General Training Task 1: Formal vs. Semi-Formal Letters

a hand with two envelopes to represent IELTS General Training Task 1 - image by Magoosh

There are two common types of letters you might write: informal and formal. What you may not know is that there is a third type of letter: a semi-formal letter. Semi-formal letters have some formal language and are written in response to tasks involving situations that have formal elements. Let’s take a closer look at what semi-formal writing is for Task 1, and how it relates to formal writing.

To understand the difference between formal and semi-formal writing styles in IELTS General Training Task 1, it helps to first look at what it means to write an entirely formal letter.

Formal Letter Writing, Defined

In IELTS General Training Writing Task 1, formal letters deal with situations that are very oriented toward official business and are not particularly personal. Basically, when writing a formal letter, you should imagine you are socially distant from the person who will read the letter, but that you still need to convince them to pay attention to what you are saying or asking.

The use of language will be—as you would expect—highly formal. These kinds of letters address the recipient by title and by family name rather than given name (if the family name is known). Acceptable formal greetings include “Dear Sir,” “Dear Madam,” “Dear Mz. Lopez,” “Dear Doctor Sanyal,” and so on. In addition, formal letters avoid contractions, using “cannot” or “will not” instead of “can’t” or “won’t,” for instance.

Such letters also often have a clear statement of intention at the beginning of the letter (the first sentence of this model formal letter) and a polite statement thanking the reader for their attention at the end of the letter (the last sentence in the letter linked above). In general, a formal letter tone is exceptionally polite and uses “academic” sentence structure and word forms (no sentences beginning with “and” or “but,” no contractions).

The Difference Between a Semi-Formal Letter and Formal Letter

First and foremost, you should understand that there is no clear line between informal, semi-formal, and formal writing. The good news is that you don’t need an exact guide on the difference between these three. Instead, you are allowed to decide just how formal or informal your letter should be, based on the situation you are writing about. With that in mind, let’s discuss what a semi-formal situation looks like in this writing task.

Semi-formal letters are used to express closeness and familiarity to the reader of the letter, while also putting this closeness and familiarity in a “formal” context such as business, customer service, or work. Some topics of a semi-formal letter may include:

  • talking to a co-worker about a work project
  • writing a letter to a business where you’re a customer
  • offering assistance to a supervisor

You could also possibly choose between formal or semi-formal language in some Task 1 situations. For instance, in the model formal letter we talked about above, although Rachel chose to describe a very formal volunteer opportunity—practicing medicine in Africa—that same prompt could be used for a less serious activity, such as volunteering at a local animal shelter, offering to coach a neighborhood children’s sports team, and so on. In that case, the opportunity would be less serious and less competitive, and some degree of informal language might work.

Similarly, in our model personal/informal letter, Rachel could have said that she looked forward to the dinner party because she wanted to discuss a proposed business partnership with the host. In that case, some semi-formal language would have been appropriate, even though the letter would still be largely informal.

I hope this has helped! For more help with task 1 and with IELTS Writing in general, check out Magoosh’s complete guide to the IELTS Writing section.

By the way, improve your IELTS score with Magoosh!

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  • David Recine

    David is a Test Prep Expert for Magoosh TOEFL and IELTS. Additionally, he's helped students with TOEIC, PET, FCE, BULATS, Eiken, SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. David has a BS from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an MA from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. His work at Magoosh has been cited in many scholarly articles, his Master's Thesis is featured on the Reading with Pictures website, and he's presented at the WITESOL (link to PDF) and NAFSA conferences. David has taught K-12 ESL in South Korea as well as undergraduate English and MBA-level business English at American universities. He has also trained English teachers in America, Italy, and Peru. Come join David and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with him via LinkedIn!

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