Category Archives: Courtesy

Courtesy (4)

Making a fluent fool of yourself.

There are, of course, considerable differences between the communication styles of English and Dutch speakers and writers. Most noticeably, English speakers are much more indirect communicators than the Dutch and being polite is a fundamental part of an English speaker’s culture.

There are, of course, national differences on the spectrum of English speakers e.g. Americans are more direct than their British counterparts. Nevertheless, even Americans can find the Dutch a little too direct and often misinterpret this directness and label it as ‘being rude’.

Consequently, if you really wish to become a successful communicator of English (in speaking and in writing), you have to adopt some of the techniques we use to sound more polite. After all, as one famous anthropologist once said, “to know another’s language and not his culture is one way of making a fluent fool of yourself”.

1. Avoid ‘must’ and have to’
These are only used to express strong obligations and order. Instead, use “should”:

  • (not) You must reconsider their proposal
    (but) You should reconsider their proposal

2. Turn affirmative sentences into questions and requests
You should also avoid ‘want’ when making requests – use ‘would like’ instead. (or: ‘would you be so kind as to…’, or ‘We were hoping to…’):

  • (not) I want to meet tomorrow
    (but) I would like to meet tomorrow

3. Express opinions mildly
Use phrases such as ‘I would say that…’, ‘I feel …’:

  • (not) In my opinion, we need to give a negative advice on this one
    (but) I feel we need to give a negative advice on this one

4. Prepare the reader for bad news
Precede negative comments with softeners like ‘I am afraid…’, ‘Unfortunately…’:

  • (not) Your request for further financing has been rejected by our client
    (but) Unfortunately, I have to tell you that your request for further financing has been….

5. Soften with ‘would’, ‘could’ or ‘might’
Avoid overusing ‘will’ and the imperative

  • (not) Will you inform us of your decision as soon as possible?
    (but) Would/Could you inform us of your decision as soon as possible?

6. Avoid direct statements
Avoid direct statements such as ‘you said…’. Instead, use phrases such as: ‘I understood…’, ‘It would appear that…’, ‘It seems that…’.

  • (not) You said the contract would be signed today
    (but) I understood the contract would be signed today.

7. Use ‘please’ whenever possible
English speakers nearly always use ‘please’ with requests. This is most probably the most basic form of showing respect.

  • (not) Hold the line
    (but) Please hold the line

Courtesy (3)


One of the first things I say to my participants in our writing skills workshop it that their business correspondence is like a business card. In other words, what you write is a). a permanent record and b). reflects the company’s image.

Here in the Netherlands, the Dutch really make an effort to accommodate their non-Dutch speaking clients by corresponding in English (or other languages). I can assure you, this wouldn’t happen in the UK, Australia or any other English speaking country, with the exception of parts of the US which cater for a large Spanish speaking population.

However, the Dutch are prone to some pretty standard mistakes which I thought would be handy to share (a few – as there are many) so that you can avoid. The majority of these mistakes are either due to direct translation or applying Dutch rules to English.

Many of the rules surrounding layout and punctuation have been simplified in UK English. Did you know that:

  • We no longer use a full stop (.) after titles such as Mr, Mrs etc.
  • Most women in business prefer to be addressed by the neutral title ‘Ms’
  • We no longer use commas after the salutation (Dear Jane) or closing line (Best regards)
  • We no longer use ordinal numbers (e.g. 1st, 2nd, 3rd) when writing the date, but instead just write (10 September 2014)

NB: these rules do not apply to US English – with the exception of ‘Ms’.

Although I believe this rule is ‘dying a death’ in the Netherlands, it still crops up in most of the writing skills courses I give. In English, there is absolutely no problem beginning a sentence with I or we. So avoid stilted sentences such as:

  • Herewith (OR hereby) I send you …
  • With this letter I will outline the main points of the proposal.

And instead write:

  • I am sending you ..
  • I would like to outline the main points of the proposal.

Particularly Dutch legal writers are prone to a mix of styles i.e. formal and informal. Be aware that modern English avoids use of archaic words such as hereinafter, henceforth, notwithstanding etc. At the same time, if you are writing a formal email or letter, you should avoid words such as ‘like’ when giving examples (use ‘such as’ instead), ‘as well’ when adding information (use ‘also’ or ‘additionally’ instead) or ‘since’ when giving a reason (use ‘as’ or ‘because’ instead). The style of your email or letter should be consistent in terms of your choice of vocabulary (formal or informal?) and UK or US English. Remember, there are a number of differences between UK and US spelling such as:

  • US          analyze, center, flavor, program
  • UK          analyse, centre, flavour, programme

A last point regarding achieving a consistent style is your use of abbreviations: it’s usually only the Latin based abbreviations that are acceptable in formal writing. The most common are:

  • e.g.                        for example
  • i.e.                         that is OR in other words
  • etc.                        etcetera

Abbreviations such as FYI, ASAP are really only appropriate in informal correspondence.

So, a few tips to help you on your way. Happy writing!

Courtesy (2)

Writing a letter or email in another language is not always straightforward, as I know from experience. I always battle with establishing a consistent style, i.e. I tend to mix formal and informal styles, or worse still, I try to translate English standard phrases for letter/email writing directly into the language that I am writing. But as with everything, the good old ‘trial and error’ eventually gets me there – and a few sympathetic native speakers are also very helpful. This week, I would like to provide some tips on English business correspondence – more importantly, how to avoid mistakes commonly made in letters and emails.

1. Always identify your audience before writing. For example, there is a big difference between a letter a lawyer would write to a client (who knows nothing about the law) and another lawyer. This step also helps you establish the appropriate style and tone.

2. Always establish your objective for writing and be concise. So many writers fall into the trap of hiding their message in paragraphs of longwinded prose which they expect the poor reader to decrypt! Remember the KISS analogy: Keep It Short & Simple (or Stupid as some like to say). Very importantly, a reader should NEVER have to reread a sentence because the meaning was not clear the first time.

3. Ensure your English spelling & grammar check is switched on. My students always assure me it is, but the red squiggly lines speak for themselves! Remember also to distinguish between British and American English i.e. don’t mix – it’s either or.

4. Forget the words ‘hereby’ & ‘herewith’. In English, it is perfectly acceptable to start with the personal pronouns I/we. Many Dutch writers of English fall into the trap of beginning their letters ‘Hereby I send you …’ or ‘Herewith I write you …’ because they think it is incorrect to start with ‘I’ or ‘we’.

Some useful phrases for starting your letter or email include:

  • I am writing to enquire about/ request/ confirm etc.
  • Further to your email of (DATE), please see below the answers to your questions.
  • I am sending you a copy of our terms and conditions.
  • I am enclosing/attaching our terms and conditions

5. Be consistent in your tone and style. Don’t mix formal and informal, don’t be overly polite and then suddenly very direct. Look at the difference between the below phrases:

  • (Formal) I/we would be very grateful if you would/could … (Informal) Please could you…
  • (Formal) We regret to inform you that …(Informal) Sorry, but …
  • (Formal) We will do our utmost to ensure that …(Informal) We will do our best to …

6. Do not translate directly from Dutch into English. Some typical Dutch mistakes we regularly come across, include:

  • I write you about … (Should be:) I am writing about …
  • Would you be so kind to … (Should be:) Would you be so kind as to …
  • I look forward to meet you. (Should be:) I look forward to meeting you.
  • I would appreciate if you would send me … (Should be:) I would appreciate it if you would send me …
  • I suggest you to come to the meeting. (Should be:) I suggest that you come to the meeting
  • I suggest/recommend/advise to come to the meeting. (Should be:) I suggest/recommend/advise coming to the meeting.
  • I like to thank you in advance. (Should be:) I would like to thank you in advance.
  • Would you mind to postpone the meeting? (Should be:) Would you mind postponing the meeting?

7. Be a copy cat  If you regularly receive correspondence from English native speakers, emulate their style and make a note of the phrases that they use. You could draw up a list like the one below:

Drawing attention and reminding:

  • (Formal) May I/we draw your attention to … (Informal) Can I draw your attention to
  • (Formal) I/we would like to point out that … (Informal) Can I point out that …
  • (Formal) I/We don’t appear to have received..  (Informal) I/we haven’t received …

Final comments:

  • (Formal) Please do not hesitate to contact us should you have any further questions. (Informal) Let me know if you need anything else.
  • (Formal) Please feel free to contact me/us if you have any questions.  (Informal) Just give me a call if you have any questions.

Happy writing!!

Courtesy (1)

In onze Workshops Legal English Writing Skills staan de Branch Out “7 Cs of Writing” centraal. Deze 7 Cs zijn: Clarity, Correctness, Courtesy, Conciseness, Cohesion, Consistency en Completeness (voor een korte beschrijving: zie hiernaast).

Onder de C van Courtesy valt ook de aanhef en afsluiting van correspondentie. Daarover het volgende. Denk eraan: First impressions count!!

Due to the nature of my work, I see an incredible number of emails and letters written by lawyers; usually Dutch native speakers. Despite their impressive level of English, their skill in structuring their letter or email and the sheer range of their vocabulary, there is nearly always a mistake in the salutation and/or close. These mistakes pertain to convention and register. Allow me to share a few:

  • Hi Nicola, – this from somebody who has never met or had any type of contact with me
  • Dear Courtney, – that’s my surname!
  • Dear Nicola Courtney, – first name and surname?
  • Dear Mrs Courtney, – my mother is Mrs Courtney; I’m Ms Courtney …
  • Dear Mr Courtney – this one is usually from Italians, Greeks and Russians as in their language, Nicola is a man’s name
  • Hello! – the writer has obviously dispensed with all forms of formality

When it comes to your business correspondence (letters or emails), you need to make a good impression as this is often compared to a company’s calling card. Remember, you only have one chance to make that good impression which will be invaluable to building future trust and confidence. It takes time and relationship building to determine the formality (or informality) of your tone – not to mention the minefield of cultural differences.

Moreover, there is the prevailing assumption that email by its very nature allows you to be informal in your business correspondence. This is not the case. When sending a business email, you should imagine you are communicating on your company’s letterhead. So my advice is to get it right the first time.

Here are some Do’s and Don’ts regarding salutations and closes to get you going. I should point out that these pertain to British English.


  • Do use the client’s surname e.g. Dear Mr Jones. Allow the client to determine the formality or informality of how they should be addresse
  • Do match your close to your salutation e.g.
    – Salutation: Dear Sir/Madam ______ Close with: Yours faithfully
    – Salutation: Dear Nicola __________Close with: Best regards
    – Salutation: Dear Ms Courtney _____ Close with: Yours sincerely*
    (*This is commonly replaced by ‘Best regards’ in emails).


  • Don’t assume all women are married. The preferred form of address for women is the neutral ‘Ms
  • Don’t use a comma (,) after the salutation and close. This is no longer necessary in British English
  • Don’t use a full stop (.) after the titles Mr / Ms / Mrs etc. This is no longer necessary in British English
  • Don’t  use ‘L.S’. This is a Dutch (or rather: Latin) salutation, which English speakers are unfamiliar with. If you do not know the name of the person you are writing to use:
    – Dear Sir (for men)
    – Dear Madam (for women)
    – Dear Sir/Madam OR Dear Sir, Madam (you are unsure of gender)
    – Dear Sirs (for companies)
    (NB: if you use any of the above, you must close withYours faithfully’)

Remember, this blog has focused on British English usage. Watch out for future blogs in which I explain some of the differences between British and American English. Happy writing!