letter vs envelope


Let's say you walk to your door and find a letter envelope on the floor.

Would it be clearer to say: "There was a letter on the floor. I picked it up, tore off the envelope, and took out the letter"?

Or would it be more correct to say that there was an envelope on the floor? Would envelope be too ambiguous?
  • Myridon

    Senior Member
    English - US
    Would it be strange to casually say: "Hey, look there's an unopened item on the floor"? What would be a casual way?
    Yes, it would be strange to call one specific thing "an item" in almost any circumstance.
    Letter-sized envelopes that are sealed or otherwise seem to have been used are assumed to contain letters in most situations so we call it a letter.


    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    When I look at my mail, I can almost always tell immediately without opening the envelopes which are letters, which are bills, which are solicitations from charities, and so on. It would not be unusual for me to look at an envelope and say "Look, here's a letter." If it turns out to be, for example, a solicitation that was designed to look like a letter, then (a) I will be wrong, and (b) they will not get any of my money.

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    Something that is clearly a letter (not a bill, not some piece of advertising, a catalogue, a bank statement or anything like that) would probably be called a letter.

    I don't see much wrong with "envelope" for a piece of unidentified mail, particularly when it isn't obviously a letter:
    A: Is there any post?​
    B: A letter from my sister, and there's an envelope for you.​

    However, we have a number of general terms at our disposal, and "something" or "a couple of things" might be used. These are more versatile, and can include things that are neither letters nor are in envelopes, things like postcards and magazines in plastic wrappers.
    Would it be strange to casually say: "Hey, look there's an unopened item on the floor"? What would be a casual way?
    "Hey look, there's a letter", if it could possibly be a letter. If it isn't obviously a letter, I doubt it would be referred to so enthusiastically:
    Jack open the door and saw something lying on the mat. Another bill, he thought.​
    [From Uncle Jack's Life Story, volume 39]