Personal Letters

Social and Rhetorical Functions

Personal letters have been a form of communication for ages. A personal letter is a form of informal communication concerning personal matters exchanged from writer to recipient. This kind of letter differs from others in that it is not a matter of professional concern and is longer than a written piece like a note or invitation. These kinds of letters are also typically transmitted via mail.

Being a matter of personal content and intended for a specific person or persons, personal letters have an important yet varied purpose. According to authors Margaret Shepherd and Sharon Hogan, “it deals with issues that deserve more than just a minute of attention,” which is how they differ from notes and cards. Personal letters aren’t constrained by length, therefore they can carry any desired amount of information. They can “take both the writer and the reader on an excursion that sets off from a home base of mutual trust.”1 With that being said, personal letters have the power to nourish, alter, or develop a relationship. 

The Handbook for Writers states that typical purposes for personal letters are to “inform, keep in touch, share, and persuade.”2

History and Development

It has been said that the first ever handwritten letter was sent by the Persian Queen, Atossa, in around 500 BC, although it’s not known what about. As more people became literate, the way of communicating grew in commonality and popularity. One of the earliest letters preserved is from Henry VIII’s love letter to Anne Boleyn, which demonstrates that this is a common topic of this genre of writing.3 This history of handwritten personal letters would be an example of the kairotic genre emergence theory. This theory describes a genre emerging as a convergence of time, environments, and technological advancements. Personal letters would be an example of this because the environment of becoming literate became prevalent and technological advancements were created to foster this genre (writing utensil and paper). 

King Henry VIII’s love letter to Anne Boleyn (1527).4

Something that is important to note about the history of letters is the role they have played in the development of major worldly events in the past, present, and future. For example, an important figure in the history of science is Charles Darwin who was very familiar with the genre of personal letters. During his research, he sent numerous letters to his best friend and botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker. One of which describes his process of discovering that species may not in fact be immutable. Fifteen years later, Darwin published On the Origin of Species, publicizing the theory of natural selection and changing the way people saw the world. 5

Other examples of history-making letters can be found here.

Stylistic and Substantive Elements

There are visible shared stylistic features of letters that remain consistent across time periods. One letter takes place in 1912 and was written by someone on board the Titanic. The other example is a letter to a loved one from the first World War. Whether typed or handwritten, personal letters share the same format. They all contain a heading, greeting, body, complimentary close, and signature line. Similar substantive features of letters include the intention or purpose of writing letters. Letters are addressed to someone in particular and are typically in response to a need for something. This need can range from just simply communication with a person to a literal call for help.6

Personal letters also share a casual, easily understood tone as mentioned previously. With that being said, stylistic features of this include conversational wording, paragraph separation, personal details, and casual grammar that may not be entirely “proper.”7 All of these stylistic elements and characteristics of written letters are all catalysts for achieving the genre’s social and rhetorical functions as described earlier. Things like handwriting and certain words or phrases can be very specific to the individual, therefore emphasizing the extremely personal nature of the genre.

The Genre Now

With all of that being said, letters now are not nearly as common as they were in the past as a result of technological advancement. Communication methods are now way more convenient and efficient, which is something busy folk can appreciate. However, said modes of communication lack the same effect of handwritten letters. Letters today are typically only used in a business, professional setting and are typed. Personal letters, however, have a very different agenda: no constraints, just words.


  1. Nordquist, Richard (5 February 2020). “Why Do We Cherish the Personal Letter?ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo.
  2. Writing Personal Letters.” Writing Personal Letters, Handbook for Writers.
  3. Cole, David (31 August 2021). “Handwritten Letters Which Made History.” Pen Heaven.
  4. Cole, David (31 August 2021). “Handwritten Letters Which Made History.” Pen Heaven.
  5. Cole, David (31 August 2021). “Handwritten Letters Which Made History.” Pen Heaven.
  6. Writing Personal Letters.” Writing Personal Letters, Handbook for Writers.
  7. Writing Personal Letters.” Writing Personal Letters, Handbook for Writers.

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