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« Computer programming and the trouble with collective nostalgia | Main | The joy of not knowing »
Monday
May212012

What is the appropriate form of address in email?

Here is the text of a note from the Post Office, quoted in “Berry and Co”, which was written by Dornford Yates and published in 1920:

Sir

I beg leave to inform you that your telegram handed in at the Grosvenor Street Post Office at 10.2 am on the 26th June addressed to Reply paid Hamilton Smythe Fair Lawns Torquay has not been delivered for the reason indicated below.

ADDRESS NOT KNOWN

I am, Sir, Your obedient servant,

WB

Postmaster

Should letter-writing conventions be used in emails? Photo (c) Henri Burgius http://www.flickr.com/photos/bergie/Clearly, those forms of politeness at the start and end of the note seem quaint and odd to us. They are clearly symptomatic of a less frenetic age. However, at least the correct forms of address were known (or at least could have been known) by all. These days, it’s not at all easy to know what the balance should be between formality and informality in emails.

In my own small way, I am trying to maintain some of the old formality by using the form “Dear x” rather than the more chatty “Hi”, even if I already know the person. But that’s just me. More importantly, is there a correct approach that young people should be taught or encouraged to use?

My advice would be as follows:

  1. Start off in a formal way. You can’t really go wrong starting an email to a stranger using the form “Dear Mr x”, and leaving it to them to drop the formalities.
  2. If addressing a female whose marital status isn’t clear, use “Ms”. This is the advice of several etiquette guides (see Ms for a summary.)
  3. Finish off with something like “Kind regards” or “Best wishes”, as “Yours faithfully” or “Yours sincerely” do see a bit out of place in an email.

Do you have any views on these matters? What do you tell your students about it – or don’t you?

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Reader Comments (4)

I think these are very good tips, Terry! (Is it proper to call a blogger by their first name in a comment on their blog?) I have noticed that people can become very informal in the emails they write, and unless there is an established relationship between the two parties, this can be seen as uncouth, especially for those of more mature generations. I also believe that pupils can never go wrong by being semi-formal in their address toward teachers or other adults.

I'll add my opinion that unless one is writing to a very young woman, say someone not old enough to be in university yet, one should always use "Ms" as a woman's title. I think nowadays "Miss" is insulting to adult women, and "Mrs" always has the chance of being incorrect. The Wikipedia article you linked too seems to support my opinion; in the "Usage" section, it says "In business, 'Ms.' is the standard default title for women until or unless an individual makes another preference known, and this default is also becoming more common socially."
May 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEdTechSandyK
You're speaking my language Terry! I do feel quite uncomfortable moving away from the formal approach. As you say, once you have exchange a couple of mails then 'Hi' is fine!
May 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJulia Skiner
Thanks for your comment, Sandy. I'm glad you approve of my stance. TBH, I never quite know how ladies I don't know would like to be addressed, so just take the view that, hopefully, I can't go far wrong with "Ms" -- I know they will tell me if they prefer something else.
Thanks, Julia. I also think that if you adopt an informal approach straight off, you're making certain assumptions which may turn out to be incorrect and potentially embarrassing. I suppose in a way it's like a dress code. If you turn up to a meeting looking reasonably smart, you may be dressed incorrectly but are unlikely to be asked to leave. On the other hand, if you turn up in jeans and an old t-shirt you may WELL be asked to leave! I prefer to err on the side of caution. Besides, I think before you know someone, even if "knowing" amounts to just a couple of emails, it's actually nice to be somewhat formal as it conveys mutual respect.

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