“Dear Sir” and Other Business Conventions

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks:

Is it just me, or does the “Dear” seem a little awkward when starting a business letter to someone whom you have never met or communicated [with]? If I have to call someone “Mr.” or something similar, is this person really dear to me?

I had to laugh because I had a similar feeling the first time I had to type a letter signed Yours faithfully in England. Wow, I thought, what a devoted way to sign a business letter! At the time I was very young and literal-minded. (you can read more here about the business letter format).

Dear Sir, Yours sincerely, Yours faithfully, and all such polite expressions are conventions, agreed-upon forms that serve a conventional purpose. They’re not intended to be taken literally.

Language is itself a convention. For example, the object that English speakers call a pencil is by French speakers called a crayon. For American English speakers a “crayon” is “a stick of colored wax composition used for drawing and coloring.”

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

We can and do make the same words mean different things. It’s all a matter of context.

The “dear” in Dear Sir, does not mean the same as the “dear” that I use to address my grandchild. The one is a convention; the other is an endearment.

The complete conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass may be read here.

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19 Responses to ““Dear Sir” and Other Business Conventions”

  • Jeff Short

    “Dear Sir” isn’t so bad, but I have seen not a few business letters that were ended with: Very Truly Yours. Convention or not, that never seems right.

  • Brad K.

    Another convention fell out from decades-old attempts to engage people working for businesses. “How are you?” was initially intended to open a dialogue, in improve understanding and convey information.

    Today, “How’s it going?”, “What’s Happening?” “Are you getting along OK?” are almost a dare – do you dare to be rude enough to actually try to answer what sounded like a question? The one asking is merely being polite. The appearance of connection is served; no troubling intrusion of fact or actual dialogue was intended.

    I tend to wish others to “Enjoy the day!” or “Drive Carefully!” And I greet people with “Hello!” or “Hi!” – to convey a greeting, without the sham appearance of faux connection, unless I intend to follow the “How are you?” with attention to an actual conversation about the other person’s state and status.

  • Devin Johnston

    Actually the French word “stylo” is usually used to mean “pen”, whereas “crayon” means “pencil” (at least where I live).

  • Sylvain OBEGI

    Well, actually a “pencil” is a “crayon” in French, while a “stylo” is a pen

  • PreciseEdit

    Usage is such a funny thing. While some words, such as “alternate” and “alternative,” have clear-cut, distinct meanings, so many words carry connotative meanings, emotional baggage, and “insiders only” value. I have often said that editing is part craft, part art, and part sociology. Perhaps this is why “Dear Sir” is acceptable (although it still seems awkward to me).

    By the way: I use the Humpty Dumpty – Alice discussion above when conducting editing courses. Near the end of the course, we discuss usage. The next line from that dialogue is the one I most appreciate:

    `When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    `The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    `The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master — that’s all.’

    Much of what we do when editing is attempting to be the master of our words so that we may communicate ideas clearly and concisely.

  • Me

    Stylo is pen in french, not a pencil. For a pencil, one would ask for a un crayon

  • Otaibi.H

    Wow, I’ve always wondered about that. I, too, thought it was just me feeling that way about it. :))

    I almost told my teacher once how I feel about ”Yours Faithfully” being reffered to someone I’ve never known but backed out at the last minute.

    So it’s better to just start it with Mr. sir, instead. That’s WONDERFUL news, thank you! :))

    Thanks

  • Maeve

    Thanks all who pointed out the stylo/crayon gaff.

    I know better! I must have been sleeping. I’m going to change it in case the post is circulated.

  • Rebecca

    Interesting article. I usually stick with “Sincerely yours” when I end a letter. Ending a letter with “Yours faithfully” could be perceived as to endearing. Does anyone write a letter using Dear Sir or Madam? I thought that would be obsolete for the 21st century. Who knows…

  • Daniela

    What I know about that matter is that convention states that if a letter starts with “Dear Sir or Madam”, you should end it with “Yours faithfully”, whereas if it starts with “Dear Mr. xxxx”, you should end it with “Yours sincerely”. Isn’t that right?
    Obsolete or not, that what Cambridge exams expect from candidates when they write a formal letter.
    According to Macmillan English Dictionary:
    Yours faithfully
    used at the end of a formal letter when you begin it with Dear Sir or Dear Madam. When you begin a letter with someones name, for example Dear Mrs Smith, you end it with Yours sincerely.
    © Macmillan Publishers Ltd. 2002

  • Frank Darroch

    hi in your tutorial you said that when signing a letter you end with yours faithfully if you do not know the person, and yours sincerley if you know their name. in your sample letter for a job application your writer knows the name of the recipient but sigs of yours faithfully which one is correct?

  • madan

    can we use
    to start a letter ..

    Dear Madam,

    for ladies you know or dont know???
    confused
    kanti

  • G. Snoad

    Please can you clarify for me the convention concerning Yours faithfully?

    In the formal Dear Sir/s sense, is the signing off written as “Yours faithfully” or “Yours Faithfully” with a capitalised “F”

  • Steven Kirk

    I think its simple.

    If you are telling your correspondent something then you would end with “yours sincerely” as you are meaning just what you say sincerely.

    If you are asking, requesting or perhaps inteding to gain hope or favour, then I would end with ” Yours Faithfully” or I have faith in your integrity to understand my meaning or my intent.

  • Daniela

    Sorry, Steven, but that is not quite the case… Those are conventions, not heartfelt messages…

  • Melody

    I can understand better now .Thanks .

  • nina

    hi, thanks for the insides on formal letters.
    A friend and I like each other, so when he writes me a letter he begins with ”Dear Nina” and ends with ”Yours”,after that he signs his name at the end.
    I will like to know about the ”Dear” and ”yours” used at the beginning and the end of an informal letter respectively.

  • Graham

    The most formal ending to a letter is;

    “I have the honour to remain, sir, your obedient servant”

    although it’s never really used except for letters to The Times, and increasingly rarely then.

  • Sarah

    What are the rules for the punctuation after the Dear Sir, Dear Mr Smith in the UK, Should there be a comma?

    Is it different for the US. I see in US examples

    Dear Sir:
    Dear Mrs Smith,

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