How to write a Spanish letter.
Spanish letter types.
There are three different types of letters: business letters, social letters and personal letters for special occasions.
A Spanish business letter should be written in a different style from the others, being written in a unique formal business language. Sociable letters are written when you are writing to friends to tell them your news or just to keep in touch, in this case the language style can become far less formal and possible mistakes in structure or style becomes less important when writing in a foreign language. On the other hand, you may have to write about sensitive issues such as illness or a death or perhaps the occasion requires a certain decorum by tradition such as wedding invitations. These letters for special occasions require careful attention to expression; some even follow a format which is rarely deviated from. The letters in this service of Letter-Writer Deluxe Spanish are of the commercial and special occasions types as these require greater skill in the writing and cannot simply be direct translations of English correspondence.
Explore the letter below with your cursor for links to notes about parts of a Spanish letter:
Layout and writing styles in Spanish letters.
Language styles between English and Spanish letters may be very different but the physical layout of Spanish letters is remarkably similar to their English equivalents.
Paper and envelope: - The paper used for commercial letters should be of A4 size (210mm X 297mm) plain, white and of good quality. Patterns and pretty borders may give the wrong impression! The corresponding envelope should be the same colour as the letter and preferably the size that is known in Spain as "formato americano" (226mm X 114mm). The A4 letter should be folded into three equal parts, which will then fit snugly in its envelope.
The text of the letter should be as short as possible; it is best trying to avoid needing a second sheet for most standard commercial letters. In any case, only write on one side of a sheet of paper and always type the letter - the only pen ink on the page should be the signature.
The address on the front of the envelope should be started half way down its length with a left hand margin of one third of the envelope width. The left margin is usually vertical all the way down for commercial letters. The postal company Oficina de Correos of Spain advises that the sender's address (remitente) should be written on the flap on the reverse of the envelope. This advice seems to be adhered to for all types of letters both in Spain and in South America. In personal hand written mail, it is common to see REM: on the back flap followed by the sender's address. Commercial letters from companies with publicity in mind often have their logo on the front of the envelope, in which case it could appear on any part of the envelope.
Stamps should be arranged clearly and neatly at the top right with a small margin between them and the envelope edge.
Parts of a Spanish Letter.
The parts of most formal-style letters are the following:
Logo or Company name and address (membrete) for business letters: - The logo should be situated at the top centre, right or left of the letter. If the company name and address (or private address of sender) are typed, then there seem to be several options as to where the sender's address is placed. These clashes of opinion are due to the influence of North American styles on South American correspondence. There is no 'official' view that I can discover and even Correos España when quizzed on the subject appeared vague as to a standard format. The various formats I encounter frequently are as follows. (The sender's address is C/ Portaceli, 32 - 6ºD).:
Another style peculiar to South America is to write the address of the sender beneath the signature; this may sound logical although perhaps unorthodox for most Europeans.
As window letters are now very common in businesses, the position of the recipient's address will often be determined by the position of the window. Furthermore, where applicable, the sender's full name is often typed above the sender's address; it therefore will appear twice on the page as it also accompanies the signature.
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The various components making up an address on Spanish letters in Spain are usually the following:
C/ Fernando, 78 - 4ºB
C = calle - street. Spanish does not use the myriad of possibilities and English does with: road, way, mews, lane etc. If Fernando is the name of the street then there is a comma and the street number. In Spain, most people live in flats so you must write a dash then the floor number (4º) and the letter (B) of the flat. The above link will show you other variations. The following line contains the post or zip code. This refers to a section of the city. The variable in this example is 1018, while the 4 will always refer to Seville city or province. The name of the city written within the address is written in capitals. España is written only if the letter comes from abroad, of course, and only the first letter is in capitals.
Telephone number and contact details: - Added below the sender's address if it is not included in the logo. The Spanish abbreviation is the same as the English: Tel:. Letters sent abroad should display the full international code so that the receiver does not need to look it up! Below the telephone number may go a fax (Fax:) or e-mail (E-mail:) and a website address. (Web: www. etc..)
Usually situated top right and below the contact details (telephone, fax, e-mail). There are many forms possible but the preferred is: 9 de mayo de 2002 or 9 de mayo 2002. If written in numbers only, it should read: date/month/year and not the US: month/date/year. eg. The Spanish format is: 29 / 5 / 2002. If the letter has a logo which does not show the city, then this is often added to the date line: Madrid, 20 de abril de 2002. Note that the months of the year do not begin with a capital letter in Spanish.
References for commercial letters.
Usually (though not always) this comes before the recipient's name and address. In commercial correspondence the reference facilitates the location of other letters or documents connected with the case. Many letters already come printed like the example below:
s/ref. n/ref. fecha:
(s/ref. = su referencia - your reference, n/ref. = nuestra referencia - our reference)
For the individual writing a letter to a company, he or she can just type in one or both with the reference number alongside. There are other variations to this format.
Recipient for commercial letters.
As most secretaries discard the envelope on opening the company mail, names or departments written thereon will be lost. For this reason, it is important to repeat everything written on the front of the envelope below the letter reference. These details are usually situated left on a hand-typed letter. (For the various formats possible, please see above.) (Company window letters will force you to break this rule.) If you know the name of the person the letter is intended for, it is advisable to add below this section: a la atención del Sr. ... This is often underlined: a la atención de la Sra. ... The last line of the recipient's details (post code and city) is often underlined:
A la atención del Sr. Pedro García
Avda. de la Constitución s/n
There are various possibilities. What is strictly correct is hard to say; different writers will have different opinions, it is easier to say what is currently used in letters writing today. The following is true of Spain and seems to be true of South America too.
Querido María: - for friends
Querido Sr. Sánchez: - for someone known to you but where you would not use their first name. eg. friend of your parents, landlord, especially an elderly person.
Querido amigo: / cliente: / vecino / compañero: (friend / client / neighbour) - Especially a letter for advertising purposes where the writer is trying to establish an informal rapport. eg. mailshots. As companies begin to realize that women can also read, junk mail is now headed with the awkward:
Querido/a amigo/a: so that everybody is happy!
Muy señor mío:
Muy señores míos: - These forms are still very common in commercial correspondence although some consider them antiquated. They seem to be the equivalent of the Dear Sir or Dear Madam etc. for formal letters. (If the recipient is known to be female, Muy señora mía or Muy señora nuestra can be used in a reply.)
Señores: - are also seen but frowned upon by purists as a translations of: Sir or Sirs.
Estimado Sr. Gómez: is also very common in commercial letters. The telephone, gas, electricity companies and banks in Spain start their letters this way when they send out their advertising bumph. It seems to fall midway between 'Querido' and 'Muy señor mío'.
Apreciada Sra. Vázquez: - is also for formal mail but really quite friendly; perhaps too friendly.
Distinguido señor: - Just as it sounds. This term is for someone you feel is way above you socially or intellectually.
Sr. D. Miguel Muñoz: or D. Miguel Muñoz: - Equivalent to 'Muy señor mío' but where we wish to use the first name and surname. (Note: D. = Don) Use D. before the first name only.
Dña Pilar Torné: is the feminine form. (Dña = doña).
Sr. Fajardo: - As above but used before the surname.
The plural of Sr. is Sres. and Sra. becomes Sras.
Note that the abbreviated forms are with a capital letter and full stop (period): Sr. / Sra. and non abbreviated with a small letter: Muy señor mío: etc. After the header a colon is used and nothing else: Muy señores míos:
About using the name in headers: English writers tend to use the name (and surname) in the header for formal correspondence when it is know. However, in Spanish, if the name is known, it may often be inserted in the recipient field instead and the header will read Muy señor mío etc.
The introduction of a commercial letter will start with one of many possible cliché phrases which usually make some reference to the letter you have received. You do not have to use an introduction but can go straight to the point. However, I recommend using introductory expressions for the foreign writer because he/she can take advantage of the set phrases and begin to build a very Spanish sounding letter. Go here to see a list of set expressions for the introduction to commercial letters.
Body or Subject.
This is where you insert the message you wish to covey. Begin the body of your letter with the most important points and leave the lesser points for last.
As general guidelines to writing styles both in English and Spanish we can consider the five C's.
Clear (clara). It is essential that the letter conveys its message clearly so that the reader knows exactly what you want to say with no ambiguities.
Concise (concisa). All unnecessary details that can only lead to confusion for the reader should be omitted. In the same way, refrain from using redundant expressions like "sabe lo que le digo" ("you know what I mean?"). Depending on your knowledge of spoken Spanish, you may be thinking that it is highly unlikely you will be using such colloquialisms!
Correct (correcta). This is mainly a concern for those who would really like to improve their letter-writing skills in Spanish and become autonomous in the art. For the non-native writer, correctness is the greatest problem. If I mentioned that "a well-written letter will impress the reader and create a favourable impression...it could gain you the upper hand...it is a powerful weapon..." etc., you may only become gloomy when you consider the difficulty of writing in correct Spanish. Spanish grammar is quite complex for native speakers of English and to write it perfectly, problematic, to say the least!
However, there is an up-side. When you study these letters, give careful attention to the expressions used and less to the grammatical structure of each sentence. Here, let me show you what I mean: you could finish practically every commercial letter you write with this one expression: "Le saluda atentamente,... (then, under your signature) ...Michael Alan"). Now you have one expression that serves one purpose in a letter that you will never have to worry about again; it will always be grammatically correct. If you approach your learning of writing letters in Spanish in this way, you will soon begin to build a repertoire of commonly used expressions and your mistakes will be minimal. It is for this reason that I provide a large list of expressions for use in formal letter-writing that you can learn and build into your texts.
Complete (completa). Make sure that everything you want to say is in your letter. This may sound obvious but it is easy to miss out vital information. When we structure a sentence, we know what we want to convey but that message does not always coincide with what we write. I get a lot of e-mails of this type; the writers presumably know what they intend to say but I have to return many e-mails for clarification. Try to look at your letter objectively (a good tip is to read it again the next day when you have become mentally 'detached' from the letter) and check that the whole message is included.
Courteous (cortés). Essential in all correspondence and definitely no less so in Spanish. This may also be a point of concern for you as a foreign writer of Spanish eager not to offend. As reassurance, I offer the same suggestion as in the section on correctness: adhere to the set expressions and traditional formalities and thereby reducing the risk of putting your foot in it!
From experience, I should like to offer the following advice: never write a letter when angry at the reader it is destined for. Cool off, come back to it and try to approach the task in a calculated and controlled way. Formal letters that are filled with emotional adjectives lose their power and beside you may really say something you regret afterwards - but then it is too late.
The closes in English commercial letters have been mostly reduced to 'yours faithfully', 'yours sincerely' and perhaps 'yours truly' yet Spanish closes are usually longer. Although Spanish letters do not need to be so flowery as French ones, it is usually expected that the letter will be nicely rounded off. Make up for those grammar blunders in the body of your letter with a concise and neatly phrased close such as:
Agradezco mucho el favor que no dudo me dispensarán, y en la espera de sus noticias les saludo atentamente. (I thank you for the favour, which I do not doubt you will bestow upon me and looking forward to hearing from you I warmly salute you.)
...or something like that! If you think that sounds way over the top then you should read about the "hand kissers": "que besa su mano" but this close is steadily going out of date now. Closes are not just useless and pretty formalities, however. Take advantage of them to get some last pressing point home: En la confianza de vernos favorecidos con una respuesta a la mayor brevedad posible, le saludo muy atentamente. This close is saying: "please write back with what I want very soon!" in a very nice way. If you wish to let your reader know you are not pleased with them, be subtle with a chilly and laconic Cordialmente,
Note that endings can be in first or third persons (with no particular preference for one or the other):
Le saludo muy atentamente.
Le saluda muy atentamente,
Note the necessary comma in the second example because the sentence is not finished. i.e. "Salutes you warmly, John Brown. ('John Brown' is the subject of the sentence.)
For a list of closes for your commercial and special occasion letters, go to close expressions.
This usually is on the left but you may see it middle or even right. In commercial letters the signature may be accompanied with the position that the person holds within the company (antefirma). In all commercial letters you should type your name as well as sign and it is advisable in all types of letters if you have an illegible signature. If you type your name and include your position within the company, the penned signature comes between the two:
The typed name is often preceded with Fdo.: Juan Pérez (Fdo.: = firmado - signed)
Fdo.: Juan Pérez
Fdo.: Juan Pérez
Where P.P. (por poderes) and P.O. (por orden) are equivalent to the English P.P. when you sign on the behalf of someone else.
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