Università di Bergamo > Cerlis > English Version > Projects > Intercultural Discourse in Domain Specific English

Genre Variation in Business Letters


Panel Discussion



Paul Gillaerts ( Lessius Hogeschool , Belgium )

Maurizio Gotti (Università di Bergamo, Italy )





This panel will focus on the genres connected to one of the most popular forms of business communication, i.e. the letter. Indeed, in business communication the letter (and its modern counterpart, the e-mail) plays a very important role in establishing and maintaining business relationships, both within a company and with external contacts. To accomplish this, many specific genres and subgenres have been developed, which have been the object of linguistic investigation and which are taught in specific courses, as great importance is attributed to them in business studies. Moreover, this genre has a long-standing tradition, and the study of its forms in differing historical contexts has pointed out its varying aspects and its dynamic nature.

The panel will focus on the concept of genre and the possibilities of genre analysis. Other important issues that will be discussed are genre borders and genre mixing, in order to identify what findings may be applicable to all letters and what, instead, are specific. Attention will also be given to discourse genres used in business workplaces analysed from an intercultural perspective (e.g. how multinational companies write letters in different languages).

The panel is meant not only to focus on present letter genres and subgenres, but also to consider in retrospect as well as look forward to new developments in this field. The discussion will help both speakers and participants to widen their knowledge of these themes and may thus foster a more coherent approach to their analysis.







People in Business: Focus on Company and Office News in E-mail Correspondence

Marina Bondi (University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy )


The paper explores the range of variation in genre and register, using two case studies of highly differing business communication settings. Using materials from the external correspondence of a small company with a good international network and the internal correspondence of a multinational, I explore the function of “office news”, messages that are mainly devoted to providing information about people. Starting from reflections on the different ways in which the two highly differing situations realize a textual identity for the participants and a sense of “community” among them, I explore ways in which office news may both contribute to adding an interactional component to a basically transactional business exchange and constitute the main purpose of an exchange. The element of personal disclosure (if not self-disclosure) that characterizes the ‘genre’ is explored in terms of the social dynamics created by e-mails. Conclusions are drawn as to the ways in which the conversational features of e-mail exchanges may influence the nature itself of established genres.






"I perceive, my dear friend, by your letter of the 20th inst. that you are decided on entering upon the career of commerce": Nineteenth Century Business Correspondence

Gabriella Del Lungo Camiciotti (University of Florence , Italy )


The paper deals with the analysis of three handbooks meant to teach commercial correspondence to Italians, dating from the second half of the 19th century. The letters contained in these handbooks were collected with the aim of offering novices models dealing with the main business topics. Since the textbooks under scrutiny, according to their authors, contain collections of original letters, in addition to phraseology and other pedagogical material, their analysis permits to formulate a working hypothesis as to the evolution of business interaction as reflected in letter writing. It is my opinion that, though the letters are contained in textbooks, they can represent fairly accurately real letters because, in business settings, discourse communities were, and still are, likely to be characterised by ‘hybrid membership’ and, in the 19th century, it was very often the business practitioner, rather than the teacher, who imparted knowledge to apprentices.

From the point of view of genre analysis my primary concern is twofold: first, to characterise typical or conventional textual features of specific subgenres; and second, to explain such a characterisation in the context of the socio-cultural constraints operating in the late nineteenth century business community. The purpose of my research is, in fact , not just to describe the linguistic features characterising the letters, but also to analyse generic aspects with the aim of offering an explanation of why 19th century business correspondence takes the form it does. The letters contained in the textbooks are organised according to the topic dealt with. This facilitates the identification of the communicative purposes characterising each subgenre and helps to highlight the rhetorical and strategic use of conventional linguistic and discourse resources. By way of exemplification, in this paper I will focus on a specific subgenre in order to investigate its rhetorical organisation in the context of culture-specific ways of establishing and maintaining business relations.

It is hoped that the results of this historical study will contribute to a deeper understanding of the use of business English by shedding light over standard communicative practices in a period crucial to the development of international commerce. In addition, the study can help shed light on discourse change in older media and in technological mediated communication in general as the description of conventional strategies used to achieve specific aims in the 19th century international business community can be compared with modern communicative patterns and practices.






CEOs ’ Letters: Textual Models and Variations’

Giuliana Garzone ( University of Milan , Italy )


Although CEOs ’ Letters are immediately recognizable as belonging to a well-defined text genre, characterised by a fixed set of ‘obligatory’ moves, an analysis of a sample of Annual Letters issued by mutinational companies shows that in actual fact the degree of uniformity in textual realizations is lower than might be expected and there is ample scope for variations in discourse structure and text length.

The research illustrated in this paper is based on a corpus of Annual Company Reports of multinational companies registered in different European countries (Italy included) and the U.S., comprising a mix of high-, medium- and low- performing corporations. It aims at accounting for such variations in the structure of Letters to Shareholders, giving special attention to the ‘mix’ of text types (narrative, expositive, descriptive etc.; cf. Werlich 1975, 1976; Mortara Garavelli 1988) used in the Letters and the functions of language prevalently relied upon.

In the light of the results of this analysis, hypotheses are put forth as to the factors that determine the variations described (e.g., differences in context or in the organizational / national culture of the Company issuing the Letter, its performance during the relevant year, its corporate image policy, etc.), also considering the relation of each Letter with the Annual Company Report of which it is an integral part.



  • Mortara Garavelli , Bice (1988). Textsorten /Tipologia dei testi. In G. Holtus , M. Metzeltin , C. Schmitt (a cura di), Lexicon der Romanischen Linguistik, vol. IV. Tügingen , Niemeyer , 157-168.
  • Werlich , Egon 1975. Typologie der Texte. Heidelberg: Quelle und Meyer.
  • Werlich , Egon 1976. A Text Grammar of English. Heidelberg : Quelle und Meyer.






‘A Sales Letter Post-tested: Implications for the Concept of Genre’

Paul Gillaerts ( Lessius Hogeschool Antwerpen , Belgium )


The genre approach to sales letters has a long-standing rhetorical-structural tradition. The standard structure of Attention-Interest-Desire-Action (AIDA), or its variant Picture-Promise-Prove-Push (PPPP) has been refined by Bhatia (1993) to a move structure of a maximum of 7 moves, of which some are optional, some obligatory. Some optional moves such as ‘Using Incentives’ or ‘Adding Documents’, have become more and more part of the prototype sales letter, advocated by marketing gurus like Siegfried Vögele .

The result of this tradition is a rather conventionalised genre with a fixed text structure and a clear expectation of what a sales letter looks like and what it is all about. The genericity of the sales letter is well established. In terms of genre quality, one would expect that this high degree of genericity corresponds to effective, persuasive communication. As long as the copywriter follows the requirements of the genre, one would suppose the sales letter to be effective, i.e. fulfilling his function of selling. In reality, sales letters very often are awarded by experts for the degree the letters aim at deviating (slightly) from the requirements of the genre. The question is whether such dynamism is reflected in the success the sales letter has in real life.

In my presentation I will focus on a price-winning letter, a letter aimed at convincing students to work for a certain company. The letter has won the Gouden Veer (Golden Feather) 2000, a well-known Belgian award for the best sales letter in Flanders . In the first part of my analysis, I focus on the genre structure of the letter and on the degree of deviation/foregrounding. In the second, I report on the results of a reader’s analysis, taking into account the existing knowledge and the consequence-commitment of the reader, and the process of persuasion (attention-consideration-acceptance). The plus-minus method, in combination with a half-structured questionnaire, has been used following the approach suggested by Hoeken (1998). Finally, I confront my findings with those on the genre structure and the degree of deviation. In my conclusion I discuss the implications for the genre concept.




‘Unpacking Business Emails :Message Embeddedness in International Business Email Communication’

Julio C. Gimenez (Queen Mary, University of London – UK )


Over the last decade interest in electronically mediated communication (EMC) has increased substantially within all academic fields concerned with understanding international communication ( Louhiala-Salminen 1996, Nickerson 2000, among others). Research in this area has been extensive and wide-ranging. It has covered the generic and specific emerging patterns from these new genres as well as their purposes, applications and impacts on intercultural contexts. Little attention, however, has been paid to chain-emails as vehicles for maintaining, including and excluding business relationships.

This panel presentation reports on an on-going project which investigates the use of message embeddedness in chain-emails to maintain business contact. More specifically, it reports preliminary results of genre analysis of a data bank of 319 messages embedded in 52 emails between 13 e-mailers of four different languages (Dutch, English, Italian and Spanish), working in five countries (Australia, Mexico, The Netherlands, United Kingdom and United States). In this panel presentation I will analyse generic and specific features of an exemplar of the data and discuss implications for future research and for teaching international communication.






‘Rediscovering the Business Letter’

Poul Erik Flyvholm Jørgensen ( Aarhus School of Business , Denmark )


Business letters are often perceived as a slightly trite and over-investigated genre with few elements of real surprise. The large bulk of business letters consists of unsolicited messages whose primary function is to serve as promotional attention-getters paving the way for subsequent commercial exchanges in a different genre. However, business letters should not be underrated since they are a particularly effective means for personalising messages in the effort to pry new doors open and generate more business. While direct mail and telemarketing come across as a rather more obtrusive form of business communication, business letters retain their status as respectable and often indispensable covering letters for different types of enclosures such as brochures, catalogues, invitations and newsletters. In fact, in some cultures and in some situations, business operators always expect a first contact to be by way of a business letter. In the US today, some 30 percent of all mail being handled by the US Postal Service is business-to-business correspondence.

Business letters do not represent a static and immutable genre without room for innovation but may be creatively designed to exploit a variety of persuasive methods and techniques. This is also the case with respect to business-to-consumer correspondence in which cultural features and characteristics are considered particularly important and require careful attention from the message producer. In my presentation, I will discuss the potential of this powerful genre by asking if novel move structures can actually be designed with a minimum of cultural input and more on the basis of situational assessments and the use of appropriate rhetorical tactics. It appears that the notion of culture may have lost some of its explanatory potential in certain professional genres.






‘Polite Disagreement in Korean Business Correspondence’

Yeonkwon Jung (Korea University, Korea)

The present study investigates how Korean business professionals use politeness strategies in the performance of a speech act (disagreement) in Korean business correspondence. Key questions are as follows :

  • What type of politeness strategies appear in Korean business correspondence?
  • What variables influence the choice of politeness strategies in Korean business correspondence?

My data consists of authentic Korean business texts of internal (e-mail messages) and external correspondence (formal letters) collected from two Korean companies: food (company A) and pharmaceutics (company B). Since this is a synchronic study, the total time period during which the texts are written only covers the years from 1996 to 2000. Brown & Levinson’s (1987) politeness theory was revised and applied to examining text data.

Three politeness strategies, ‘solidarity enforcement strategy’ (used to build up or intensify solidarity between participants), ‘conflict avoidance strategy’ (used to reduce the force of disagreement), and ‘off record strategy’ ( nonconventionally indirect disagreement), are used in Korean business correspondence. First of all, solidarity between interactants is created by using ‘in-group language’ (e.g. English code; slang terms). Secondly, ‘conflict avoidance strategy’ is composed of ‘mitigating devices’ (e.g. hedges; partial agreement; apology; give overwhelming reasons) and ‘the defocalization of writer/reader or action’ (e.g. pluralization of the ‘I’ pronoun; nominalization). Thirdly, nonconventionally indirect disagreements are made by using ‘reasonableness’ strategy (i.e. indicating the reason to indirectly perform a face-threatening act without explicitly expressing its illocution).

We also found that contextual factors affect the choice of politeness strategies in Korean business correspondence (i.e. status (official rank); power; distance; medium; and corporate culture).



  • Brown, P. and Levinson, S. 1987. Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: CUP






‘From Business Correspondence to Message Exchange :The Role of Genre?’

Leena Louhiala-Salminen (Helsinki School of Economics)


This paper will give a brief overview of an extended project that described the changes in business writing in the 1990s. Genre was used as the key concept to explore the development from ‘mailing business letters’ to ‘dropping business faxes’ and further, to ‘exchanging email messages’.

I will review the use of the notion of genre in applied linguistics and refer to three perspectives: genre in systemic functional linguistics, genre in ESP (English for Specific Purposes) and genre in New Rhetoric. Finally, the usability of genre analysis in this specific study, and in business communication research in general, will be discussed.






‘Dear Shareholder, Dear Stockholder, Dear Stakeholder: The Business Letter Genre in the Annual General Report’

Catherine Nickerson / Elizabeth de Groot ( University of Nijmegen , The Netherlands)


In the current climate of corporate financial scandals in Europe and elsewhere, the channels available to corporations to communicate with their stakeholders are becoming increasingly important. Of these channels, one of the most visible is the annual report. As Rogers (2000) reports, the annual report is in fact one of the five most referred to sources of information for investment professionals. In Europe in particular, from next year onwards, all registered companies across the European Union will be required to meet the European Accounting Standards set down by the International Accounting Standards Board in their financial reporting, such that corporations will be increasingly reliant on the non-financial texts within the annual report, as a means of distinguishing themselves from their competitors. Texts such as the CEO’s Letter to Shareholders are, and will continue to be vital, as a source of information for (potential) investors.

In this panel presentation we will investigate the move-structure and discourse strategies used in the CEO’s Letter to the Shareholders in British annual reports and compare this to internal e-mail correspondence written by British and Dutch writers at a large Anglo-Dutch multinational. We will argue that although the Letter to the Shareholders may appear to have moved beyond the traditional boundaries – or genre borders – we associate with the business letter and e-mail genre, not only does it remain formally recognizable as a business letter it also has a similar communicative purpose in attempting to establish and maintain business relationships. Unlike the internal e-mail text, however, which is typified by a combination of informational and relational discourse strategies, the (British) Letter to Shareholders is also promotional in nature and it is therefore a complex genre with much in common with the sales letter and application letter genre discussed by Bhatia (1993). Future research could extend the investigation to other (non-Anglo-Saxon) cultures, to establish to what extent the promotional orientation is shared across the international business community.






‘Constructing an International Event: An Investigation of Emails in English and Italian by Event Organizers and Participants’

Gina Poncini ( University of Milan , Italy )


This contribution investigates email communication and letters in English and Italian connected to the organization of an international event in Italy . The texts were sent or received by an association of wine producers organizing a three-day convention, the first of its kind on the Nebbiolo grape, grown in northern Italian regions but relatively little known in ‘ New World ’ wine producing nations. The event, which took place in Valtellina in the Lombardy region, brought together wine producers from Italy ( Valtellina and Piedmont ), the U.S. ( California , Washington and Texas ), Australia , South Africa and Switzerland . Other participants included vineyard owners, journalists, researchers, and experts on viticulture and wine from around the world; members of the local community; others involved with the organization; (for some events) the general public interested in wines. Participants thus represented a hybrid discourse community.

Data consist of (a) 130 emails – 70 in English and 60 in Italian – sent or received by the organizers between Sept 2003 and January 2004; (b) 20 letters in English and Italian, sent by the organizers between June 2003 and October 2003; and (c) press releases, as of July 2003, and newsletters. Supplementary data consist of semi-structured interviews with selected participants; observations and audio recordings of parts of the event, including presentations by wine producers from Italy and abroad, and interchanges between producers from abroad, local winemakers and journalists.

After discussing the communicative purposes of the emails and letters examined, the contribution focuses on their characteristic features, especially interactive and relational aspects. It also examines intertextuality and embedded genres, showing how emails aiming to establish initial contact and extend an invitation gradually change, with new versions taking shape as other texts such as press releases are written for the same event. The analysis also shows how, at the same time, press releases and newsletters are shaped by the outcomes of the email exchanges. Attention is given to technical lexis concerning grape growing and wine making, and the use of Italian in emails written mainly in English by native speakers of English. The examination shows how writers position themselves and others within the wine industry and as part of the event itself. Whether written by organizers, (potential) participants, established figures in the field or relative newcomers to Nebbiolo , the texts together contribute to constructing the character of the event. They also help build a particular image for the Nebbiolo grape, the wine producers who use this grape, and the consumers who choose Nebbiolo wines.






‘The Criteria for Correctness of Genre Analysis in the Light of Genre Systems and Intergenericity : ’Nigerian Scam’ E-mails’.

Philip Shaw ( Stockholm University , Sweden )


E-mail users are familiar with ‘Nigerian scam’ messages which offer 20% of a vast sum of money which has fallen into the hands of the supposed sender of the e-mail in return for the loan of a bank account. They would recognise such messages as members of a recognisable – and named – genre. This paper aims to use an analysis of this genre to consider the ways in which a genre analysis can and should reflect the relations between one genre and another.

Given a corpus – here some 50 messages – it is fairly easy to produce a descriptive genre analysis of the moves and steps in ‘Nigerian scam’ messages. But this is not very informative. It would be interesting to see what such messages have in common with other scam messages (specifically the ‘lottery scam’ and possibly the ‘conference scam’), with advertising mailings, which they resemble in terms of form (letter) and real purpose (to get a response), and with bona-fide proposals, which they resemble in terms of genre structure and ostensible purpose. To examine the place of this genre in the ecology of related genres we need a more abstract analysis, which strives to use move and step categories which are applicable across genres and thus achieve some degree of explanatory adequacy.

This paper reports the descriptive analysis, discusses the considerations that would apply to a more explanatory one, and sketches such an explanatory analysis.






‘An Integrated Analysis of Business Letters’

Hilkka Yli-Jokipii ( University of Turku , Finland )


In my contribution I address the question of what brings about variation in the genre of business letters, and how such variables may be accounted for in an organized way. I introduce a research framework which entails an integrated, multi-dimensional analysis and also enables an intercultural study of the genre. The framework consists of a contextual and linguistic dimension. The contextual dimension brings the corporate reality into focus and illuminates various situation-based and user-derived issues. The linguistic dimension incorporates the trichotomy involving 1) the textual properties of the genre, 2) the logical aspect, enabling comparison between the form and function of discourse; and 3) the interpersonal dimension, which enables analysis of reader and writer orientation and of the coding of personal involvement. The approach enables a successful comparison between different languages and/or cultures because it provides a common platform of reference from which the comparison may be launched. This framework will be elaborated with reference to text examples.






‘Genre Mixing in Chinese Faxes: A Case Study of Successful Communication’

Yunxia Zhu (The Business Faculty, UNITEC, Auckland , New Zealand )

In spite of the fact that business faxes are becoming less popular than before in the West ( Louhiala-Salminen 1999) they are still used as a popular form of business communication in China and many business transactions are negotiated and communicated via faxes. It is therefore still timely as well as imperative to explore the effective use of Chinese business faxes. This presentation examines a successful case of business deals between two Chinese companies using the fax as a major means of communication. Specifically, it looks at how writers employ linguistic strategies to address problems in order to maintain their business relationships. Genre mixing is discussed as a strategy in close relationship with mianzi (face) and creative processes of writing. The theoretical framework is based on genre analysis (Martin 1989; Swales 1990), Chinese rhetoric and persuasion, politeness and face, and intertextuality ( Bakhtin 1986; Berkenkotter / Huckin 1995). The incorporation of Chinese rhetoric and intertextuality into the study of genre offers a further insight into genre mixing and Chinese fax writing.