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Dear Comma, Semicolon, or Colon

The Takeaway

It is never correct to end a letter greeting with a semicolon. Instead, use a comma after the greeting and a period after name: Hello, Mr. Reader.

The Confusion

Semicolons often evoke semi confusion, let’s take a look at the below greeting:

HELLO Ms. Gaertner-Johnston;

What do you think? Is a semicolon correct after the greeting? How about a comma or a colon?

The semicolon is dead wrong. It is NEVER correct after a greeting. Never in a letter and never in an email.

Kathryn said she started using the semicolon unconsciously, and hers is the only explanation I can imagine for the widespread incorrect use of the semicolon in salutations.

Graphic illustrating which is the correct punctuation to use., a comma, semicolon, or colon. A comma should be used in a personal letter or email. A colon should be used in a business letter or email. A semicolon should never be used.

The Confusion

Here’s the correct punctuation: a comma for a personal letter, a colon for a business letter, and either punctuation mark in an email. (The colon is formal.) But remember: Dear isn’t required in email, even when writing to a stranger. Try one of these two openings if you want to sound professional without using Dear:

Hello, Ms. Gaertner-Johnston.

Ms. Gaertner-Johnston, I found your website, and . . .

If you want to sound friendly with a stranger, try these:

Hi, Lynn.
Hi Lynn, (English teachers don’t like this choice. They want a comma between Hi and the name.)
Hello, Lynn.
Greetings, Lynn.
Lynn, thanks for the . . .

I’ve written a lot about greetings and salutations. If you want more examples, here’s a piece on salutations that I hope is helpful!

And now I’ve written enough for someone on vacation. The lightning has passed, the pavement is dry, and the pool is open again!

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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.

41 comments on “Dear Comma, Semicolon, or Colon”

  • How bizarre that in America the colon is considered a formal piece of punctuation! Is it because it’s two dots instead of one and therefore more respectful of your audience? Or perhaps the the curliness of the comma conveys a business-inappropriate insouciance to the American executive?

    If you were to put a colon after the greeting in a letter to someone in the UK, the recipient would regard you as illiterate.

    In the UK, use a comma, please (or none at all if you’re using “open punctuation”).

  • I think commas after the salutation and ending look a bit old-fashioned. I prefer no punctuation – is that what you mean by “open punctuation” Clare?

    Regards from another UK Clare!

  • Hi, Clares. Open punctuation is an option in the U.S. too, but using a colon or comma is standard and much more common.

    You’re right: In open punctuation there is no punctuation after the greeting and the closing. To me, that style looks naked, but perhaps it’s freeing? No, I’m not open–not yet.

  • Thank you for your writing. I visit your blog every week.
    I wonder why Dear is not proper in e-mail letter. I am using it many times everyday. I just consider it as something friendly and formal.Appreciate your help.

  • Hi, Kathy. Using “Dear” is fine, but it’s not required. As you said, it’s formal. It’s the perfect greeting when email is used as a business letter.

  • Thank you! I just received a rejection notice from a school — and there was a semi-colon after the greeting! I was not sure what to think of this, and wondered if it was something new.

  • I don’t think I have ever seen a colon used in a business letter here in the UK

    I have seen a dash in emails before now.

    Mike –

    “Dear” is used sometimes in business letters, and generally made formal by including title
    and name above e.g.

    “Mr I.M.Theboss , CEO Industry Ltd

    Dear Ian,”

    Dear is seen increasingly less often in emails.

  • I could swear my English textbook in grade eight said to use a semi-colon afer the “Dear” in a business letter. Is it possible that this was used at some point historically? Perhaps in the 1960’s, when that textbook was published? What is the standard in Canada? Is it the same as the British English version here, or as the American English one?

  • Hi, Veronika. I know of no time in the U.S. that the semicolon followed the greeting.

    I can’t speak with authority about Canadian greetings. If you are Canadian, please check with a reference librarian or other experts available to you.


  • So if I am writing a essay to get accepted into a college, do I use a colon or a semi colon. For ex: Hello my name is Barb; I am highly interested in this program.. ( I put a semi colon after Barb I’m not for sure which to use. Thank-you

  • You need a period after Barb–not a semicolon.

    Be sure to proofread your application carefully, and get someone to do a final proofing for you. I say that because your question includes several errors.

    Good luck!


  • hi!

    Regarding those commas in salution, if I don’t put it in the business letter, my boss shouts at me, and he makes me change the letter for the sake of those commas.

    I can’t convince my Boss, unfortunately, boss is always right, because boss is boss….


  • Thank you for the post, Lynn. Since I returned to the business world two years ago, I’ve been addressing emails with salutations like, “Good afternoon, Lynn.” As I’ve yet to see anyone else use the ‘Greeting, Name.’ format, I began to question my punctuation. Bless you for addressing these questions. As an ex-English teacher, I love a properly placed comma.

  • Hi, Terry. I am an ex-English teacher too, and I need properly placed commas to understand people’s writing quickly.

    However, I am just about ready to give up the comma in greetings. Although correct, it is rare enough that it is beginning to stand out as hypercorrect. I am mulling over my view of it.

    Thanks for commenting!


  • A colon (or semi-colon) after the greeting would definitely look odd if you were writing to a British company.

    I find it fascinating how many little differences there are between two countries which supposedly use the same language!


    Frances (UK)

  • It’s an old letter format putting a comma after salutation. Therefore, I never practise that since many years, I mean I’m in Singapore.

  • In our modern times I think we should not type a comma afer the Dear salutation, but ast as below:

    Dear Thomas

    I also think that there should be no comma after “Yours truly: as below:

    Yours truly

    The page setup for a Word document should be as follows:
    Margins for Top, Bottom, Left and Right should be 1″ and Gutter should be .5″. The total left margin becomes 1.5”. If you are printing on the reverse side of the print paper, then in Margins setup, Multiple Pages option should be set to “Mirror Margins”. Here gutter will be considered because we set the Gutter margin to .5″. Gutter is considered to take care when someone uses a “Puncher” for filing or Stapling pages.

    Also I teach my students to choose “No Spacing” paragraph style, Font style as “Times New Romans, Font size as 12, and alignment as Justified. I find that produces a very good appearance to the document.

    Also, there should be just “One” space after a comma, semicolon, question mark or exclamatition mark. The logic explanation to this is: In the earlier days of typing the ink used in the typewriter ribbon was not of good quality which caused the ink to spread as capillary action on the printer paper as you would see when ink is blotted on blotting paper. That is why instructers asked their students to press two spaces after the full stop because the ink of the full stop used to spread on to the next sentence, so people tended to read both the sentences as one sentence rather than two separate sentence. Nowadays when we are using the modern computer and printer, the ink in the cartrage of the Printer is good quality so there is no need to leave an unnecessary extra space. This is basically to save time in typing.

    What are your comments? Comment with login reasons.

    Julian Shane

  • Hi, Julian. In business letters in the United States, a colon is standard after the greeting, and a comma is standard after the complimentary close.

    I have never heard the explanation you offered for using two spaces. Interesting!

    There is evidence that justified text is more difficult to read because of the uniform right margin. Every line looks the same.

    I hope you consult well-respected style manuals and business writing guides in your country before passing on information to students.

    Good luck!


  • So…do I include the ‘Dear’ in a professional email response or not? I am sending my resume along with this. Please help.

  • One of my professors uses a semicolon after their greeting. Are they being formal or informal? I haven’t found anything about this and it appears that it’s not widely used, so I will look at as though it is both informal and formal

  • Yes, “Dear” is acceptable as a greeting in a professional email reply.

    For more information about greetings, you may wish to search this blog by using the search box in the upper right corner. Insert “Greetings” or “Salutations” for discussions of the topic.


  • Hello, Ms. Fermin. I am not certain I understand your question, but I will try to answer it.

    A comma follows the greeting in a personal message, like this: Dear Kathy,

    A comma also follows the closing, like this:
    Best regards,

    Those commas are standard in the US.


  • As an email greeting, where do dashes fit into all of this?

    Hi, Shawn –

    Thanks Mike –

    I had never heard of using a dash, but I see it every day at work now!

  • Hi, Andy. I am also seeing dashes after greetings, usually without a space after the name.

    I wouldn’t copy that style unless everyone you work with uses it. It does not appear in my style manuals.


  • Which is proper for closing signature line of a letter?

    John Doe, President
    ABC Company


    John Doe
    President, ABC Company


    John Doe
    ABC Company

    Thank you for your assistance.

  • Hello, Ramona. For a letter from the president of the company, the signature block normally would not include the company name, since the company name appears on the letterhead. Below are your two correct choices. The first one appears more often and looks more balanced.

    John Doe

    John Doe, President

    Sometimes, to emphasize the company rather than the writer, people use this style:



    John Doe (signature)

    John Doe

    I hope this information helps.


  • Good afternoon, Ms. Gaertner-Johnston. I understand the formal and informal rules of greetings; however, I have searched the internet looking for a specific type of greeting with no avail. I am an online college student and I was wondering if the following greeting is an acceptable use of a colon.

    Hello, Professor McKinley:

    In other words, is it acceptable to use a colon (formal) with hello (informal)?

    Thank you very much!

  • Hi, Dylan. As I see it, “Hello, Professor McKinley” is a complete greeting that should be followed by a period (just like my greeting to you). I do not recommend using a colon.


  • Thank you for the reply! I will certainly take your recommendation and refrain from using the colon. In my online college discussion board posts, greeting the professor and then ending it with a period seemed a little abrupt, especially with the flow and design of the discussion boards (similar to an email format). However, I will definitely give it a try or maybe use a comma. Thanks again!

  • Hello Lynn:

    I was just reading comments on your website about using a comma vs. a colon in a written greeting.

    I grew up in the 1960’s and was instructed to use a colon after the greeting when writing a letter. I assumed this would carry over to email, and I always use a colon there too.

    I have noticed over the past few years that the colon is being replaced by a comma. This irritates me to no end! It seems lazy and sloppy.

    I feel sad that our language is deteriorating bit by bit. Some of the comments written on your page are unbelievably illiterate. I wondered if you also think our language is deteriorating and what can be done about it. I can only assume that our poor education system is responsible for failing to teach good language habits.



  • Hello, Dawnifer. Interesting question!

    I do not believe our language is deteriorating. Language evolves with the way people use it. That is the nature of language.

    Here’s an example I need to decide about: Do I want to continue to write the traditional “Hello, John” (using the comma for direct address)? Or should I change to what everyone seems to be writing, which is “Hello John.” Eventually I will probably give up my familiar rule and change with the people and the times. But when I do, I won’t consider my choice deterioration of my standards. I will simply be adapting.


  • Hi Lynn

    We had always been taught in school that we should not be putting commas in salutations as well as closings.
    I usually prefer >>

    Hi Lynn

    No commas in salutation as well as closing. Is it a difference of US or UK English or I’m perceiving a wrong notion till date?


Comments are closed.