Beginnings and Endings

Openings and closing of business correspondence, that is.

My father, an old-fashioned lawyer if there ever was one, once said there are only two ways to start and close a business letter: either Dear Sir/Yours faithfully or Dear Mr So-and-so/Yours truly, depending on one’s level of acquaintance with the recipient. (And not very truly: one is true or one is not, no more no less.)

There is a certain simplicity to that, and it can be made female-friendly without difficulty. My own views follow.

Younger folk appear to have this strange view that ‘Dear’ at the start of a letter somehow suggests an affectionate relationship is being claimed.

Dear Sir is a little warmer than just Sir, but it’s by no means touchy-feely (Dear Sir, Your account now being considerably in arrears, …). That said, Dear may look a bit old-fashioned in a more casual e-mail, where Hello Neil or Hi Neil seems largely to have displaced Dear Neil. I would confine the hi and hello business to purely casual exchanges, however, and inject more formality into an e-mail message that contains considered legal advice.

Dear Mary in a business letter? If you want – but a more elegant way to do it is to type Dear Ms Wang, cross that out in pen and write in her first name. In England, it’s usual in business letters to leave out the salutation and the Yours truly bit entirely, leaving blank space which the writer fills in by hand, with whatever degree of formality seems appropriate.

If you are at the Dear Sir level, the female equivalent is Madam. Not Madame – although the plural of Madam (in this context) is Mesdames not Madams (which is the plural form for women who run brothels).

One sometimes used to see Gentlemen as a substitute for (Dear) Sirs in letters addressed to a firm in general (typically, opinion letters). The gender-neutral equivalent really should be Dear Sirs and Mesdames; the formulation Ladies and Gentlemen that people sometimes use has (to me, anyway) an air of the circus tent to it (Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! the greatest show on earth!).

I think my father is correct that these should be on the formal side. Save (Yours) sincerely for social correspondence.

And, if I could, I would banish regards of all sorts (kind, warm, best, fond, whatevs). You’re never going to send regards that are unkind, lukewarm, worst, not quite best – and is it really necessary to send them in the first place? I confess, though, that I do sometimes add Best wishes or just Best if the e-mail needs to sound a bit friendlier – but I cringe inwardly while doing it. For a compelling case to omit all of this sort of stuff, see this article by Rebecca Greenfield of Bloomberg Business.

Similarly, avoid worn-out and meaningless phrases like Please do not hesitate to contact me … The reader may well be inclined to think ‘of course I won’t hesitate – what sort of shrinking violet does she think I am?’ – or alternatively, ‘I’ll hesitate if I bloody well want to; you charge by the hour and I’ll only get in touch if necessary, since everything is on the clock.’ Either way, it’s useless.

Always include a standard signature block in e-mails that are going to external parties. It’s useful to include relevant professional information, like links to your LinkedIn profile and Twitter feed.

Beginnings and endings
I don’t put a comma after Yours truly and the like. I also omit one (or a colon) after Dear So-and-so at the top of a letter. More modern, cleaner typographically, no loss of sense.

Next time: you can quote me

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  1. Neil, I learned so much working with your “old fashioned lawyer” father!

  2. Peggie Fitzpatrick

    Thanks for this helpful information. One question–what would you say instead of ‘Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions?’. I thought that phrase (or sentence) would give the impression that I am open to
    clarifying any statements I made, etc. as well as keeping my door open to working with the client.

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