A recent request for linguistic advice ends with a plea that makes me feel like Obi Wan Kenobi:
O Maeve, … I hope you can help because the silent scream starts every time I send an email. You’re my only hope.
The required advice concerns the appropriate salutation for an email.
Struggling to avoid rudeness
The DWT reader, who says, “for decades I’ve simply addressed emails with the name of the recipient,” has had his confidence shaken by a recent comment by Miss Manners in the Washington Post.
This column convinced me that I’m the only person in the world who does this, and that people will see this as too blunt or rude. But how to greet in email?
In the referenced column, Miss Manners opines that she is “not quite ready to let go of the conventional ‘Dear’ salutation.”
Our reader has clearly given the matter a lot of thought:
While most think “Dear” is anachronistic, I think it’s best for letters and email. It doesn’t mean I’m fond of you or that I even like you: here, it’s just a functional particle that you put in a greeting. I can live with that, but many, many people cannot.
Conversely, I think “Hi” is just plain silly. Even when I expand it to “Hello,” I must squelch the silent, internal scream to put a comma after the salutation. “Hello” is an interjection that needs a comma – it’s more than a mere particle.
How about “O”? Yes, it’s about 700 years too late, but the vocative is grammatically and aesthetically appropriate.
Or “ahoy-hoy,” the greeting Alexander Graham Bell proposed for telephone conversations?
NOTE: In the 1870s, Alexander Graham Bell’s preferred salutation for answering the newly invented telephone was ahoy-hoy. The obsolete term was revived by its use by Mr. Burns in the television comedy, The Simpsons.
[I rather like the suggestion that we might adopt Vocative Voice: “O Mr. Jones, Hear my message.” Or, perhaps we could begin with “Hail, Mr. Jones,” or, “Hear ye, hear ye!”]
New methods of communication call for new salutations
This question of how best to address the recipient of an email is one I used to wrestle with myself.
When I began writing emails, I invariably started with “Dear So-and-So.” I will still begin with this in some contexts, but not as often as I once did. In most cases, I have yielded to the new informality.
When responding to an email that begins with only my name, without a Dear, I respond in kind: “Natasha,”.
With friends and relatives with whom I am in frequent contact, I often plunge right into the message without any salutation at all.
When initiating an email to a stranger, I do, in fact, use the salutation “Dear Mr./Ms. So-and-So.”
Rarely do I begin with “Hi,” and NEVER with “Hey!” The “Hey” variation in my inbox inevitably raises hackles of annoyance. That one does strike my ear as rude.
Recognizing changing sensibilities
Like the reader who initiated this discussion, I’m puzzled by the strange phenomenon of a new generation of English-speakers who have decided that the Dear in “Dear Sir” implies an unwanted level of affection or intimacy with the recipient.
A thousand years or so ago, the Old English word for dear had the meaning “esteemed, valued.” It gradually took on the meaning “beloved.” Then, about four hundred years ago, it became established as a polite formula for beginning a letter—in addition to its other meanings of esteem and love. Now, a new sensitivity seems to have smitten twenty-first century English-speakers, who feel that the word can have only one meaning and that one, “beloved.”
I find this view silly, but for people who feel this way (as for Willy Loman) attention must be paid.
Miss Manners is not alone in preferring the conventional salutation with Dear.
The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) recommends it:
Just like a written letter, be sure to open your email with a greeting like Dear Dr. Jones, or Ms. Smith:
A site offering financial and business advice also recommends the conventional salutation on an email when applying for a job:
If you have a contact person, address your email to Dear Mr./Ms. LastName.
The Law Society site advises writers of emails to “use the appropriate level of formality”:
For instance, begin with “Dear _____”, use “please” and “thank you” where necessary, and always end your email with the appropriate phrase, “Kind regards”, “Thank you”, “Sincerely” and so on.
The conventional salutation with Dear will almost certainly endure in printed correspondence.
It will probably continue to be used to begin emails addressing strangers who are being asked to bestow some kind of favor.
For emails that are merely conveying information or asking a question, less formal salutations are already the norm.
Our reader may rest easy. Addressing an email recipient by name only is not too blunt and does not imply rudeness. It is perfectly acceptable contemporary email usage.
[The readers’ comments are always the best part.]