Memorandum (Memo)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A memorandum, more commonly known as a memo, is a short message or record used for internal communication in a business. Once the primary form of internal written communication, memorandums (or memos) have declined in use since the introduction of email and other forms of electronic messaging. The etymology of "Memo" comes from the Latin, "to bring to remembrance."

Writing Effective Memos

An effective memo, says Barbara Diggs-Brown, is "short, concise, highly organized, and never late.

It should anticipate and answer all questions that a reader might have. It never provides unnecessary or confusing information" (The PR Styleguide, 2013).

Examples and Observations

  • Abide by this one main rule in every memo-writing situation:  Be clear, brief and tactful. Because many activities are competing for their time, readers expect information to be related as quickly and clearly as possibly. Yet, be sure not to sacrifice tact and sensitivity as you strive to achieve conciseness."
    William Sanborn Pfeiffer, Technical Writing: A Practical Approach. Prentice Hall, 2003
  • The following guidelines will help you structure a memo:
    • Use a clear subject line.
    • State your purpose in the first paragraph.
    • Summarize any potential objections.
    • Keep the paragraphs short.
    • Use subheads between paragraph groups.
    • Use bulleted and numbered lists.
    • Request action.​​

Mitchell Ivers, Random House Guide to Good Writing. Ballantine, 1991

Purpose of Memos

Memos are used within organizations to report results, instruct employees, announce policies, disseminate information and delegate responsibilities. Whether sent on paper, as emails, or as attachments to emails, memos provide a record of decisions made and actions taken. They also can play a key role in the management of many organizations because managers use memos to inform and motivate employees.

For example:

  • Abrupt: Be more careful on the loading dock.

  • Developed: To prevent accidents on the loading dock, follow these procedures:
    1. Check
    2. Load only
    3. Replace

Adequate development of your thoughts is crucial to the clarity of your message, as the previous example indicates. Although the abrupt version is concise, it is not as clear and specific as the developed version. Do not assume your readers will know what you mean. Readers who are in a hurry may misinterpret a vague memo.​
Gerald J. Alred, Charles T. Brusaw, and Walter E. Oliu, Handbook of Technical Writing, 8th ed., Bedford/St. Martin's, 2006

The Lighter Side of Memos

In a list drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, the BBC comedy Fawlty Towers was named the best British television series of all time. But back in 1974, if the BBC had paid attention to this memo from script editor Iain Main, it's unlikely that the program would ever have been produced:

From: Comedy Script Editor, Light Entertainment, Television
Date: 29 May 1974
Subject: "Fawlty Towers" by John Cleese and Connie Booth
Body: I'm afraid I thought this one as dire as its title. It's a kind of "Prince of Denmark" of the hotel world. A collection of cliches and stock characters which I can't see being anything but a disaster.

Iain Main; Reprinted in Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, ed. by Shaun Usher. Canongate, 2013

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Memorandum (Memo)." ThoughtCo, Oct. 8, 2017, Nordquist, Richard. (2017, October 8). Memorandum (Memo). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Memorandum (Memo)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 17, 2018).