Addressing A Letter to Two People

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One post often leads to another. The recent article “Conventional Letter Salutations in English” garnered several questions about how to address a letter to a married couple who have different titles and/or different surnames.

Traditional letter-writing etiquette is based on traditional professional and marital patterns derived from the following assumptions:

1. A married couple is made up of a man and a woman.
2. The man’s name, with the appropriate honorific, goes first.
3. A married woman takes her husband’s surname.
4. A married woman’s given name is not part of the address or salutation.

Based on these assumptions, traditional etiquette dictates the following forms:

Mr. and Mrs. Charles Simpson
Dr. and Mrs. Charles Simpson
Rev. and Mrs. Charles Simpson

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Simpson
Dear Dr. and Mrs. Simpson
Dear Rev. and Mrs. Simpson

Nowadays, however, when some people question even the conventional use of Dear to begin a business letter, how to address a letter can be a hotly contested topic.

Many married women still prefer the “Mr. and Mrs.” form, but others feel marginalized by it. As a result, recent guides to letter-writing give the following as acceptable options:

Mr. Charles and Mrs. Jane Simpson
Mr. Charles and Ms. Jane Simpson

Note: In traditional etiquette, the form “Mrs. Jane Simpson” signifies that the woman so addressed is divorced.

In modern usage, when a form other than “Mr. and Mrs. [surname]” is used, the woman’s name goes first:

Mrs. Jane Simpson and Mr. Charles Simpson
Jane and Charles Simpson
Dear Jane and Charles

An editor at The Chicago Manual of Style considers any of the following as proper forms for a business salutation to a married couple:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Stern
Dear Irene and Mike Stern
Dear Mike and Irene Stern

When members of the couple have different titles, some commentators think that the traditional male-female order should be maintained. For example, if the wife has a doctorate and the husband hasn’t, the form would be “Dear Mr. and Dr. Simpson.”

Other authorities, like The Gregg Reference Manual, state that the higher-ranking title should go first: “Dear Dr. and Mr. Simpson.” If both members of the couple are entitled to be addressed as “Dr.,” then they may be addressed as “Dear Drs. Simpson.”

Another result of changing norms is the necessity to decide how to address a couple that does not share a surname.

Robert Hickey, author of Honor & Respect, The Official Guide to Names, Titles, and Forms of Address, offers a solution that covers every kind of couple: heterosexual, homosexual, married, and unmarried-but-living-together.

When each member of a couple uses a different surname, list each name fully, putting them in alphabetical order by family name:
Dr. Geoffrey Baxter and Dr. Alice Goodwin

For partners in a same-sex couple, list them in alphabetical order by family name:
Ms. Angela Esposito and Ms. Shara Patel
Mr. Liam O’Hare and Mr. Darin Washington

Some same-sex couples opt to share a surname. In that case, arrange the names in alphabetical order by given name:

Ms. Angela Patel and Ms. Shara Patel.

Bottom line: If you know the couple, you should know how they prefer to be addressed.
If you are addressing a letter to people you do not know well, choose a respectful form of address that suits the occasion.

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12 thoughts on “Addressing A Letter to Two People”

  1. OMG I never dreamed it could be this complicated. Luckily for me, at this point in my life and career this has been an issue. My personal correspondence is not that complicated, and I never have formal/business correspondence that is that complicated. And I hope I never do! But if I ever bump up against this problem, I will be sure to refer back to your post and take it further if necessary. Thanks Maeve!

  2. So, is it:
    Dear Queen Elizabeth Windsor and Prince Philip Mountbatten, or
    Dear Queen Elizabeth Windsor and Duke Philip Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, or
    Dear Queen Elizabeth Windsor and Duke Philip Glucksberg, or
    Dear Queen Elizabeth Windsor and Prince Philip, or
    Dear Queen Elizabeth Windsor and Duke Philip Edinburgh, or
    Dear Queen Elizabeth Windsor and Prince Philip Edinburgh, or
    Dear Queen Elizabeth Windsor and Commander Prince Philip Mountbatten, or…

    Gosh, I give up.

    How about

    Dear Liz and Phil,

    Did you know Elizabeth was home schooled? And Philip attended the American School in Paris as his first formal schooling. I wonder how they did on their SATs.

  3. I’m sticking to To Whom It May Concern in all circumstances.

    To Whom It May Concern:
    All quiet here on the Western Front, dear wife.

    To Whom It May Concern:
    Merry Christmas Mom and Dad!

  4. I cannot imagine using the form you provide based on what is “traditional.” In these, the woman loses her last name along with her first name (and identity), “Mrs. ‘my husband’s first and last name'”; I’d be insulted to receive something with this type of format used, as I’d think many women would be.

    Mr. and Mrs. Charles Simpson
    Dr. and Mrs. Charles Simpson
    Rev. and Mrs. Charles Simpson

  5. Well, Heather, imagine it. I’m, probably a lot older than you are, but it’s true……maybe even as late as the 60s. The example is correct which says: In traditional etiquette, the form “Mrs. Jane Simpson” signifies that the woman so addressed is divorced.

    When I started elementary school, my mother always signed her name: Mrs. [her first name] [my father’s last name]……and I can tell you, she had no idea it indicated the signature of a divorced woman. I’m sure most of the school people at the time probably were at least half a generation older than she was, and I was well into the 4th grade when I told her that the word around school was that she was raising us by herself, even though my dad was very much around and living with us. After that, until all of us children were out of high school, she signed her name: Mrs. [my father’s first and last name], and that was at least into the 70s. Times are different now, and she has long since gone back to signing with her first name. So, for the sake of your own identity, here’s one more reason to appreciate being born in this era.

  6. If the traditional forms of things offend you, then you have to take it up with tradition. If you’re over 18 years old and still want to be a “rebel”, then you are free to refrain from observing tradition yourself. But you don’t have any right to be offended by those who observe the tradition. Someone addressing you as Mr. and Mrs. John Brown or even Mrs. John Brown is not being offensive. Think of poor Princess Michael (Prince Michael’s wife). She doesn’t even get to use her own first name when she’s alone!

  7. Dear Mr, Mrs or ms Venqaz,
    It is ludicrous to suggest that someone does not have the right to feel offended by something, because that something is an old tradition. There are many old traditions that were clearly accepted at the time (the time of limited rights or a ‘lower’ position for minorities for example, women, children, people from another race), but in this day and age would be highly insulting and unacceptable. Culture changes (as it is time and place dependant) and a tradition has no lasting right when it is now deemed inappropriate.

  8. This post is very informative. Yes, there is a tradition that’s called WRITING. In writing style, there is a convention to follow when addressing people in certain situations. Those growing up in today’s world, of course, won’t really understand this because you didn’t grow up WRITING. These rules won’t make sense to you. Just because you don’t understand the rules doesn’t make them irrelevant. They are very relevant.

  9. My understanding is that whoever outranks the other is addressed first. But say the wife is Dr and the husband is Capt in different professions. How do you figure out who outranks who? Or do we stick to male first and then female?

  10. I understood from an old etiquette book that when writing a letter one would say Dear Herbert & Doris always putting the mans name first if he was family , I still do this is it correct, my brother thinks it is not I am sure I am right.

  11. This ‘etiquette’ is from a time when a married woman was the property of her husband, with her personal and financial autonomy, and even her citizenship stripped from her and subsumed by her husband’s. Chattel slavery is quite rude indeed, don’t you think?
    The purpose of names is to identify people. Call me by my name please. If you call me by someone else’s name, I’m unlikely to respond.

  12. If we are following the format and the woman outranks the man, then wouldn’t it follow that it would properly be:
    Dr. and Mr. Lily Stone

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