Conventional Letter Salutations in English

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks if a letter salutation can include more than one honorific. For example:

Dear President Dr. Turner

The short answer is, “not in English.”
 
The conventional letter salutations in English are these

Dear Mr. Adams
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Adams
Dear Ms. Adams
Dear Margaret Adams
Dear Harry (if you know the person well)
Dear Dr. Adams
Dear Dr. and Mrs. Adams

When the name is unknown to the sender, the following are common salutations:

To Whom It May Concern
Dear Finance Officer
Dear Editor
Dear Sir or Madam

The conventional English honorific for a man is Mr. For a woman, even if her marital status is known, the preferred form is Ms. For a medical doctor or a person with a PhD, the appropriate honorific is Dr.
 
Note: British usage does not put a period after these abbreviations.
 
If the sender knows the recipient’s name but not the sex, a gender-neutral solution is to use the first and last name:

Dear Cory Simpson

Other languages have other conventions, including the practice of using more than one honorific. For example, in German, when addressing a professional like a doctor or a lawyer, a writer may use two honorifics:

Sehr geehrte Frau Rechtsanwältin Fischer. (literally, “Very honored Madame Lawyer”)
 
Sehr geehrter Herr Doktor Strauss (literally, “Very honored Mr. Doctor Strauss”)

Foreign letter-writing conventions tend to creep into English in the context of foreign affairs. For example, I found the following usage on sites written in English:

Dear President Dr. Jakaya Kikwete—Open letter to the president of Tanzania, published on the Greenpeace site.
 
Dear President Dr. Fischer—open letter to the president of Austria, published on the Human Rights Watch site.

Such usage is not idiomatic in English. The writer must choose one title:

Dear President Kikwete or Dear Dr. Kikwete
Dear President Fischer, or Dear Dr. Fischer

It’s up to the sender to decide which title is more desirable in the context.

Related posts:
How to Format a US Business Letter
Starting a Business Letter with Dear Mr.
“Dear Sir” and Other Business Conventions

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9 Responses to “Conventional Letter Salutations in English”

  • Red

    Interesting, and very true where German is concerned.

    However, as a single female, I beg to differ about the “preferred form” being “Ms.” I can’t stand it, and know plenty of other women who feel exactly the same way. It is neither fish nor fowl. It shows no respect for single women who wish to be addressed as single, and no respect for married women who wish to indicate that their status is “married” and not otherwise.

    For those who wish to use it, fine. However, the language would be better for dropping this non-conventional, recent feminist-supported adjustment to English.

    Personally, if I know a person is single, I will use “Miss” and if I know the woman is married, I will use “Mrs.” unless told otherwise by the person herself. If the person has some other preferred title (Professor, Doctor, etc.) then that is, of course, the correct choice.

    Also, there is one convention of double honorific that is used in English that I can think of. Namely: The Reverend Doctor J. Smith. Of course, most people use “reverend” as a title, which it is not — it is an adjective.

  • Evan

    Dear Maeve,

    Having read your daily writing tips email for years, I feel comfortable writing with a friendly salutation.

    I respectfully disagree with your view that a salutation can include only one honorific. In British English, it is conventional to use titles like ‘Professor Sir’ (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/medicine-obituaries/9984988/Professor-Sir-Robert-Edwards.html) or ‘General Sir’ (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/11707485/Job-sharing-and-flexible-hours-for-soldiers-in-bid-to-double-female-troops.html). Letters addressed to these people would include two titles.

    Yours,

    Evan.

  • Caitlin

    On a side note, I read that full stops/periods are used after only those abbreviations that end in only the abbreviation’s final letter but not the full word’s final letter. Eg Dr and Doctor both end in ‘r’ so no full stop is required after Dr, whereas a full stop after Ed. for Editor is required.

  • thebluebird11

    Maybe slightly off topic, but I recently came across the construction “Mx” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mx_(title)]. I know this is probably not mainstream right now and I have never seen it in any correspondence I’ve received; that may be because Mx is not out there much yet, or it might be because my first name is obviously a feminine name (I surely hope nobody names their son Sherry), so there is no doubt as to gender, and letters from people who don’t actually know me are addressed to me as “Ms.” IMO Mx is a good solution for times when you are writing to someone you don’t know and the name is gender-neutral (Leslie, Gale, Tracy, etc).

  • Maeve

    Caitlin,
    See this post: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/does-mr-take-a-period/

  • Maeve

    thebluebird11,
    Durn! I’ve always used Mx as my signature when required to initialize something.

  • thebluebird11

    Why? Does your last name start with X?!

  • Maeve

    thebluebird11,
    No. My last name begins with M and ends with x: M—-x.

  • thebluebird11

    @Maeve: ah, true!
    @Red: I cannot speak for everyone, but I am not unhappy with Ms. When I was very young (like 10), Miss was fine. When I got married, “Mrs” seemed kind of formal (I’m not a very formal person), and also there were several of us by the same name: my mother-in-law and 2 sisters-in-law; each of us was Mrs. Roth. As far as I was concerned, my mother-in-law was the REAL Mrs. Roth. After getting divorced, I did not resume my maiden name (because my degree was in my married name and that was how I was known professionally). I certainly did not want to go back to being called Miss, and I was not Miss Roth. After re-marrying and not liking my 2nd husband’s last name, I did not like to be called Mrs. C—–, and in fact I didn’t even change my name for years. When I got divorced the second time, I went back to my first married name. Now, I cannot be called Mrs because I’m not married, but I’m not Miss because I’ve already BEEN married twice and hopefully will find the right person in the future. To me, Miss is insulting, as if I’m a spinster. Before you jump to conclusions and make your own hard-and-fast rules as to what to call people, I would say stay neutral until you are informed of some other preference. Doubtless there are people for whom Miss is fine, but I am not one of them.

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