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Dear Reader: More About Salutations

About 70 percent of the questions I get from readers are about salutations for business letters. Here are some recent ones. For much more about letter and email greetings, see the links below.

Question: We are sending out a mass mailing to inform our patients of a change within our practice. We do not want to address each patient by name or sound too informal by using Dear Sir/Madam or To Whom It May Concern. What do you suggest?

Answer: Try addressing them in their category, such as “Dear Patients and Friends.” This approach works for addressing many kinds of groups such as neighbors, art lovers, and hobbyists (“Dear Neighbors,” etc.).

Question: If I am writing a casual business letter to Mr. John R. Smith III, should I use “Dear Mr. Smith” or “Dear Mr. Smith III”? The full name appears in the address, so there won’t be any confusion with the father, who may work closely with the son.

Answer: According to The Gregg Reference Manual, abbreviations such as Jr. and Sr. are not used with a surname (last name) alone. Gregg also leaves out abbreviations such as Esq. and Ph.D. in the greeting. Given that pattern, I recommend “Dear Mr. Smith.” The formality or casualness of the letter is not a factor.

Question: Students must send original thank you notes to the donor of their scholarship. In the past, the donor of a particular scholarship was a married couple. Now they are divorced. It does not seem appropriate to request that students write two original separate thank-you notes for one scholarship. What is the correct salutation they can use on one letter?

For example, the original donors might be John and Jane Smith, but now this couple is divorced and they both still have the same last name. Mr. Smith has remarried but Mrs. Smith has not. Should the salutation be “Dear Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Mrs. Smith”? What is an alternative?

Answer: The student should write two thank-you notes, one to “Dear Mr. Smith,” who donated the scholarship, and the other to “Dear Mrs. Smith” (the first one), who also donated. If you happen to learn that the first Mrs. Smith prefers Ms. as her title, change your records and the greeting.
I have covered salutations extensively in the posts listed below. If you don’t see what you are looking for, try a Google search of this site, or send your question. Unfortunately, I am unable to respond to individual questions and still earn a living, but I will try to answer them here.

Salutations in Letters and Email

Advice on Special Salutations

When Doctors Marry

Using Commas With Names and Greetings

Writing to Jrs. and Srs.

Writing to Same-Sex, Same-Name Couples

Addressing a Widow

How to Address a Married Woman

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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.

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