June 27, 2013

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Formal salutations in email

Posted in opening salutations in email at 6:44 am by dlseltzer

Tip: Opening salutations in email

A reader writes:

I see that you have a post about the closing greeting in e-mails, but I couldn’t find anything about the opening. I tend to just start with no greeting at all, just “Dr. Soandso, …” but I’m preparing an editor query and that suddenly seems too abrupt. But now I’m over thinking it – “Dear Dr. Soandso” seems kind of lovey to me, “Hello Dr. Soandso” seems informal, and “Greetings Dr. Soandso” just seems weird. Is there a standard? Thanks.

We use email for so much of our business communication these days, we really have to come up with a style of formal writing for emails. Some of the breezy ways of writing when we are sending casual email to or texting friends and colleagues just don’t cut it when we are formally addressing someone in the business arena. It truly is a brave new world. (lol)

The reader noted, correctly, that we had discussed closings before (https://languagetips.wordpress.com/category/email-salutationsclosings/), but we haven’t touched on openings. What to do, what to do. Well, I’ll share my thoughts and, I hope that you will share yours.

First, I agree with the reader that having no introductory words seems a bit abrupt for an email to a stranger in a business context.

However, I disagree the ‘Dear’ is somewhat ‘lovey.’ Gosh, we have been using “dear” in business letters forever. I tried to find out just how long forever is in this regard, but no luck. I found a reference about using ‘dear’ in a business letter in 1775. I suspect that it goes back even further. And you can easily avoid any mushiness, by following it with a colon instead of a comma—Dear Dr. Soandso: not Dear. Dr. Soandso,

But if you are still troubled by ‘dear,’ there are other salutations you can use. “Hello” might be too informal for a first time communication, but I think you could use it on subsequent emails. I don’t have to tell you that ‘Hi’ is too casual for a formal communication with a stranger. The reader doesn’t like ‘Greetings,’ and it does sound a little overly cheerful to me. I think it would probably be okay to use it on business correspondence, but I probably would not—it’s just not a word that would come naturally to me.

I think my favorite greeting for such a business letter would be ‘Good morning or good afternoon Dr. Soanso.’ It’s friendly but still maintains the formality needed in business correspondence. ‘Good day’ would also work.

I would avoid impersonal greetings like ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ or even worse ‘To whom it may concern.’

I think that maintaining this level of formality in professional writing is worth it, but I won’t take or make bets on what will happen in the future. These days, you never know.



  1. Kelsey said,

    Working in insurance, I frequently email insurance agents without knowing their first name or their gender. There’s no safe appellation like “dr” to stick in front of their names, either, so I usually skip the name entirely and just put “Good morning,” or “Good afternoon,” for the greeting. It comes off a little dry, but I think it’s better than getting some really important details wrong!

  2. Frankie said,

    I think that “dear” would only be “lovely” if you addressed the recipient as “Dr Soandso dear”.
    There is absolutely nothing wrong with using “Dear Soandso” in formal and even informal emails.

  3. Jonny said,

    I think that using ‘Dear…’ does suggest that the following email is going to involve some kind of request or thank you – something being given or taken, I dunno.

    At my workplace, we use Good morning/Good afternoon for most formal emails but everyone uses ‘hi’ for colleagues they’re even remotely familiar with.

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