Writing Proper Emails to Teachers

Written by Joe Lau and Lusina Ho. Reprinted in Jennifer MacLennan (2009) Effective Communication for the Technical Professions 2nd edn. Oxford University Press.

Why bother?

When you write to friends you can be as informal as you wish. But when you write to your teacher, you should use proper and polite language. Why? You can communicate more effectively, and it gives people a better impression of your manners and abilities, which might be important if your teacher has to write a reference for you in the future. Also, by training yourself to write properly, you develop skills necessary to deal with future clients and supervisors, who are unlikely to tolerate bad email manners.

Commonsense, politeness, and correct grammar and spelling are the basic ingredients of a proper email. It does not have to be very formal. I have compiled a list of reminders below, which I hope you will find useful.

Some students might find this list ridiculous, and in a way it is. However, the problem is that very few students observe such rules, and yet respectable employers and companies often expect you to know these things. In any case, if you can leave a better impression at very little cost to yourself, why not do it?

Points to Note

  1. Avoid abbreviations and ICQ English. So do not use expressions such as "giv 2 u" or "b4". Always use capital "I" to refer to yourself. Use capital letters properly ("Dear Jimmy" and not "dear jimmy"). Otherwise you are giving the impression that the other person is not worth your time to write properly.
  2. A proper email should begin with an appropriate salutation. For example, "Dear Dr. Suzuki,"; "Dear Miss Chan". Avoid "Hi / Hey / Dear Sir" if you know the name of the addressee. You might skip the salutation only if you have exchanged a few emails on this topic already, and an informal email is appropriate for the context.
  3. After the salutation, begin the body of the email with an explanation of why you are sending the email, or explain the request that you are making.
  4. If you have a question about a course, say which course it is. This is because a teacher usually teaches more than one course each term. Give enough context so the teacher knows where your question is coming from.
  5. If you have a request, say it politely. You can start with "I would like to ...", "I wonder if you can ...", "May I ...", "Is it possible to ... ", "Do you mind ...". NOT: "I want to know ... / I want you to ... / Send this to me / Tell me when ...".
  6. Remember that just because you use the word "please", it does not mean that you are being polite. "Please" can be used in commands, e.g., "Please behave yourself.", "Please finish the project tomorrow.".
  7. After stating your request, never say "Please reply."; "Please reply as soon as possible." Even if a matter is urgent, it is very rude to say so, because these statements read more like commands than requests. Just explain that the matter is urgent, and the teacher / administrator will understand.
  8. If a teacher has responded to your request, always send a return email saying "Thank you". Otherwise you would appear to be rude.
  9. If you would like to make an appointment with the teacher / administrator, write it politely. For example, "I wonder if I could make an appointment with you ...", but not : "May I have an appointment with you so that you may have a chance to help."
  10. When making an appointment, you can suggest a few time slots, but always say something like "If these times do not suit you, please feel free to let me know any other time that you prefer / is convenient to you."
  11. If you cannot make the date suggested, say "I am sorry I cannot come to see you on [Monday]". Never say "I am not available on [Monday]" (teachers can say that to you, but not vice versa).
  12. If you have a suggestion for the teacher, avoid saying "I suggest you [do this or that]", "Send me XXX before YYY", "You may email the notes to me ." (These are polite commands.)
  13. If you have a course tutor, try consulting your tutor first. Avoid asking questions which you can find out the answers by yourself. Ask your classmates, and check the department web site or the course web site first.
  14. You should close an email properly, e.g. "Best wishes, Lala / Dada Wong", "Sincerely yours, Lala", "Regards, Lala", "Best, Lala" (the last one is more informal). Give your true name, never say "A student of PHIL1006", "Your tutee". Never leave the email unsigned, even if the "From:" field of the email already has your name.
  15. Always re-read your emails and check for spelling and grammatical mistakes before sending them.