Salutations are opening and closing phrases used to greet the recipient of your email and to bring your message to an end. How you address the recipient will depend on whether it is the first time you contact them or somebody you already know, and also on the level of formality of your email.
Unless you are writing in a very informal context, you should always use opening and closing salutations in your emails.
In many parts of the world, a more formal tone than is commonly used in Sweden is preferred in written communication. Whereas in Swedish, a brief Hej! will do in most contexts, the standard salutary phrase in English is Dear plus the name of the recipient, followed by a comma.
Note that the word dear is a standard, neutral, word, used in professional as well as private correspondence.
|Opening salutation||Level of formality|
|Dear Dr Smith,||Formal, polite; possibly a first contact|
Less formal; someone you know or have been
How formal? If you are uncertain about the right level of formality, aim at a polite and formal tone, and let your correspondent decide which level they prefer. In many cultures, academic titles are used more frequently than in Sweden, and addressing someone you do not know without their academic title might seem rude.
Whereas you in Sweden would open an email to someone who, for instance, will visit your department as faculty opponent with Hej Andrea!, an opening salutation like Dear Professor Rosso is more apporopriate unless you already know them. If they in their reply sign off with Best regards, Andrea you can use first names in your next email. Similarly, when you refer to your own colleagues, consider whether it is appropriate to use their first names or if it is better to refer to them in a more formal way: Professor Svensson has asked me to contact you...
What about the word please? As we say elsewhere, do not be afraid of using the word please in emails: Please let me know... Please send me...
If you do not know the name of the recipient, aim for a more generic salutation. If you are addressing someone in their professional capacity but do not know their name, use their professional role or address your email to the department, for instance:
- Dear International Coordinator,
- Dear Head of Department,
What about To whom it may concern?
The phrase To whom it may concern can be used in emails but is not very common; it is more often used as a heading in letters of recommendations, applications, or formal complaints.
Note the punctuation mark used after salutary phrases: In British English, a comma is always used after the salutary phrase:
- Dear Professor Smith,
- Dear James Smith,
- Dear James,
In US American English, a colon is sometimes used in formal correspondence.
Exclamation marks (as in the Swedish Hej!) are not used in salutations in English (at least not in the formal types of correspondence that we discuss here).
If the name of the recipient is not known, gendered salutations like Dear Sir, or Dear Sir/Madam are sometimes used in formal correspondence. Similarly, recipients are sometimes addressed with gendered courtesy titles such as
- Mr (to a man)
- Mrs (to a married woman)
- Miss (to an unmarried woman)
- Ms (to a woman without signalling her marital status)
Whereas the intention of such salutations is politeness, they focus on the gender of the recipient, and, in the case of women, also on their marital status. Today, many writers find such salutations problematic: If it is not clear to you what gender the recipient's name is or how the recipient wishes to be addressed, it is difficult to know what salutation to use.
How to avoid gendered language
One way to avoid gendered language is to refer to the professional capacity of the recipient (Dear International Coordinator,). If the recipient has an academic title, such as Dr Jones or Professor Smith, use that, or just use first plus last names, as in Dear George Smith, or Dear Anna Jones,.
If you use a female gendered salutation, we recommend Ms as marital status is of no consequence in most professional correspondence. If you address someone you do not know (or if you do not know their marital status), using their full name is a neutral option: Dear Adela Brown,.
If you wish to use the more traditional Miss/Mrs, please note that Miss is only used for women who have not been married, whereas Mrs today is used for married, widowed, and divorced women.
Traditionally, Mrs + the husband’s full name (Mrs George Brown) was used for married and widowed women, whereas Mrs + the woman’s own full name (Mrs Adela Brown) signalled that she was divorced.
Nowadays, women are usually addressed with their own full name (Mrs Adela Brown).
In intercontinental correspondence, in particular, time-specific salutations like Good morning, and Good evening, are not advisable unless you know for certain when your email will be read.
At the end of your email, use a closing salutation. Just as in the opening salutation, aim for politeness.
|Closing salutary phrase|
Level of formality