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The Courtesy Greeting to Use When Gender Is a Mystery

This complex question came in yesterday's email:

What is the proper way to address a letter with several addressees in the same letter, but the gender of one or more is unknown? Normally the greeting would be “Dear Misses. So-and-so,” and “Dear Messrs. So-and-so,” but what if the gender of one is unknown? Is it appropriate in that instance to use the general, blanket “Dear Sir or Madame” or “Dear Misses. and Messrs."?  

First, let's correct one of the question's incorrect assumptions: There is no Misses that ends with a period, so "Dear Misses. So and so" is never correct.The plural of Mrs. is Mesdames (no period). The plural of Ms. is Mses. (with a period). The plural of Miss is Misses (no period). 

Messrs. as the plural of Mr. is correct. 

But back to the original question: What should the writer do about the unknown gender and courtesy title? The solution is an Internet search for the information or a call to the individual's office. After all, when you are writing to someone, you must have contact information. Use that information to learn the person's preferred courtesy title. 

Incorporating the newfound information, the greeting would look like this:

Dear Messrs. Jones and Washburn and Mses. Gomez and Green: 

Or like this:

Dear Mr. Jones, Mr. Washburn, Ms. Gomez, and Ms. Green: 

In the first example, Mses. is the best female courtesy title because it addresses the women without regard to their marital status. However, if both Gomez and Green are married and they prefer the courtesy title Mrs., then "Mesdames Gomez and Green" or "Mrs. Gomez and Mrs. Green" is preferable.

If you are writing to one or two people whose gender you do not know for certain, you can skip the courtesy title and use full names, like this:

Dear Dana Marsh and Lynn Williams:

My book Business Writing With Heart answers many more questions about ways to address envelopes and use greetings correctly. 

Good luck with your complicated greetings! 

Lynn
Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
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. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

3 comments on “The Courtesy Greeting to Use When Gender Is a Mystery”

  • This is very good advice. There are occasions when corresponding internationally in business where time constraints and distance prevent researching. Some names in Pacific Asia are very difficult to discern gender. Some names are also reversed (the first name is listed last) from American convention.

  • Hi Faith Marie,

    Good point! Normally the person who has the highest rank or is the most well known by the writer is listed first.

    For example, if you were writing to four board members, you would greet the chairperson of the board first. Or if you were to send a holiday card to your boss and her family members, you would begin with her name because she is your main contact.

    Lynn

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