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10 Wrong Ways to Start an Email

Do you want your email readers to delete your messages immediately? Of course you don’t. Who would? Then you must avoid these 10 bad ways of starting emails.  ​

1. Spell the reader’s name wrong, use a nickname rather than the reader’s preferred name, or get the gender wrong. 


Hi Suzanne, (for Susannah)
Hello Denny, (for Dennis)
Dear Sir: (for a woman)

2. Use an old subject line that has nothing to do with your current subject.


Subject: Re: Cancelling today’s weekly meeting

Rita Clarke was admitted to Central Hospital this morning after she fainted on the job. Would you please order flowers for her?

3. Dive right into what you need without a greeting or courteous language.

  I need this proposal proofread by 4 p.m.

4. Spend at least a paragraph on fluff.

Thanks, everybody, for your whole-hearted participation in last week’s retreat. Not only were the pastries for breakfast and the pasta for lunch sweet treats, but the treats you also gave each other in terms of focused attention and feedback were great—and contained no calories! Wouldn’t it be nice if food worked that way, too? Now, on to the meat of this message (no pun intended).

5. Give background first rather than the purpose of your message.

I was talking with Greta Marks yesterday about the new customer portal, and Greta offered some suggestions for issues I have had with customer training and communications. In her experience, the situation…

6. Begin with a long, complex sentence.

Following up on our conversation this morning in which we discussed the initial costs of Phase 2 implementation, and your question about whether the scheduled dates are firm and realistic, I talked with Michael Amato in Creative Services to benefit from his wisdom and creativity. [45 words]

7. Immediately talk about yourself and your company rather than your readers and their needs.

My name is Henry Wu. My company, XYZ, has worked with well-known brands including Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Nike. We have been in the brand-enhancement business for 7 years. We are launching a new service that…

8. In a marketing message, pretend you have analyzed your reader’s situation, but don’t bother to do the necessary research.

I thought you might like to know some of the key points that you need to address as priorities on your website, [wrong URL]. These can be the reason you are not getting the desired position out of continued SEO efforts. [Followed by irrelevant points.]

9. Begin negatively.

I am responding to your complaint about how your refund was mishandled.

10. Focus on your apology rather than on what your reader has asked for.

Bryan, I am so sorry I did not get this information to you sooner! I had thought I would be at work on Friday, but my toddler was sick and I could not send him to daycare.

Not sure how to begin effectively? Just do the opposite:

1. Spell the reader’s name correctly, use the name he or she prefers, and if you use a gender-based courtesy title, get it right.

2. Use a fresh, accurate subject.

3. Greet your reader and use “Please” when requesting or directing.

4. Spend no more than a brief sentence or two on relationship building, such as “Thanks for your whole-hearted participation in last week’s retreat.”

5. Communicate the purpose of your message before giving background.

6. Begin with a clear, simple sentence.

7. Start by focusing on your readers and their needs.

8. Do the research necessary to engage your readers.

9. Begin positively. For instance, write “Thank you for letting us know how we handled your refund.”

10. Give the reader the requested information; then apologize briefly, if necessary.

Bonus tip: Avoid using read receipts unless you must have evidence that your readers have opened your email. Read receipts shift the focus away from the message purpose and onto your need for documentation.

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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.

10 comments on “10 Wrong Ways to Start an Email”

  • Hi Lynn, my first name is Jude. I’m a guy that frequently receives responses to emails sent outside our organization that use the incorrect gender. I just shrug it off and (if the exchange will be on-going) correct the sender. Something I’m used to.

  • Hi Lynn,
    I’ve read somewhere that using “Dear Sirs” is correct for both genders, what do you think? I’m not a native English speaker and I generally use it when writing to more than 2-3 people. I’m I wrong?
    By the way, people from China/India always call me Mr, is there a polite way to tell them I’m a Ms?

  • Dear Lynn, thank you for your answer and the link to the discussion, I’ll surely find a better way to start my emails.

    Thank you for this blog! It’s a great source of useful material for people like me. I’d love to be able to communicate in English as efficently as I can do in Italian.

  • Dear Lynn,

    I enjoy your blog and kudos for what you do. As a federal employee, there are many times in which we need to use the “read receipt” function, and I try to simplify this with a short courtesy. “Dear preferred name, as a partner with ____, I have requested a receipt once this message has safely arrived in your inbox after passing through our firewall, please allow this to process for protocol reasons”.
    There are “special” cases where the Bcc is used…


  • Hi Andre,

    Thank you for your positive words.

    I agree that the read receipt can be useful at times. In your situation, I would send a brief email informing the reader of the need for a read receipt BEFORE sending the important message. Otherwise, the reader may just ignore your read receipt request before opening your message.

    You might write something like this:


    Dear _____,

    In email exchanges with you, I will request a receipt letting me know that you have received the message. The reason for this request is to be certain that the message has passed through our firewall and has arrived in your inbox.

    Because of this protocol, please allow any read receipts to be sent.




  • Hi Lynn,

    My colleague always write email with the greeting like this:

    TO Andrea,
    Would like to inform…xxx

    He always use “To Andrea” instead of “Dear Andrea” or “Hi Andrea”. Is it a proper way of email greeting? Some time, my subordinate also use “To Andrea”.

    Thanks & Regards,

  • Hi Andrea,

    That way of beginning an email is incorrect. Of course, the message is “TO Andrea.” Your name is on the To line of the email!

    Please spread the word that such an opening is incorrect. Other options are:

    Hi Andrea,
    Hello Andrea,
    Dear Andrea, [formal for an internal message]
    Good morning, Andrea.
    Andrea, I would like to inform . . .

    Good luck!


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