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:
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,
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:
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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?