Starting a Business Letter with Dear Mr.

By Maeve Maddox

Several years ago, when a reader said he refused to use “Dear So-and-So” to begin a business letter because dear is too intimate a word to use with a stranger, I assumed that he represented a minority of one. Who, I wondered, would interpret an established convention like “Dear Sir” literally?

Little did I know!

I’ve recently stumbled across numerous articles with titles like “Is ‘Dear’ Dead as a Salutation?”

I was amazed to find comments like these:

From an English professor
Rarely would anyone use dear when writing a friend, but it might be appropriate when applying for a job or emailing a boss.

From a teacher
Several men admitted they couldn’t force themselves to use Dear to address a business acquaintance, especially one they didn’t like.

From a business consultant
Dear comes across as too formal–or simply plain creepy and overly intimate. And between men, the use of it can appear a bit too effeminate.

I was surprised to learn that “rarely would anyone use dear when writing a friend.” When I lived in England, I wrote a lot of letters: to my parents, my brother, grandmothers, my aunts, and friends. Every one of those letters began with “Dear So-and-So.” Mind you, they were also written by hand with a fountain pen.

Even now, on the few occasions that I write a letter to a friend with the intention of putting it in an envelope and mailing it, I still begin with “Dear.” It’s a convention. It’s courteous. It’s respectful.

Just as bizarre as saying that one rarely begins a letter to a friend with Dear is the idea that using Dear to address a business acquaintance is a source of stress in grown men.

Certainly, email has changed the way people communicate in writing. Because of its memo format and ease of sending, email has developed relaxed conventions for informal exchanges between friends and colleagues. For this kind of writing, a formal salutation is out of place.

But even with email, a distinction is to be drawn between informal and formal communication. “Hi, So-and-So” is not a suitable way to address an unknown recipient from whom you want something. “Hey, So-and-So” is worse.

“Dear Mr. Jones” and “Dear Ms. Smith” are emotion-neutral writing conventions. What I find “simply plain creepy” is the notion that the salutation Dear can be construed as “intimate” or “effeminate” in the context of a business letter.

As the professor says in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools!”

Related posts:
‘Dear Sir’ and Other Business Conventions
Dear Sir

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21 Responses to “Starting a Business Letter with Dear Mr.”

  • Georgia Carter Mathers

    I would never have thought anyone would take ‘Dear’ literally either. Although, many emails I receive begin with ‘Hi Georgia’ or simply ‘Georgia’. It seems that the way we write emails is constantly changing.

  • Keith Channing

    To my mind, there are four possible ways of starting a written communocation:
    1. Dear Mr Smith – formal, polite, emotionally neutral, appropriate under most circumstances
    2. My dear Mr Smith – less formal, emotionally closer; depending on context, can be ironic/sarcastic
    3. Hi Mr Smith – inappropriate in any formal or business communication
    4. Mr Smith – in a formal or business letter, this seems to me to be aggressive and rude.
    Full disclosure – I am over 65, so possibly outmoded in my views.

  • Brendan

    “Dear” has been (and continues to be) the convention for commencing written correspondence. In that context, it has always been regarded as “emotion-neutral” as you correctly point out. Consider this: even the most aggressive legal correspondence begins with “Dear Mr Smith” or “Dear Sir/Madam” or “Dear Sirs”. Once I even came across a letter from a lawyer to an alleged perpetrator of injury that commenced: “Dear Fitzmaurice”. I think that the omission of the “Mr” was intentional based on the tone of what followed. No indication that it might be intimate or effeminate though.

  • Elysia Brenner

    I use Dear in only the most formal situations (job applications, writing to the bank). When speaking to friends or even business acquaintances, it is most common in my circles to begin with “Hi” or “Hey”. It should be noted, however, that I live in the Netherlands, where business tends to be conducted in a much more informal atmosphere.

  • Chris C

    In the quote from your final paragraph, shouldn’t the sentence end with a question mark, since, even if rhetorical, a question is being asked? Did C.S. Lewis mess it up, or is there a way of writing which doesn’t necessitate the question mark?

  • Bill

    As the writer said, email has changed the way we communicate in writing. Using a true letter format is now far less frequent than an email memo one. This makes the use of “dear” stand out as an exception rather than a rule. I’d bet that people under thirty begin letters with “dear” far less frequently those over thirty. Using “dear” will soon be a sign of age, and then will morph into a sign of fuddy-duddiness and will therefore be avoided by most. There will be occasional resurgences of its use by the young who will use it in a humorous, retro way, but other than that, it will be as common as ending a letter with things like “Your faithful servant.”

  • karen

    I have always, and still do, use “Dear” When writing a letter (pen and paper) and in business, (Dear Mr./Mrs. So and So) And find it to be a form of respect, but…I find that when I am sending an email to a friend, I will start out with “Hey” or “Hiya” (Depends on the friend) Or just “Hello”

  • Roberta B.

    So, what other options do we have? Again, the egalitarian nature of standard American English leaves us with few appropriate words expressing courtesy. After looking at some of the synonyms and based on the limited choices of our language, “Dear” seems to be the most neutral. On occasion we’ll use the term “Honorable” for a judge or some other high ranking official, but that’s about as high as it goes for a culture without royalty. In Latin America, they used “Esteemed” (Estimado) – polite, but still formal. I like that one. In Italian, the choices are wide ranging: Caro/Carissimo (Dear/Dearest-informal), Gentile/Gentilissimo (friendly/more formal), and Egregio (Distinguished/most formal) (not be confused with the modern meaning of egregious!). As we move from communication via pen/press & ink to electronic written communications, the formal SALUTATION (Dear Ms. Maddox[,]…) eventually and conventionally may be replaced, with a GREETING (Hello[,] Ms. Maddox……) even in formal correspondence thereby breaking down the walls of formality even further.

  • Lise

    Creepy and effeminate? Ridiculous! Dear X is a generally accepted courtesy opening for formal correspondance, whether via snail mail or email. I don’t think it’s a generational thing either…. half our team is under 35, and they all think Dear is the correct approach. There are times when a more casual approach is appropriate; people just need to take the time to evaluate the context and determine the right tone.

  • Oliver Lawrence

    I completely agree with Lise and the original poster.

  • Ken

    So, I’m gonna have to go ahead and disagree with this post. I recognize that “Dear” is time-tested and so prevalent that almost nobody thinks twice about using it. But I started having an issue with it a few years ago when updating my cover letter, because I asked myself what the literal meaning of “dear” is, and it’s anything but formal (e.g., “My dear wife”). But maybe “Dear” is a good example of a word that takes on a different meaning through decades of usage in mostly formal contexts (would be interesting to trace that). But now that I’m more aware of the word’s general meaning, it’s made me think twice about using it in formal correspondence. I believe I ended up using a simple “Hi, Mr./Mrs. LASTNAME,” which to me is more universally neutral than “Dear.”

  • Rob Kennedy

    When a person uses Dear addressed to me, I reply with the same. And, if a person signs off their letter/email with Warmest, Kindest or what ever, I do the same.

    I feel it’s like looking someone in the eye when you are talking to them.

  • SARubin

    I personally don’t mind starting, or reading, a personal letter that begins with “Dear.” However, In sales letters (web pages, etc.) I find it comes across as manipulative when I read “Dear Friend” as a salutation.

    Some marketers might think they’re gaining rapport by making me feel like it’s a letter from a trusted friend, but the point they’re missing is… all my friends actually know my name.

  • Karen M

    I live and work in Hong Kong. There seems no other proper way to start a formal letter, i.e., business, marketing, except with the “Dear XX” salutation. You might be surprised that, in fact, this “Dear XX” salutation was adopted in Chinese writing, I mean, for the entire Chinese population on earth, since the vernacular movment a hundred years ago (at turn of 20th Century) when Classical Chinese writing became obsolete.
    Yes, some of us are starting to feel awkward for “Dear XX” in emails and we would use “Hi, XX”. But to play safe, many still use “Dear XX” in emails to customers and bosses.

  • Umer Baloch

    “Greetings” is probably the best substitute of all words that I have read in the main text and comments section. What do you think?

  • Maeve

    Chris C.
    Confession: I didn’t have a copy of the book at hand, so I Googled the quotation. I found it punctuated with a period, a question mark, and an exclamation point. As the professor did not expect an answer, I chose to punctuate it as an exclamation. Next time I’m at the library, I’ll try to ascertain the original punctuation.

  • Mary Hodges

    “Dear …” as a from of address is simply formal and polite and doesn’t imply any special affection for the person so addressed. Demands for payment, letters giving dates for doctor’s appointments, even letters telling you your application for a job was unsuccessful usually begin “Dear…”

  • Bryan

    No. dear has no place in the business world. Dear means dear. It is time to lose it. Especialy when the context of the communication is serious in nature. Set the tone and lose the dear. I don’t care what has been used for years etc It just doesn’t make sense. Mr. Jones I am writing…… End of story.

  • Dale A. Wood

    If one wishes to avoid “Dear” in business letters (such as in “Dear Sirs”), we always have the logical alternatives of “Gentlemen:” or even “Ladies and Gentlemen:”.
    “Dear Sir or Madame” also works when the sex and number of the openers of the letter is unknown. Take for example a letter to the General Motors Corp., General Electric, IBM, British Air, or QANTAS.

    I like “Hello” for a greeting, especially the opening of an e-mail. After all, an e-mail is a cross between a letter and a phone call.
    “Hello, Mr. President”, “Hello, Madame Secretary”, and “Hello, Jack”, all look well to me. They are modestly formal and modestly informal.
    Someone pointed out to me that even in letters of complaint such greetings are far better than “Listen, you S.O.B.!”
    Also, when greeting your friend “Jack” at the airport, do not call out “Hi, Jack!”

  • David

    Dear author,

    I believe there is not an alternative to “dear” other than “hi”. After a few tries with hello, I decided it’s best to just reduce the salutation to the name of the person, as Dale and Bryan brought up. Best to be safe than to waste time thinking about this. Time to leave the office, it’s 6pm!

    Yours,
    David

    (On the other hand we can all be friends and just address each other with dear and kindest; just a thought from your average New Yorker/Bklynite.)

  • Lee

    … and yet, it is such a challenge to find a salutation which departs from the traditional ‘Dear’. That in itself is enough to question it’s use given the multitude of alternatives for any other word we would wish to use in the English language.
    Given the meaning of the word by itself and the available synonyms, I avoid it whenever possible in the opening of a sentence, preferring to address the department or the individual themselves or with ‘To whom it may concern’. It should also be surprising to all of the resistance of those academics who argue to use anything but without consideration of an alternative.

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