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Answers to Mailbag Questions

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Many of the questions I receive are about business letters and email. Here are a few recent ones:

Question: Capitalizing Salutations. A colleague always uses lower case after Dear in his salutations. I know I learned that all nouns in a salutation are capitalized and that the first and last words of the salutation are capitalized, but I can’t find the source for either of these rules. Can you help? Peggy, from Maryland

Answer: The first word, all nouns, and all titles are capitalized in the salutation. That’s according to The Gregg Reference Manual. Gregg says nothing about the last word. As pronouns, all and everyone would not be capitalized unless they were the first word or part of someone’s title, according to Gregg.

Question: Names in Salutations. Are there any rules regarding putting “Mr. Sam Green” or “Mr. Green” in a salutation? Shaunicy, from Indiana

Answer: It is standard to write “Dear Mr. Green”–without using the first name. Both first and last name are used when one cannot be sure whether the recipient is a man or woman. The best approach then is “Dear Chris Green.” That’s much classier than “Dear Mr. or Ms. Green.”

Question: Group Salutation. How do you create an email salutation when writing to three directors and two managers? Lisa

Answer: If you want a true salutation, use their names: “Dear Mark, Alice, Rene, Jim, and Sangita.” If they belong to a specific group, use its name: “Dear Budget Committee.” Otherwise, use “Greetings,” “Hi to all,” or “Hello, everyone.” You may also omit a greeting and just open in a friendly way: “I am pleased to write to you. . . .”

Question: Fancy Closings. My boss is writing a letter to someone and is ending it with “With warm regards, I remain.” Is this proper and what does it mean? Marshall, from Tennessee

Answer: “With warm regards” is a perfectly fine, warm closing. It’s the “I remain” that is troublesome. “I remain” was once a standard ending to the complimentary closing, which looked like this:

With warm regards, I remain,

These days no business writing guides suggest “I remain,” which is now considered old-fashioned.

Question: Informal Closing. Is “Cheers” acceptable as a closing? If so, in which types of communication? Laurie, Rhode Island

Answer: Cheers is traditionally a toast before a drink. However, it has begun to be used as a friendly, informal close for email. Avoid it for formal communication.

Question: Signatures. A coworker and I disagree about signing above your typed name in a business letter or below it. Which is correct or are both acceptable? Julie

Answer: The signature belongs above the typed name–not below it. After typing the complimentary close, press Enter four times before typing the name. Those blank lines provide the space for the signature.

I have written about similar questions in other blog entries. Try these for more information:

I wish I could answer everyone’s questions. Please forgive me if I do not respond to your email. Remember: The Gregg Reference Manual has answers to virtually all these questions, and it now has an online version.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

2 comments on “Answers to Mailbag Questions”

  • I have had this question come up twice in about a month and I am wondering how to handle it. In one case it was for an email and in the other it is a letter, both in the U.S.

    What salutation should you use with one woman and two or more men? “Ladies and Gentlemen” looks stupid. Under the circumstances a generic “To Whom It May Concern” definitely would not work.

    Here are the two basic scenarios:

    1) Emailing a printable letter to the a male Rabbi, male President, and female Program Director of a synagogue. (With 3 people names can still be used. What if it was 5-7 with one woman?)

    2) Email to one woman and 3 men at a hospital, all department heads or corporate officers. Three are on a first-name basis with the sender. The sender has had no direct contact with the fourth, the CFO. Don’t know whether he might take offense at being listed on a first-name basis. One of the others referred to him as Mr. in an email. (We began that “Everyone:”, since it was a semi-formal cover email with a cc: of a letter attached.)

  • In formal business communication, how do you address a letter to John and Jane Smith as Mr. and Mrs. John Smith without losing Jane? Is Mr. and Mrs. John and Jane Smith appropriate? I am particularly concerned with when you are thanking Jane for her gift but it is not appropriate to exclude the husband. Thanks!

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