In the IELTS general writing test, you need to produce a letter and this could be broadly categorised as formal or informal. However, there is another category in between that is often appropriate: semi-formal. As these are fairly common, I would like to explain to you how to write a semi-formal letter for IELTS.

new ielts book
Learn everything about IELTS letters in this book.

What is a Semi-Formal Letter?

To put it in its simplest terms, a semi-formal letter is one that fall in between formal and informal letters in terms of tone. There really is no precise definition of semi-formal except that which is neither formal nor informal.

As such, it is best to think in terms of examples to fully understand what semi-formal means and how to write such a letter. There are broadly two such situations:

  1. Writing to a person with whom you have a professional relationship but one that is fairly close (ie a manager or colleague that you know).
  2. Writing to a person with whom you have a personal relationship but about a difficult or unfortunate situation (ie something that would make them feel bad).

In the first situation, it could be possible to write a formal letter but as you know the person very well, you probably wouldn’t do this under normal circumstances. In the second, you could use informal language but because of the delicate nature of the situation, it would be better to avoid being overly informal and use more cautious language.

Other Examples of Semi-Formal Letter Prompts

The above two examples are the most common types of prompt requiring a semi-formal reply, but they are by no means the only ones, and it is not helpful to think in such limited terms. When preparing for IELTS, you should not memorise questions and you should likewise not group ideas too firmly. The nature of the test is to reflect real-world English use.

As such, there are other examples of times when semi-formal letters may be required. These include writing to people you don’t know but about relatively trivial matters. In such cases, you would probably not choose to use formal language because the situation is at odds with it. Likewise, informal language would be a bit inappropriate for writing to someone you have never met.

Examples of Prompts Requiring Semi-Formal Letters

Here is an example of the first situation:

You work for an international company. You have seen an advertisement for a training course which will be useful for your job.

Write a letter to your manager. In your letter

– describe the training course you want to do

– explain what the company could do to help you

– say how the course will be useful for your job

In this case, it is understandable to think that we might need to use a formal tone. After all, the setting is clearly a business one, with the recipient being our manager. For people in certain Asian countries, it might even seem unthinkable to use anything but formal language with an office superior.

However, in English-speaking countries, a person’s manager is not treated in such a deferential way. We would show them respect and do as they ask, but we would not use the sort of delicate language that we would reserve for people we don’t know.

Here is an example of the second situation:

You had arranged to go on holiday with your friend. However, you must change your plans.

Write a letter to your friend. In your letter:            

– say how much you were looking forward to the holiday

– explain why you had to change your plans

– suggest an alternative arrangement

In this case, your letter is addressed to a friend, so informal language seems appropriate. However, the tone of the letter would be a bit different because you are giving what is essentially bad news. It would not be appropriate to use very informal language when delivering bad news, so you should aim for a semi-formal tone instead.

(I will include sample answers to these two prompts at the bottom of this page.)

What is Semi-Formal Language?

Again, it is impossible to clearly define semi-formal language except to say that it is language that falls between formal and informal on a scale of register.

semi-formal letter for ielts

There are no words or phrases that you could definitively call “semi-formal” because there is always some overlap with the categories labelled “formal” and “informal,” but it is useful to look at vocabulary and grammar that might appear in semi-formal letters.

Here are some phrases that are common in all IELTS letters, with variants for formal, semi-formal, and informal tones:

FormalSemi-formalInformal
Dear Mrs SmithDear Susan / Dear Mrs SmithHi / Hello Susan
I am writing to inform you…I’m writing to let you know…Just wanted to let you know…
I regret to inform you…Unfortunately, I have to let you know…Sorry, but I have to tell you…
Yours SincerelySincerely / BestCheers / Thanks

As you can see, there is some overlap in these words and phrases, and of course as semi-formal incorporates a range of letter types, there are various possibilities for language choice here. You can see, for example, that a semi-formal letter may refer to a person by first name or title and surname. Clearly, it would be weird to refer to a friend as “Mrs Smith” but equally it might be inappropriate to refer to your boss in writing as “Susan.” For these reasons, whilst it is helpful to learn the differences between formal, semi-formal, and informal, you should also keep in mind the fact that not all letters in these individual categories will contain the same language.

Features of Formal and Informal Writing

I have written elsewhere about formal and informal writing but I will note again some of the key differences as they relate to semi-formal letters.

Abbreviations, for example, are common in informal writing but not in formal writing. As such, you can probably guess that we use them occasionally in semi-formal letters. It would be fine to say “I’m” or “we’re” in a semi-formal letter but don’t go over the top. Similarly, whilst acronyms may be fine in all forms of letter, I would avoid using internet-based ones for semi-formal or formal letters. That means no OMG or WTF.

Aim instead for a more neutral tone that is free of overly formal or overly informal language. Here is a simple guide:

 FormalSemi-formalInformal
Slang / ColloquialismsAvoidNo slang, but some colloquialisms are acceptableThese are fine
IdiomsAvoid or use minimallyAcceptableRecommended
Abbreviations / ContractionsAvoidUse occasionallyThese are fine
Polite languageYesYesYes
Very polite languageYesPerhapsNo

In addition to this, I will mention that it is always a good idea to avoid overly difficult vocabulary and grammar. These are usually problematic because they are hard to implement correctly. Unless you are sure that you know how and when to use such language, just avoid it. In a formal letter, it might be appropriate, but in the others it most likely would show a lack of awareness in terms of tone.

Format of a Semi-Formal Letter

The format of a semi-formal letter will basically be the same as any other letter. Fundamentally, all IELTS letters follow the same basic template, which of course would be modified slightly as per the specific details of the prompt:

  1. Greeting
  2. State the purpose / introduce letter
  3. Give details
  4. Sign off

These will differ massively from letter to letter but this relates to the purpose rather than the tone. For example, a letter to a friend might include a short personal note and a friendly message at the end, whereas a business letter might reiterate the main point or make a statement along the lines of “I hope to hear back from you…” before the sign-off. However, there is nothing specific to semi-formal letters.

Remember: There is no set number of paragraphs you should aim to write (unlike task 2, which should be done in 4 or 5 paragraphs) and the structure should ultimately be determined by the nature of the prompt. However, you can learn some useful patterns from the following sample letters.

Sample Semi-Formal Letter #1

Prompt:

You work for an international company. You have seen an advertisement for a training course which will be useful for your job.

Write a letter to your manager. In your letter

  • describe the training course you want to do
  • explain what the company could do to help you
  • say how the course will be useful for your job

Dear Mr. Rockwell,

I recently saw an advertisement for a training course that I think would be very useful for my professional development. I’m writing to let you know about it, and to make a request.

The course is in social media marketing, which of course is growing in importance every year. It aims to teach professionals in our industry how to leverage social media channels in order to expand the brand and reach new customers.

I believe that having greater knowledge of this area would allow me to develop my skills, which will of course be beneficial for the company. By having a thorough knowledge of how to market on social media, I would surely be able to increase revenue, as well as share this information with the people in my department.

As this course will give me essential skills to improve at my job, I believe the company should pay for it. I’m requesting that you approve the requisite finances to cover my course fees, as well as some extra for travel costs.

Yours sincerely,

David Wills

Notes

As this was a business letter, I have addressed it to “Mr. Rockwell” and signed off with my own full name. I have used polite and informative language but included some contractions like “I’m.” This letter begins with a slightly personal/informative sentence (“I recently saw…”) but when I come to the tricky topic of money, I switch to more formal language (“I’m requesting that you approve the requisite finances…”) Still, the use of a contraction shows that it is semi-formal.

Sample Semi-Formal Letter #2

Prompt:

You had arranged to go on holiday with your friend. However, you must change your plans.

Write a letter to your friend. In your letter:            

  • say how much you were looking forward to the holiday
  • explain why you had to change your plans
  • suggest an alternative arrangement

Hello Karen,

I hope you are doing well but I’m afraid I have to be the bearer of bad news. I’m not going to be able to make it to the Highlands next month as planned. Something has come up and I’ve got to cancel.

Basically, my boss has asked me to take on a new client starting next week. They are going to be a handful and I will struggle to cope as it is. The possibility of getting away for a weekend just isn’t really on the cards anymore. I’m really sad about it because I was looking forward to spending time with you as it has been a while since we saw each other.

Fortunately, I think that I will be able to get some extra time off once things settle at work. With the new client, I’ve really done my boss a favour and so I’m confident he’ll happily give me extra holiday time in the summer. We can start planning another getaway for later in the year.

Sorry again about all this. I know you were looking forward to it and so was I. However, let’s keep our fingers crossed for next time.

Best,

David

Notes

This letter is closer to informal than formal. There are many personal pronouns and contractions, as well as some idioms (like “bearer of bad news” and “on the cards”). However, I have mixed in some transitional words and phrases that are more common in formal letters: “Fortunately,” “However,” etc. I have started and ended this essay with first names because she is my friend, but the nature of the essay means I’ve used “Best” rather than “Cheers” or anything else that is particularly informal.

Sample Semi-Formal Letter #3

Prompt:

You and some friends ate a meal at a restaurant to celebrate a special occasion, and you were very pleased with the food and service. Write a letter to the restaurant manager. In your letter

  • give details of your visit to the restaurant
  • explain the reason for the celebration
  • say what was good about the food and the service

Dear Mr. Thompson,

I am writing to let you know that I really enjoyed a meal I had at your restaurant last weekend, and I wanted to show my appreciation for your hard work and the efforts made by your staff.

It was my wife’s birthday and so we invited a group of six friends to join us for a meal to celebrate. We were given a wonderful table with a garden view and felt that the overall atmosphere was really pleasant. From the music to the decorations, it was an enchanting evening that we will all remember for years to come.

The food, of course, was excellent. We chose the restaurant because we had been once before and really enjoyed the seafood. This time we were even more impressed, particularly by the prawns. We were also really happy with how much attention the waiting staff paid to us.

Thanks again for a wonderful evening.

Yours sincerely,

David Wills

Notes

This essay is closer to a formal one than an informal one because I do not know this person. However, the tone of the language is slightly informal aside from the greeting and sign off. It is casual and discursive, with a decidedly neutral tone that could not be categorised as formal or informal.