The Lost Formality of Letter Writing

Dear Friends and Lovers,

When I was in grade school, (not sure which grade: homeschool years all blend together,) my writing book had a section on the formal writing of letters. Each letter must have a heading, a greeting, a body full of either chatty anecdotes, witty quips, or occasional fulsome gratitude, and then a formal close and farewell. I had to write fake letter after fake letter until my teacher-mom was satisfied, and I could move onto the next unit. The main interest of the exercise was to relieve the dreariness of 5-sentence paragraph writing.

As I progressed in my studies and pretentiousness, various examples of epistles came before me: Daddy-Long-Legs, Mr. Darcy’s letter,  Woman in White, and the correspondence of the Mr. and Mrs. Adams. Each gave me an idea of how to write an organized, proper and, most importantly, interesting letter.

My favorite example of a formal letter comes from C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian. High King Peter dictates a challenge to King Miraz, a document wreathed in formal titles, archaic phrasing, and righteous with cool confidence. I modeled quite a few missives after Peter’s, finding obscure titles for myself and the intended recipient and couching every term in as medieval an accent as I could conjure.

But the age of email dawned, and there are now few calls for the formality of letters. And that lack of pen and paper seems to encourage casual correspondence.

Recently I have had the dubious honor of being on the receiving end of a few formal communications. Or rather, they were short queries from students that should have been formal.

I know for a fact that the grade school students at my school learn and practice letter writing. Yet through either the strange and laid back aura of the interwebs, or the lazy and rebellious disease that attacks middle and high schoolers, my students cannot formulate a proper email. Granted, their questions and requests are usually brief and quickly dispatched.

But I would have died before I sent an email to my professors with the greeting “hey”. Not me name or a proper address, just “hey”.

As a teacher, I also highly recommend using correct capitalization and punctuation in all communiques with a teacher. Yet many students neglect this simple strategy of currying favoring. (Or at least non-ill-will.)

But my biggest pet peeve, pulled from almost all student emails, is lack of a close to the email. Yes, I know that your name and address appears in my inbox. No, I don’t need your signature to know who you are. But typing out “sincerely, yours” brings the whole note to an easy, pleasant completion. An empty space at the end of an email feels unbalanced, disordered, impolite, cheeky insolent . . . etc.

So, dear readers, kindred spirits, erudite partakers of tea and enlightenment, think twice before snapping at a student for insolence sending an email. The Person the other end might be judging you in need of the old world formalities to alleviate her cynicism.

With the utmost gratitude, sincerity, and snarky sermonizing,

Melpomene
Muse of Tragedy, Lady of Melancholy,  Loamer of Egotists, Companion of Nienna, Teacher of Sarcasm, Magistra, Queen of the Classroom, Non-Answerer of Informal Emails, Poetess extraordinaire, and Instigator of Havoc

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3 thoughts on “The Lost Formality of Letter Writing

  1. Oh gracious. I suddenly feel the weight of your judgment for my last few e-mails sent casually sans closing! Which, if one were to lisp by mistake, would sound like it was sent without clothing. Erlack.

    Clearly I have not invested enough time in properly titling myself. I thank thee for thy instruction, good Lady.

    Very truly yours,
    Terpsichore
    Child of Memory, Muse of Choral Song, Lady of Joyous Dances, Answerer of Rhetorical Questions, Lewisian Amatrix, Procrastinatrix, and Bartendrix

  2. To Terpsichore, Lady of Joyous Dances, Child of Memory, Keeper of Club, from Melpomene, Humble Admirer: greetings!

    Please forgive my strident tone and judicial pronouncements on on these matters; bear in mind that is was inspired by a few recent and truly slipshod attempts at communication from students. And thus this is merely a warm up for the full blown lecture on the subject which I intend to unloose on my classes Monday. (The lecture will be sans the personal intro.)

    And really, everyone has sent an email sans clothing a few times. It is not nearly as scintillating as it sounds! 🙂

    So valetis, valeo.
    M

  3. A great post. It’s strange, but my mother, a nigh legendary Literature teacher, falls into this trap sometimes, to the point where she needs reminding that her communications sound abrupt. It truly must be an effect of e-mail because she’s always been strict with me about proper note and letter writing.

    Also, Procrastinatrix is my new favorite word. I’d never thought about using the feminine suffix.

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