Top Tips for IELTS

How to write a polite IELTS letter

One of the most important skills in letter writing is to get the tone of your letter right.  This means you need to know how to write a polite IELTS letter. This lesson takes you through:

  • when you need to be polite in IELTS letters
  •  some sample questions
  • some useful language
  • an exercise to test your politeness skills

See the problem

Read through this extract from a letter written by an IELTS candidate. The task was to ask the friend to look after an animal:

 In the evening,  take him to the park, he really enjoys being there.

The grammar and vocabulary here are fine. The tone is all wrong. Even when you are writing to a friend, you shouldn’t use the imperative (command) form of the word. You need to be able to make the request politely.

Understand when you need politeness

Politeness differs from culture to culture, but the two main rules are this. You need more politeness when:

there is more distance between you and the other person (this distance could be a difference in age, how well you know the person or perhaps a difference in rank)

the request you are making is a bigger one (you think more carefully about your language when you are asking to borrow a car than when you just want to borrow a pencil sharpener)

Learn to identify questions that require more politeness

The first step is to know which type of letters require more politeness. Generally, you should focus on questions where you are making a request – this applies to formal, semi-formal and informal letters alike. Below are 3 examples for you. In each case, you should see that whenever you ask or tell to do someone something, you need to think politeness. Another major area is when you need to refuse something.

See the questions

Informal example

You are going away on holiday for 2 months and you need a friend to look after your house and pet dog while you are away. Write a letter:

  •  explaining the situation
  •  giving instructions about what you want your friend to do
  •  thanking your friend

Even though you are writing to a friend, he is doing you a favour. This means you need to think about writing a polite IELTS letter.

Semi formal example

You are looking for a new job. Someone has suggested that you contact a friend of the family who works in the same field for help. Write a letter:

  •  explaining the situation
  •  asking whether the family friend can help you
  •  telling the latest news about your family

A family friend may be someone you don’t know that well or is much older than you. Again, think politeness.

 Formal example

You wish to do internship with a major international company. You do not know how that company organises its internships. Write a letter to the human resources manager:

  •  explaining that you wish to do an internship
  •  asking how to apply for an internship
  •  asking for details about the company’s internship programme

Here you don’t know who you are writing to so you need to think politeness again.

Other questions too

This is not a complete set of questions. Sometimes you need to apologise for something or just write more formally – here too politeness matters. I’ll post other lessons on that.

Learn some good politeness language

A little below you’ll find some helpful words and phrases to help you write a polite IELTS letter. First though, two ideas for you:

the more indirect we are, the more polite we become – this does vary though from culture to culture

we tend to ask questions rather than make statements when we want to be polite (this is a form of indirectness)

Useful words and phrases for polite requests

Please could you ….?/Please can you….? [there is little difference between could and can here – you can leave out the please but better to leave it in – note the question form]

I would be grateful if [note that the verb you need wants to be would/could]

I wonder if you could/would…. [note that this is indirect language]

May I ask you to….? [May when used like this in English is very polite – note the question form again]

Please+ [please is the “magic word” in English. it can make almost anything polite! Note that we can put it at the start or end of the sentence or sometimes in the middle – I prefer it at the start. If you leave it to the end it can sound like an afterthought]

I would like to ask whether …. [I was brought up to use I’d like and not I wantI’d like is more indirect and hence more polite]

Useful words and phrases for refusing

I’m afraid that: [note the use of that and contrast it with but after I’m sorry ]

I’m sorry but : [again. see the use of but here]

Unfortunately, [unfortunately is a great word for whenever you have something to say that the other person doesn’t wan to hear]

Dangerous language

Do it or any imperative form.

I want – [only when making requests]

Quick note on offers

We also need to think about politeness when we make offers too. Here though the problem normally isn’t so great. You are giving and they are taking. I’d just recommend “Would you like….” over Do you want…”

Try an exercise

This language may need a little practice. So you might want to try this exercise:

Congratulations - you have completed . You scored %%SCORE%% out of %%TOTAL%%. Your performance has been rated as %%RATING%%
Your answers are highlighted below.
Shaded items are complete.

Would you like some interesting reading?

If you are interested in this topic generally and the difference between cultures, then here is a fascinating place to start

Hofstede’s cultural dimensions

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