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.