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How to start and end a letter or an email

In formal correspondence it is important to start – and end – a letter with the right tone.

How you can begin a letter or an email

If you know the name of the recipient, use the title and the surname after the word Dear.

Dear Ms O’Connor,
Dear Mr Harding,
Dear Dr Johnson,
Dear Professor Green,

Using the abbreviated form Prof may seem less respectful, and the full form is recommended.

As mentioned here, there is usually a period (a full stop) after abbreviated titles in American English. In American English the salutation is usually followed by a colon instead of a comma.

If a person’s name does not reveal whether it is a man or a woman and you are not sure, write the full name:

Dear Kim Nelson,
Dear Taylor Smith,

Don’t know the name?

If you do not know the name of the person you are writing to, try to find it out. Check the website of the journal, university, department, organisation, company, etc., under ”Staff”, ”About us” or ”Contact us”. You might also find out a person’s name on LinkedIn. Another option would be to call the office and ask for the name.

If you cannot find the name but know the person’s function, you can write, for example,

Dear Editor,
Dear Librarian,
Dear Recruiting Manager,
Dear Chief Technology Officer,
Dear Communications Director,
Dear President of Sales,
Dear Social Media Specialist,
Dear Research Assistant,
Dear Supervisor,

If you know neither the name nor the function of the person you are writing to, write

Dear Sir/Madam, and if you know the recipient is a man (woman), write Dear Sir, (Dear Madam,). If there are more than one recipient, you can write Dear Sirs,.

Some writers use the phrase

To whom it may concern, (in American English To Whom It May Concern),

but that may seem too impersonal.

Battered letterbox by the roadside in the US desert
Perhaps less suitable for formal letters

Ending a letter or an email

To end a formal letter to a person whose name you know, write

Yours sincerely, (mainly British usage)
Sincerely yours, (mainly American usage)

If you do not know the name of the recipient, write

Yours faithfully, (British English)
Yours truly, (American English)

Slightly less formal endings would be

With best regards,
With kindest regards,

And more informal:

Regards,
Kind regards,
Best regards,

These last examples would be suitable in an email, since emails are seen as less formal than letters.

Mr and Mrs – and what about Mx and Esq?

We have looked at gender-neutral language in a previous blog post.

To address people we can use the honorific titles Mr, Miss and Mrs.

A man and a woman are walking on a beach by the sea.
Mr and Mrs Gibson on the beach

The female forms Mrs and Miss indicate whether a woman is married or not, which Mr does not. Mrs shows that a woman is married; many widows and divorced women retain the title even though they no longer have a spouse.

In the 1950s many women did not want to be known by their marital status and used the title Ms to replace Mrs and Miss. This usage became more widely spread in the 1970s and Ms is now the common form. However, the abbreviation Ms is older than you may think – it was used in an American newspaper as early as 1901. 

Use the neutral Ms when you write to a woman unless you notice that she herself uses the title Mrs. If in doubt, ask her what she prefers.

The gender-neutral title Mx can be used to refer to a person who wants to be identified as neither male nor female. The title has become adopted by institutions in the UK such as the Royal Mail, agencies dealing with passports and driving licences as well as several banks.  Mx is pronounced mix, sometimes em-ex.

Mr, Mrs and Mx are always used before a name, while Miss can stand alone.

Good morning, Mrs Johnson!
Thank you, Miss.

Without a following name, Mr and Mrs are replaced by sir and madam (or ma’am), respectively.

Can I help you, ma’am?
Very kind of you, sir!

The plural of Miss is Mses, and the plural of Mrs is Mmes, short for mesdames.

Mr has a plural form, Messrs, which is put before the names of two or more men, especially in the name of a company.

Send your request to Messrs Watson & Sons.

Young boys are sometimes addressed as Master.

As you see (and surely know), these titles are always capitalised. In American English there is usually a full stop after the abbreviations.

You may have come across the abbreviation Esq. The word Esquire used to be a title given to men of higher rank in society. In the 20th century it came to be used as a general title for any man, usually added after a man’s name, especially in correspondence (on envelopes and in letters) and official documents: William Brown, Esq. This is the same as Mr William Brown. If Esq. is used, you do not write Mr before the name.

When a British man is invited to Buckingham Palace, Esq. is added to his name on the envelope; for men of other nationalities, Mr is used instead.

In the United States, Esquire refers to a lawyer, irrespective of gender. It is used as an abbreviation after a person’s full name.

I suggest you contact my lawyer, Susan Hall, Esq.

When addressing correspondence to a United States diplomat, Esquire may be used, written in full.

Read about how you use honorific titles to start a letter or an email here.

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