sexist salutations, e.g., Dear Sirs, Gentlemen, etc., are not used.
When none of the non-gender alternatives seems appropriate, a simplified letter format (omitting the salutation) may be used. Another solution is to omit the gender title, e.g., Dear Chris Smith.
Descriptive subject lines instantly inform a reader of the general content of the letter. They also permit accurate filing and retrieval from files.
Subject lines specifically define the subject matter of the letter. They appear two lines below the salutation and two lines above the first line of the text, although the simplified letter format may have different spacing. Subject lines are highlighted by boldface type, underlining, or the use of all capital letters.
Text or Body
The text or body begins two lines below the salutation or subject line. (In the simplified letter format, the text begins three lines below the subject line.) The text is single or double spaced, depending on letter length.
Paragraphs are not indented in block, modified block, and simplified format letters; but they are indented (usually five spaces) in semiblock format letters. A blank line appears between paragraphs.
Long quotations are indented five spaces from both the left and right margins, with a blank line both before and after. A similar indentation is used for lists in letters with the semiblock format.
Reverse or "hanging" indentation is a format option, especially in advertising letters:
Keep us in mind when you think
about a new car. You can be
assured of quality and fine
service when you buy from us.
The first line begins flush with the left margin, with subsequent lines indented five spaces.
At least three lines of text must appear on any page following the initial page. If necessary, margins and line spacing are adjusted to meet this requirement.
Headings for Continuation Pages
Continuation pages begin with a heading which contains the name of the addressee, the page number, and the date. The continuation page can also repeat information given in the reference line.
The complimentary closing should convey the level of formality and degree of personal feeling that the writer has for the reader.
The complimentary closing (omitted in the simplified letter format) appears two lines below the last line of text. Its alignment varies with the format of the letter:
In block letters, the complimentary closing
appears flush with the left margin.
In modified and semiblock letters, the
complimentary appears right of center or may
be flush with the right margin.
Complimentary closings for business letters include:
Sincerely, Sincerely yours, Thank you, Regards,
Complimentary closings for informal letters include:
Best wishes, Kindest regards, Best regards, Cordially,
Complimentary closings for very formal letters (those addressed to dignitaries and high officials) include:
Yours sincerely, Respectfully yours, Respectfully,
The word "truly" has become a cliche and should be avoided in letter closings.
The signature block appears four or five lines beneath the complimentary closing (or at a like distance below the last line of text of simplified format letters). In block and simplified letters, the signature block is flush with the left margin, while in modified and semiblock letters, the signature is usually right of center.
The signature block contains the handwritten signature of the writer, the full typed name of the writer, and the title of the writer. The company name is optional.
The company name is only needed in a signature block when the letter represents a company policy, position, or decision.
Secretaries who sign a letter for the author should sign the author's name and then add their own initials either in the middle or on the right side under the signature.
Academic titles and professional titles, when used, follow the typed name and replace Dr. or other courtesy titles preceding the name.
Reference initials (the writer's initials and the inputter's initials) appear two lines below the last line of the signature block and flush with the left margin.
If only the inputter's initials are used, they are usually lowercase, e.g., rgn. If the writer's initials are included, they are in all capitals, followed by a slash mark or colon, and then followed by the inputter's initials in lower case, e.g., TLM/rgn or TLM:rgn.
If the writer is different from the person sending the letter, the signer's initials should appear first, the writer's initials should appear next, and the secretary's/typist's initials should appear last:
An enclosure notation reminds readers of enclosures and appears directly under reference initials. The following are examples of enclosure notation forms:
Enclosure Enc. Enclosures (3) 3 Enclosures Enclosures 3
Types of enclosures may be indicated:
Enclosures 1. Invoice 6234-44 2. Graph of sales activity 3. Letter of authorization
Items "enclosed" but separately sent should be indicated as follows:
1. Invoice 6234-44
2. Letter of authorization
3. Price list
Courtesy Copy Notation
A courtesy copy notation (showing the distribution of the letter) appears two lines below the enclosure notation and flush with the left margin:
All people receiving the letter in addition to the addressee are listed:
cc Edward Albers G.C. Fischer Merilee Tobias
Postscripts (additions to the letter after it has been typed or items needing emphasis) appear two lines below the last line of courtesy copy notation. The use of the initials PS or PPS is optional.