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The London American’s Guide to Letters

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We all know that back in the days before Internet, it was proper to send letters requesting someone’s attention or company or thanking them for their time. I still write thank-you letters when people give me gifts, as recently as my college graduation. It has become common these days to send emails for certain things, and (almost) all of my university communications in the U.K. have been via email rather than snail mail. However, there is a certain protocol for communicating that seems adorably formal. The British, although renowned for their politeness, cannot be stereotyped as the most formal of cultures, but it’s still good to know how to write a formal email.

Generally, I am more formal when I’m requesting something — in my case, admission to a university, jobs, and internships. Always fill in a subject so your email is easy to find in an inbox. Begin with “(Dear) Title Name,” and be sure you get the title correct! In addition to Mr, Mrs, Ms, Miss, and Dr, you may encounter Rev, Sir, Lady, and a variety of others.

List of titles from a university application form. Photo credit Sam Bowman.

In the U.K., “Miss” is used for young women and “Ms” for older women. Although I go by Ms. in the U.S. so people know I’m over 18 (or at least not a child), I go by Miss in the U.K. to inform people that I’m not middle-aged. (I yearn for the day I can go by Dr!) Also remember that it’s not common to put the period after the title, which I think looks less clunky.

Now that you have a subject and “Dear Princess Kate,” you can continue as you would a formal business email. I use British spelling to blend in a little more, but it’s not necessary. As in the U.S., conclude with your name and contact information.

Back to letters. I have heard from an eminent businessman that it is good manners after an interview or meeting to send a hand-written letter in fountain pen. Now, this may just be for jobs in investment banking and not for students like me, but it’s good to keep in mind that this sort of protocol is still appreciated. I guess it doesn’t have to be in fountain pen, but it would be cute if you owned one.

How does one mail letters in London? First, you don’t mail, you post letters. There’s a chain called Post Office that is, as far as I can tell, not actually associated with the post. They sell stamps and also do shipping. Stamps can also be purchased at many mini-markets and in some hotels. Stamps that say “First Class” cost 46p and will go anywhere in the U.K. except the Channel Islands. Stamps above this will say the price. Sending letters to the U.S. costs  between 76p and £1.10 depending on the weight — less for a postcard, more for an envelope. I send a lot of cards and always buy the ones that cost 97p, and they arrive within a week.

Postboxes are located on practically every street. They are instantly recognizable: about head height (for me at least, at just over five feet) oval in shape, and painted red.


London postbox. Wikimedia Commons.

They have two slots, one for stamped mail and one for franked mail, which means that kind of auto-stamp that comes on bills and things. The postboxes also have handy guides (the little white signs) saying when the post is collected from that location. While often located near a Post Office branch, they are actually operated by the Royal Mail. Mail sent from within the U.K. aims to arrive within one day. One day! That’s awesome! My Amazon packages arrive pretty much instantaneously. It does help when your country is that small, but it’s still quite impressive.

Author: Stacy

Stacy is a graduate student in archaeology currently living in London. She enjoys visiting museums, riding the tube, splashing through puddles, and giving directions to lost tourists. She also writes a blog about pies.

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  1. I’m only sorry Stacy that you didn’t get to see the Royal Mail and the General Post Office in all it’s efficient glory decades ago. What we have now is a shadow of the system that was built up over a century to be once one of the fastest and most reliable postal services in the world. Letters posted before 2pm would be delivered the next day at breakfast – anywhere in the country. Just in case there was a hold up, a second post would be delivered at midday. This was all facilitated by our once incredibly extensive railway system. In a country around 800 miles in length, it boasted 17,000 miles of track and literally thousands of stations. That meant that all but the most remote hamlets had access to a railway, and of course, the post it brought.

    If you get a chance, have a look on Youtube for the documentary “Nightmail,” made the GPO film unit in the 1930s. It was produced to illustrate the wonderful poem of the same name by WH Auden and will give you some idea of the speed with which mail could be processed and delivered back then. All the people appearing in it were GPO employees being filmed going about their jobs. There is one scene which shows the net/catcher system then in use which enabled letters posted after 5pm in the Midlands to be picked up by train, sorted en route and delivered in Edinburgh at breakfast. A fantastic service now gone forever.

  2. No, Stacy! This idea that Ms and Miss are used according to the age of the female is not true – I’ve never even heard of it and I have lived in the UK 51 years! It came about because women did not like to be defined by their marital status. It started about 20-30 years ago.

    • Ah, I was told this by two different people when I started signing up for things! I said Ms as that’s what I go by in the US, and the desk clerks looked at me, looked at my birth date, and said, “Maybe I have the date wrong, but you were born in ’87? Shouldn’t you be a Miss?”
      What would you say the difference is? I see that they are defined in opposition to Mrs, but they must differentiate women somehow.

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