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5 Things You Need to Know About TONE in IELTS General Training Letters

As you probably know by now, communication in a foreign language can require more than just vocabulary and grammar. A simple trip to a grocery store can demonstrate that it’s not always what you say, but how you say it. 

Imagine, for example, that you need a bag for your groceries so you point at the stack behind the counter and say to the cashier, “Give me a bag,” and she does, but her smile is gone.

What happened to the friendly service? The problem may be that your TONE was off and you accidentally offended the clerk by sounding rude. To keep up the niceties and avoid the frown, you could have said, “Could I have a bag please?”

A fluent speaker knows when to be more polite and when it’s okay to relax language formalities. This is where you, as an IELTS candidate preparing for the General Training Exam, should pay attention because using an incorrect TONE when writing an IELTS letter will lower your score. 

If you’re smart and you’ve been doing practice tests for the exam, then you know that one of the two General Training writing tasks is a letter. You'll be given a situation and a specific person or persons to write to. Choosing the correct tone based on these factors will determine how well you accomplish the task. It’s, therefore, a good idea to make sure you know what tone is and how to use it. To help you out, here are 5 things you need to know about TONE.

  1. What TONE is:

TONE is a manner of communication that indicates the relationship you have with the person you are writing toYou can convey tone in letters with words, phrases and also by the kind and amount of details you include. Different relationships require different levels of formality or respect - this is probably true in your culture or language as well.

     2. Why TONE is important in letters:

Just like the face to face example with the grocery clerk, if you get the tone wrong in a letter, your message will not be received well by the reader. It could be distracting or insulting and/or the result of your letter may be the opposite of what you wanted. For example, you wish to impress your boss but the tone of your letter is so informal or rude that she is put-off and you lose respect and maybe your job.

     3. What determines FORMAL or INFORMAL TONES:

Let’s take President Obama’s gestures as an example of formal and informal. These two pictures show him meeting two different PEOPLE in two different SITUATIONS. In the first image, he's greeting another world leader for a FORMAL visit with a handshake and a bow to show respect. The second picture shows him greeting a friend at a sporting event with a casual high five to show camaraderie.

You can see that both THE SITUATION AND THE RELATIONSHIP dictated how the president behaved. This is true for written correspondence as well except it’s communicated through words instead of body language. So, why you are writing and who you are writing to will determine which words or phrases you use. In addition, the kind and amount of detail you include in the correspondence will also depend on these factors (see example letters).

     4. A simple rule for choosing your letter’s TONE:

Generally, if the letter is to friends, people you know well, or family, and it has a positive message, use an INFORMAL TONE. For everyone else and for all complaints or negative messages, be more FORMAL.

     5. What formal and informal TONES look like when written:

NOTE that regardless of the formality, you should always be polite. Whether you are writing to complain, quit a job, ask for a favour, give information, invite a friend for dinner or whatever the SITUATION may be, you always need to show some level of respect to the reader.

Here are two sample letters demonstrating formal and informal tones. Note the different openings and closings, the amount and kind of information that is shared and the phrasing that is used. For those of you who can’t spot the differences, I’ve included a QUICK NOTE for creating tone. For advice on how to organize these letters, check out Letter Writing Advice. Good luck on your exam!


Dear Mr. Watson:

I am writing to inform you that I have taken a job as a financial analyst with another company commencing in September. The reason for my decision is that the new job gives me an opportunity to get some experience working with business financing.

It was not an easy decision for me as I have enjoyed working with you and the marketing team. Our recent success in sales taught me that no matter how large and challenging a task may seem when people work together to create and execute a solid plan, anything can be accomplished.

I want to thank you for the commitment you made to help me grow as a marketer. The training courses you sent me on were outstanding. Most of all, I appreciate the example you set as a committed and confident manager. Our team’s successes were thanks to your solid leadership and your ability to identify and build on everyone’s strengths.

I wish you all the best in the future and hope for continued success with the work you are doing here.

Yours sincerely,

Wanda Calleja


Dear Jess,

You won’t believe what I have to tell you! I finally made the decision to change jobs. You’re probably wondering what took me so long. Remember how you’ve been saying that I’d be more challenged working in finance? Well, guess what? That’s right, I’m moving to Johnson and Johnson’s finance department next month. Yippee!

This is going to be such an amazing opportunity for me. I’m going to be able to get first-hand experience as a business analyst in a large international company. The budget for this place is ten times my current company’s and the team I’ll be working with are all very experienced so I’m going to be learning a lot from this job. Once I have these skills under my belt, I’ll be able to move into the global arena and maybe work in France. You know that’s always been my dream.

I’m thrilled out of my mind right now and need someone to celebrate with. Why don’t we meet at the docks this Saturday night for dinner? I’ll buy and we’ll toast to friends helping friends. After all, if it wasn’t for your encouragement, I’d probably be stuck in that marketing job in Toronto for the rest of my life.

Let me know if you can make it Saturday. I’d love to be clinking glasses by 7 p.m.

All the best,


By Angela Rutherford

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