Old dears

So how do you start your emails? Do you address your correspondent with ‘Dear Mary’, or do you say ‘Hi Mary’, or do you just launch right into the subject-matter? And when you’ve said what you want to say, do you finish with the traditional ‘yours sincerely,’ or maybe ‘regards’? Or do you just sign your name, or maybe not even that?

I think I do all of these things, depending on the topic and how well I know my correspondent. I have been known to send 2 or 3-word emails with neither salutation nor valediction; but I have also sent emails that were essentially formal letters dispatched electronically. But now, some commentators are suggesting that the use of ‘Dear’ in a salutation is out of date, and perhaps suggests a degree of inappropriate intimacy. Using ‘Hi’, or nothing at all, would be better, apparently.

For myself, I don’t see that emails need to be seen for these purposes to be totally different from letters and memos and notes. I guess most people still begin letters with ‘Dear Mr Smith’, but we have long stopped signing off with rhetorical flourishes such as

‘I remain, dear Sir, your most humble and obedient servant.’

Custom and conventions change, but there is also usually room for those who want to maintain a somewhat more traditional approach. I don’t imagine they are misinterpreted or that they offend anyone. Though, to be straight with you, if you ever receive an email from me that ends with the valediction quoted above, you can be sure I am being sarcastic.

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13 Comments on “Old dears”

  1. Jilly Says:

    This is absolutely bizarre. When I started reading this post, I assumed that the campaign against ‘dear’ was going to be based on the claim that it’s old-fashioned and too formal. To discover that it’s actually being argued to be too ‘intimate’ is extraordinary!

    Like FvP, I would send frequent emails beginning ‘Dear’. These either tend to be messages to people I don’t know (well), or messages which are a formal written statement of something work-related, and are likely to be saved, printed, filed etc. By contrast, I recently sent an email to a handful of immediate colleagues reminding them that they hadn’t sent me some information they’d promised me with the salutation ‘oi, you lot’. So it varies, to say the least!

    But if we don’t use ‘dear’, what salutation are we meant to use when sending a formal email? I’m baffled…

  2. anna notaro Says:

    There is a great line in the BBC piece this post stems from: ‘Introducing an e-mail is a lot like arriving at a party… “Better to be overdressed. You can always take off the pearls.” Writing style & fashion style: a rather fitting analogy. In both cases what we wear and how we write are the only indication people get of our professionalism, temperament and personality. Poor fashion sense is the equivalent of sloppy editing practices and poor grammar. Regardless of whether we use ‘Dear’ or not we need to be able to write (and dress) appropriately for the particular context/occasion.


    • It is an interesting analogy, but I react differently. I *hate* arriving over-dressed, as in doing so you are making a statement about being over-cautious, traditional etc etc, and even taking off the pearls doesn’t help to redress that.

      So what am I concluding about email?

  3. Dan Says:

    Heard an English civil servant (?) this morning on BBC 4, saying that you should in letters and emails write “Dear…” to each other, but in addressing the ambassador of your own, you would write “My dearest ambassador…” and far from suggesting intimacy, it signified much greater formality.

    Amusingly, he briskly stated that when he received emails starting with “Hi Jeremy…”, he simply deleted them without reading further! Excellent idea and could go a long way to creating a productive work day!

  4. Vincent Says:

    Do you not think the excessive courtesy on the page in the past was as a direct result of fear. Fear, simply because the person had a very real power over your survival. In the past a Clerk writing to a patron -be he Bishop, Lord or Vice-Chancellor- was writing for his supper as a supplicant.
    Nowadays, things are notionally at least a bit more equal.
    For what it’s worth, ‘Hi’ is higher than a Howya in formality, and a kinda shy term on this side of the Atlantic.

  5. cormac Says:

    I must say, I think of email as a form of communication that is less formal than the type-written letter; perhaps I have failed to take account of the fact that it is now the dominant form of communication!
    That said, the overdressed image isn’t quite apt, is it? In some instances, it’s more a question of being overdressed for a rather ‘cool’ party – a definite no-no.
    I suspect that it is a question of gauging the reaction of the recipient, as in all communication

  6. Vincent Says:

    This is something of a ghost post. Sometimes it’s there sometimes not.
    I always suspected there was a touch of Narnia about WordPress.

  7. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    In Irish, the most common salutation is “a chara” (“friend” or “comrade”). I reckon it has strikes the right balance between formality and familiarity.

    I would be uncomfortable using it though, as I am not really an Irish speaker or activist.
    I would like to see an english equivalent of “a chara” into parlance.

  8. Mark Dowling Says:

    I recall having a pocket dictionary (Collins?) which among other things listed how one should write to various personages such as members of Parliament, Lords Mayor (including Cork and Dublin) and so forth.

    There’s also the issue of “yours faithfully” versus “yours sincerely”. I’ve never understood the point of “yours very truly” though.

  9. Dan Says:

    “Yours etc,” is very odd too. What, you’re dictating to your secretary and expect him to fill it in? You’re too busy to write another word- what?

    What about the undergrad email salutation? “hey dan, was wondering what’s on exam? Can you tell me what to revise?


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