When writing a letter, an email, or any type of correspondence, you should begin with the proper salutation. Salutations typically include both a greeting word or phrase and the recipient’s name. But, the salutation you choose depends on whom you are writing to, what you are writing about, and how you are writing it.
The right salutation goes a long way in establishing a message’s tone. Consider the following factors before you decide how to start your correspondence:
- Your reader. Are you writing to your best friend? Your boss? Someone you’ve never met?
- The format of your message. Is this an email? Thank you note? Business letter?
- The content of your message. Are you delivering bad news or giving a compliment?
Understanding what you are about to say can help you start any message. Once you know what type of letter you’re writing, you can move on to different types of salutations.
It may not seem like a big deal, but the punctuation you use after your salutation goes a long way. Commas convey a neutral tone in both formal and informal salutations. Business greetings often use colons for a professional tone, while exclamation points can make friendly messages feel familiar and enthusiastic.
Consider the differences between these three examples of a person writing to their colleague.
- Dear Mr. Patel,
- Dear Mr. Patel:
- Dear Mr. Patel!
Which of these salutations would you rather see in your inbox? The first example could lead to any type of message, while the second example seems much more serious. The third example feels inappropriate for a business setting.
Now, check out the difference punctuation can make in friendly salutations.
- Hey Alicia,
- Hey Alicia:
- Hey Alicia!
The differences in punctuation here can define the message’s intent before a friend even reads it. The first example feels neutral, the second example could seem confrontational, and the third example suggests the message is pleasant and exciting.
Business correspondence is almost always formal, no matter whether they’re in a printed letter or an email. Not achieving the right tone in a business email or letter can lead to poor communication in the workplace. Here are some examples of business salutations and when to use them.
- To Whom It May Concern: Use this salutation sparingly when you don't know who the recipent will be. Complaint letters are a good example of correspondence to a general organization, rather than a specific recipient.
- Dear Sir or Madam: This is a very formal (and somewhat outdated) version of “To Whom It May Concern.”
- Dear Hiring Manager (or another professional title): Use this greeting in letters of interest when you want your message to go to a specific person but don’t have a personal connection with them. Ideally, you should try to find an actual name, though. This is especially true when applying for a job, for example.
- Dear Mr./Mrs./Ms./Miss/Dr./Professor (etc.) and their last name: This greeting is best when you have a personal and professional relationship with the recipient. The colon in this greeting makes it more formal than a friendly use of “dear.”
- Mr./Mrs./Ms./Miss/Dr./Professor (etc.) and their last name: Best when you want to get to the point, removing the “dear” conveys a professional sense of urgency while maintaining a formal tone. Be sure that you have a good working relationship with the recipient to avoid appearing impolite.
Human relationships naturally become more familiar, making these salutations appropriate for formal situations. If your workplace is more relaxed, you may want to look into more friendly salutations.
Even the word “dear” can feel too formal in a friendly message. Informal salutations immediately establish a casual and friendly tone for the recipient. Check out some examples of salutations to learn how to start a letter without “dear.”
- Hey/Hi/Hello! This greeting can stand alone or come before the reader’s name. It’s a great start to an informal chat over email or text.
- Good morning/afternoon/evening! Appropriate with or without the person’s name, this time-specific greeting is a nice way to strike a congenial tone.
- Happy (day of the week or holiday)! Whether you’re sending a holiday message or acknowledging what day it is, wishing someone well right away is a nice beginning to a message.
Remember, replacing exclamation points with commas can bring your tone down a little (if that’s what you want). Once you’ve established the correct tone, keep it going through your message. Using an informal salutation to hide a serious message is not proper etiquette.
Written letters used to be the only long-distance correspondence method. However, as the Internet has become more and more ubiquitous in our society, email has become a faster, more convenient way to contact someone.
It may seem like emails are less formal than traditional letters, but it depends on how you use each form of communication. A formal email to a potential employer may be much more formal than a written thank-you note to your sister.