First name? Last name? His name? Her name? THEIR names? At this time of year, when many people mail holiday greetings, the big questions involve how to render people's names in the greeting and on the printed envelope: How do I write to two doctors? Whose name goes first, the woman's or the man's? How do I address same-sex couples?
Below are guidelines and FAQs (frequently asked questions) for what follows “Dear” and appears on envelopes. A comma–not a colon–follows all greetings in these personal messages. In a professional business message, follow your greeting with a colon.
When you know your reader and your relationship is friendly, use his or her first name in the greeting. On the envelope, use a courtesy title or just first and last name.
Use this greeting: Dear Kim,
On the envelope use: Ms. Kim Batcher
OR: Kim Batcher
When your relationship is formal, use a courtesy title or a professional title and a last name. Examples of formal relationships are student to professor and nonprofit employee to donor.
Greeting: Dear Mr. Alfano,
Envelope: Mr. Albert Alfano
Greeting: Dear Professor Cook,
Envelope: Professor Amanda R. Cook
When you write to someone who is much older than you or highly esteemed, use a title and a last name.
Greeting: Dear Reverend Carlock,
Envelope: Reverend Anita Carlock
Greeting: Dear Dr. Mak,
Envelope: Dr. Ronald D. Mak
OR: Ronald D. Mak, M.D.
When you write to someone you do not know very well, greet the reader using a title and last name, or use both first and last names without a courtesy title.
Greeting: Dear Ms. Yang, OR: Dear Monica Yang,
Envelope: Ms. Monica Yang
OR: Monica Yang
Get more examples and answers to questions in my book Business Writing With Heart: How to Build Great Work Relationships One Message at a Time. You can get a signed paperback with a laminated bookmark from me. (It's also a great gift for clients and colleagues!) Or buy it for your Kindle (from Amazon) or your Nook (from Barnes & Noble).
Unless you are certain that a woman prefers the courtesy title Miss or Mrs., use the title Ms. or leave the title out. Pay attention to women’s signature blocks and online bios and profiles to see whether they communicate a preference.
Use Mx. when you write to someone who prefers a gender-neutral courtesy title. If you have trangender friends and associates, find out which courtesy titles they prefer.
Be sure not to switch between a first-name and last-name basis with someone. If you do, Salma may wonder what she did to suddenly become “Dr. Bishara.” If you have an assistant who prepares your correspondence, be sure he or she knows which approach you want to use.
Do not use an academic degree (M.S., M.D.) or professional designation (SPHR, Esq.) in the greeting. On the envelope, if you include an academic degree or professional designation after a person’s name, do not use a courtesy title that indicates the same achievement (for example, do not use Dr. and Ph.D. together). You may use a title and a degree on the same line if doing so is not redundant.
Greeting: Dear Dr. Abramson,
OR: Dear Rabbi Abramson,
Envelope: Rabbi Sydney Abramson, D.D.
Greeting: Dear Dr. Pelley,
Envelope: Olive Pelley, Ph.D.
Greeting: Dear Mr. Lowe,
Envelope: Jason Lowe, CPA
Jr., Sr., and roman numerals such as III are normally included on the envelope, unless a message is informal. However, do not include them in your greeting.
Greeting: Dear Nicholas,
Envelope: Mr. Nicholas Parson Jr.
Greeting: Dear Mr. Noss,
Envelope: Mr. Jonathan Noss III
The modern way to address couples is to include both spouses' (or partners') names and both of their titles if titles are included. On the envelope, render the names either on the same line or one beneath the other. List first the name of the person with a special title or the primary recipient (for instance, the person you know better).
Greeting: Dear Anne and Bruce,
Envelope: Anne and Bruce Wright
Greeting: Dear Anne and Bruce Wright,
Envelope: Ms. Anne Wright
Mr. Bruce Wright Jr.
Greeting: Dear Mr. and Mrs. Wright,
Envelope: Mr. Bruce Wright Jr. and Mrs. Anne Wright
The traditional way to greet male-female married couples is with the man’s title first, then the woman’s title followed by the last name. On the envelope, only the man’s first name appears. This old-fashioned approach irritates many people (including me) because it diminishes the wife's importance.
Greeting: Dear Mr. and Mrs. Wright,
Envelope: Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Wright Jr.
Greeting: Dear Dr. and Mrs. Terry,
Envelope: Dr. and Mrs. James Terry
Greeting: Dear Senator and Mrs. Smith,
Envelope: Senator and Mrs. Gordon Smith
In messages to two people (married, coupled, or not), include the name of the person with a special title first, or list the main recipient first. Whenever you know your readers well and want to communicate in a friendly way, use first names in the greeting. But avoid using an abbreviated form of a person’s name unless he or she uses it. For example, do not call a Juan Carlos “JC” or an Emily “Em” unless the individual does so.
Greeting: Dear Ms. Donne and Mr. Trujillo,
OR: Dear Drenda and Alex,
Envelope: Ms. Drenda Donne
Mr. Alessandro Trujillo
Greeting: Dear Jules and Ellen,
Envelope: Jules Bardo and Ellen Metzler
Mses. is for more than one woman with the title Ms. You may also use Ms. with each name.
Greeting: Dear Mses. Woodard,
OR: Dear Loretta and Chanel,
Envelope: Ms. Loretta Woodard
Ms. Chanel Woodard
OR: Mses. Loretta and Chanel Woodard
Messrs. is for more than one man with the title Mr. Its use is quite formal and traditional. You may use Mr. with each man’s name instead.
Greeting: Dear Messrs. Stone and Raj,
OR: Dear Mr. Stone and Mr. Raj,
Envelope: Mr. Joseph Stone
Mr. Alain Raj
Know which titles to spell out. Never spell out the titles Mr., Ms., Mrs., Mx., and Dr. Do spell out these titles and similar ones: Professor, Dean, Sister, Rabbi, Imam, Senator, Governor, Admiral, and Judge.
Greeting: Dear Captain Klein and Professor Klein,
Envelope: Captain Erika I. Klein
Professor Roger K. Klein
Greeting: Dear Reverend Paul and Mr. White,
OR: Dear Tim and Dan,
Envelope: Reverend Timothy Paul
Mr. Daniel White
Greeting: Dear Drs. Gerber and Singh,
OR: Dear Dr. Gerber and Dr. Singh,
Envelope: Dr. Robin Gerber
Dr. Gaurav Singh
Greeting: Dear Dr. and Mrs. Ellis, [or Ms.]
Envelope: Dr. Moises Ellis [or cut Dr. and use M.D.]
Mrs. Renee Ellis [or Ms.]
Greeting: Dear Drs. Moody,
Envelope: Dr. Claire P. Moody
Dr. James M. Moody
Greeting: Dear Mr. Lee and Ms. Roy-Lee,
Envelope: Mr. Anthony Lee Jr.
Ms. Susan Roy-Lee
Mesdames is for more than one woman with the title Mrs. Like Messrs., it is formal and traditional. You may use Mrs. with each name.
Greeting: Dear Mesdames Hain and Pham,
OR: Dear Mrs. Hain and Mrs. Pham,
Envelope: Mrs. Marie Hain
Mrs. Lu Pham
Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
1. Is it acceptable to use & (the ampersand) between names in the salutation?
No. It is traditionally not acceptable to use the ampersand for and in the salutation.
2. If the person I am writing to uses two last names, do I use both or only one of them in the greeting?
You use both names in the greeting.
Dear Mr. Garcia Lopez, Dear Ms. Gaertner-Johnston,
3. Is it better to err on the side of friendliness or formality?
You will virtually always be correct if you use a courtesy title or a professional title such as Ms., Mr., Dr., Father, or Dean for your recipient. But think about whether you want the communication to feel personal or professional, informal or formal.
4. If I am writing to a family and each person has the same last name, what is the proper greeting?
The easiest way is to use first names.
Greeting: Dear Don, Julie, and Julian,
Envelope: Don, Julie, and Julian Burke
5. When writing to an entire family, should everyone’s name be on the envelope and in the greeting?
Rather than crowd envelopes and greetings with many names, you can use the parents’ names with “and Family.” For example, address the envelope to “Ernest and Kate Elgin,” with a greeting to “Dear Ernest, Kate, and Family.” Or use just the last name in both places: on the envelope “The Robinsons” and for a greeting “Dear Robinsons.”
6. Should I use Miss or Ms. for a young girl?
Emily Post’s Etiquette suggests the use of Miss until age 16 to 18, then Ms. The Gregg Reference Manual recommends addressing teenage girls as Ms. or Miss, following the girl’s preference when you know it. For younger girls, Gregg indicates that you may use a title or omit it.
For boys, Emily Post’s Etiquette recommends the title Master until age 6 to 7, then no title until age 16 to 18 years, then Mr. In contrast, The Gregg Reference Manual recommends addressing a boy as Mr. when he becomes a teenager. Gregg notes that Master is rarely seen.
7. If I am sending a letter to many people, may I use a greeting such as “Dear Stephen et al.”?
Et al., which is Latin for “and others,” is not appropriate in a greeting. Many people will stumble over it, detracting from your message, and it's too clinical for a relationship-building message. If you need to greet up to five people, use all of their names. If you have more than five readers, try a group greeting such as:
Dear Chamber Members,
These ideas come from my award-winning book, Business Writing With Heart: How to Build Great Work Relationships One Message at a Time. Get this excellent gift for yourself or anyone who wants to build business relationships.