The genre of business letters

Nickerson and de Groot (2005) state that the concept of business letters as a separate genre was the focus of much of the relevant research in the 1980s and 1990s. They go on to say that, by the end of the century, many researchers were finding that it had essentially ceased to be of relevance owing to the emergence of new media (Nickerson and de Groot 2005: 325). Yet for all the doomsday prophecies business letters are still around, and Flowerdew and Wan (2006:136), among several others, find that “posted letters still pay [sic] a very important role in certain forms of business communication”.

One form that appears to have survived the arrival of electronic communication is the sales promotion letter, with many companies continuing to pitch their products or services by traditional letter instead of, or possibly in addition to, email. In one of the early successful attempts to apply genre analysis to non-literary fields[1] (Askehave and Nielsen 2005: 120), Bhatia defined a sales promotion letter as “an unsolicited letter addressed to a selected group of prospective customers” (Bhatia 1993: 45). He characterized such letters as being obviously intended not only to persuade, and thus to elicit a response (ideally in the form of a purchase) from the recipient, but also to initiate follow-up communication. Furthermore, he identified several rhetorical moves within the letter, with some considered obligatory for this genre (e.g., establishing credentials or introducing the offer) and others regarded as optional (e.g., offering incentives or enclosing additional documents) (Bhatia 1993: 45-49). Placing this approach in the context of the general definition of genre above, we find all the elements stipulated for genre status. We are dealing with basically standardized communication (thanks to the moves referred to above), in a recurrent situation (companies sending out such letters on numerous occasions), and the relationship between seller and potential buyer represents a specific sociocultural environment. Another interesting example of business letters still widely used today can be found within the framework of companies’ annual reports, which generally include messages from the Board or its representatives to shareholders and other stakeholders. Along the lines of the moves discussed in connection with sales letters, Nickerson and de Groot (2005) find a similar spectrum in Statements from the CEO or Chairman, with these moves including context, financial performance, operations, strategy, and credentials (Nickerson and de Groot 2005: 332-334). Other instances in which business letters would be employed on a large scale even nowadays and are (or might be) considered genres of their own include, for example, letters of recommendation (e.g., Kaplan 2010:131), letters of complaint (e.g., Coffin, Donohue, and North 2013: 271), or cover letters (e.g., Crossley 2007: 6), to name but a few of the most important ones.

The case for genre analysis in general was made above in a general setting, so the discipline’s merit need not be reiterated. Within the context of this article, however, it is applied genre analysis that is of greater interest. J0rgensen (2005), for example, argues for its relevance as follows: “Applied genre analysis is a versatile approach to examining or producing professional language [...]. Applied genre analysis thus provides students of business communication with a valuable framework for translating a business strategy [...] into resultant advertising material or promotional literature” (J0rgensen 2005:172).

  • [1] While Swales (1990) had devised the concept of non-literary genres (Cortes 2010: 15) earlier thanthat, he did not consider business letters a separate genre at that point (Swales 1990: 61).
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