Whether you have a problem with a recently bought television at home or issues with a supplier at work, at some point you will have to complain. Although the British, Americans etc... are known for being very polite and indirect, in some situations they can be very direct, but at the same time polite.

And this is especially the case when writing an email or letter of complaint, where there are set phrases to both express your discontent and describe what has happened. Nowadays, emails are as commonly used to complain as letters. And the phrases used in both emails and letters are the same.

In this online exercise on writing emails in English, we will look at the vocabulary of complaining in business English. We will look at phrases that can be used in both emails and letters. The focus here is on formal English.

Click here to see more of our free online exercises on writing emails/letters

Example & Exercise:

Read the following letter of complaint from a commercial customer to a supplier regarding problems with a delivery of components.

From the context, try to guess what the meaning of the words/phrases in bold are. Then do the quiz at the end to check if you are right.

Dear Mrs Boswell,

I wish to draw your attention to an issue we have with a recent order from yourselves (ref no. 34ED12QP). Not only was the delivery four days later than agreed, but when we tried to use the components, we found that 40% of them were damaged and basically useless.

As is normal, I spoke to your Customer Service Manager, Peter Taylor on this matter. I expected that you would replace the damaged components, but this has not been the case. When I last spoke to Peter, last week, he informed me that the components were undamaged when delivered to us and that it was our fault. To make matters worse, he has still not replied to an email I sent to him on Monday. Not very good customer service.

As you are aware, we have been a customer of your company for over 5 years. The damaged components are severely impacting our production at the moment. We have orders which we can not send because of this problem with the components.

Although, I appreciate that you are all very busy. I believe that I am entitled to an explanation why Peter Taylor has not answered my email, and is refusing to replace the components.

Unless this issue is resolved promptly, then unfortunately, we will be forced to take further action.

I expect an email from yourself by 5pm today at the latest, to inform me how you are going to resolve this issue.

Yours sincerely,

Craig Smith
EGO Production Director

Now do the QUIZ below to make sure you know how to write this type of email.

10 ways to write better business emails/letters


Below is a definition/description of each of the words/phrases in bold from the above text. Now choose the word/phrase from the question's selection box which you believe answers each question. Only use one word/phrase once. Click on the "Check Answers" button at the bottom of the quiz to check your answers.

When the answer is correct, an Additional Information Icon "" will appear next to the answer. Click on this for extra information on the word/phrase and for a translation.

1. A formal way of saying that you understand their situation, but you still want to complain, is

Although, I appreciate that:
(phrase) This is a polite way of asking for something while showing a false empathy with them. It is not only used in emails or letters of complaints, but also in demands, e.g. 'Although, I appreciate you're busy, we need the report by tomorrow'. In Spanish: "si bien, se lo agradezco".


2. Another way to say that something is causing damage to your business, is

Severely impacting:
(phrase) This makes the impact of a problem sound very serious (although this may not be the actual situation). It is often used to encourage the person receiving the letter to work harder to resolve the issue. In Spanish: "gravemente afectado".


3. When you tell a person to do something before or on a certain time or date, you say

At the latest:
(phrase) This phrase is formed by using 'by' + 'date or time' + 'phrase', i.e. 'I want it by Monday at the latest'. The opposite of this is 'at the earliest', which means it won't be done before this time, e.g. 'Because there's problems on the roads, I won't get into the office until 9.30 at the earliest.' Notice the difference in the structure between the two phrases. In Spanish: "lo más tarde".


4. A formal way of saying, 'if you don't fix this problem quickly', is

Unless this issue is resolved promptly:
(phrase) This phrase is used as the first part of a threat. It is followed by what the consequence will be if the person receiving the complaint doesn't solve the problem, e.g. 'we will terminate the contract' or 'we will take our business elsewhere'. Sometimes, the consequence is not specified and the phrase is followed by 'we will be forced to take further action'. This is often used to suggest legal action. It In Spanish: "A menos que este problema se resuelva rápidamente".


5. A formal way of saying 'but this hasn't happened', is

But this has not been the case:
(phrase) This is very formal and very good in both letters or emails of complaints. It is used at the end of the sentence which states what you expected to happen, e.g. 'I was expecting the package to arrive on Tuesday, but has not been the case'. In Spanish: "pero esto no ha sido el caso".


6. A formal way of saying you deserve something (like an answer or refund), is

I am entitled to:
(verb phrase) It is a polite way of saying 'I demand'. It is followed by want you want to recieve from the other person, e.g. an apology, an explanation, a refund, a replacement etc... In Spanish: "Yo tengo derecho a".


7. A phrase used to introduce what the subject of the complaint is, is

I wish to draw your attention to:
(phrase) This is used at the beginning of an email or letter of complaint. It is used when the letter or email is sent to somebody who you believe doesn't know about the problem. After the phrase you briefly explain what the complaint is, e.g. 'I wish to draw your attention to the poor performance of your customer services department'. In Spanish: "Deseo llamar su atención sobre".


8. A phrase used to connect two complaints together, like 'in addition', which includes the word 'worse', is

To make matters worse:
(linker) It is used to contect two different complaints together. It has the same meaning as 'not only', but goes between the two complaints. Sometimes it follows 'and', e.g. 'The person at your call centre called me stupid! And to make makes worse, he hung up on me!' In Spanish: "Para mas inri".


9. A phrase that threatens the person receiving the email with an unsaid consequence, is

We will be forced to take further action:
(phrase) This is used as a formal unspecified threat. It suggests legal action, but doesn't say it. It has the same meaning as 'We will have no alternative but to take matters further'. Both always follow the phrase 'Unless this issue is resolved promptly,' In Spanish: "nos veremos obligados a tomar nuevas medidas".


10. A phrase used to connect two complaints together, like 'in addition', is

Not only:
(linker) It is used to contect two different complaints together. Similar to 'to make matters worse', but it always goes before the two complaints. When using 'not only' you have to separate the two compliants with 'but he/she/they also', e.g. 'Not only did the person at your call centre called me stupid, but he also hung up on me!' In Spanish: "no sólo".



Now that you understand the vocabulary, practice them by writing your own email of complaint in English with the new words/phrases.

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