Letter #1

As promised, here is the first letter I wrote requesting some assistance with my research:

Hi [X],

My name is Allan McDougall and I’m an MA student in the department of English. I’m currently working as a research assistant for a psychiatrist and a rhetorician at the Wilson Centre for Health Education Research in Toronto. My role is to apply discourse analysis on the transcripts of end-of-life psychotherapeutic interventions between the psychiatrist and palliative care patients.

The goal of each intervention is to collectively create a legacy document for the patients and their loves ones. This is only one part of an overarching medical research project that seeks to change the way doctors are trained to treat dying patients.

Thus far, I’ve noticed that patients use second person pronouns to express general observations about humanity (mostly using the singular “you” but sometimes using the plural “we”). An example of this is: “Cancer is a gift. It makes you look back on your life; it makes you embrace your life, whatever it’s been like you embrace whatever has happened to you and I firmly believe that.”

I’ve searched some introductory English syntax material, but haven’t found any substantial information about the specific usage of second person pronouns. I’m about to begin a more in-depth analysis of second person pronouns, however my previous research on English syntax is limited. Drawing on your expertise, could you suggest any potential resources?

I might also add that this is a fascinating project which has produced very compelling results (the pronoun usage is my major difficulty right now). I’d be happy to meet with you to discuss my results in more detail if you’d like to learn more.



So, did I follow the format laid out in my last post? What did I miss? Any advice for next time? Conversely, what did you appreciate about my style?


  1. Hmmm…

    It’s impossible to respond well to your call for comments without a better sense of your audience. My comments might go way off the mark, but they’re genuine.

    Yes, you follow the format laid out in your post on epistolary rhetoric. But what’s provoking about that post is its disregard for pragmatics. Your letter, for example, is much longer than it should be (remember, I don’t know your audience). Are those extra words an attempt to be deferential; do they belie a lack of confidence; inexperience; or, are they expected by the audience?

    I agree, in principle, with the features of effective letters that you’ve outlined, but brevity is missing from the list, and discussing benefits is not generally applicable. Also, the request should come first. Everything else is puff pastry.

    If I’m a smart, busy, leading professional then I have very little time to process each request that I receive. The longer it takes me to get to your request, the greater the chance that I’ll lose interest and move on to the next. I’m either interested in helping you, or I’m not. No amount of introduction will help your case.

    Also, I suspect that you could get more information from your audience by a conversation. Might it be better to ask for a few minutes on the phone, or offer to buy them a coffee (if its feasible)?

    If I had to revise your letter in broad strokes, I’d make my request for help at the beginning, then I’d briefly introduce the context for the request, and finally I’d talk about the options to communicate the information to me.



  2. Thanks, Ricardo. My audience are a few professors and researchers with interests in Linguistics. I love the pragmatic approach that you’re offering here. And, you’re right, I left out brevity as a key component to a persuasive letter. Let me ask you this: which parts should I have left out of this example?

    I look forward to your comments on Letter #2,



  3. tatteredpage says:

    I think Ricardo is spot on though with academics it seems to help if you briefly establish yourself to begin with. This is because they might be able to point you in some directions they might not consider if they don’t know your affiliations.

    What I would add with putting your request much closer to the top is to make sure that you point out exactly how whomever you’re writing to can help. That’ll help keep the letter personal and not a form letter that you’ve sent to the entire group but it’ll also let the person know that you already know something about their work and chose to ask them for a reason.


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