Best Salutations and Greetings for Formal Letters

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Starting a letter with the right tone is important in formal written or email correspondence, such as a cover letter or a thank-you note. Familiarizing yourself with common salutations can help you convey the right level of familiarity and respect in any professional situation.

General Guidelines for Choosing Salutations

Since the salutation is the first thing a recruiter, hiring manager, or another business contact will see, it's critical for the greeting to set a tone that is interpreted as appropriate by the recipient.

Appropriateness depends on:

  • How well you know the recipient
  • Whether you are sending a written or printed letter, or an email
  • The type of letter

In general, the better you know the person, and the more casual the correspondence, the less formal the salutation you can use. Salutations in emails are typically less formal than those in written or printed letters.

Types of Formal Letter Salutations

Use these greetings and salutations as a reference when starting a formal letter, adjusting them depending on how well you know the person, the form of correspondence, and the type of letter:

Hello: While a universal greeting, "Hello" is generally only appropriate in email correspondence. There too, it should only be used in casual correspondence with people with whom you have already established a professional relationship (an appreciation letter to a supervisor, for example).

Hi: This informal variation is only appropriate in the most casual email correspondence with people you know well. For example, consider using it in a thank-you note to a close co-worker.

Greetings (or, Good Morning, Good Afternoon): Consider these options as a slightly more formal version of "Hello" and "Hi." They're appropriate for formal written or printed letters and emails to people you don't know (or only know on a casual basis). For example, consider using them when sending a newsletter to another department.

Dear: This salutation is appropriate for most types of formal written or email correspondence whether you know the person or not, be it a supervisor or a business acquaintance. A common use of "Dear" is in cover letters, follow-up letters, and resignation letters to potential employers. Employers also use it in acceptance and rejection letters to job applicants.

To Whom It May Concern: This is used in formal written or email correspondence where you don't have a way of knowing the specific person to whom you are writing. You might use "To Whom It May Concern" when making an inquiry about a job you want to apply for or when applying for a job where you don’t know the name of the person leading the candidate search.

Make a concerted effort to find the name of someone in the specific department that you are interested in contacting (try using a company website or LinkedIn to find a specific contact). Using the person's name lends a personal touch to the message.

How to Follow a Salutation

Following the opening term that conveys your familiarity with the person (such as "Dear"), include either the recipient's honorific (such as "Mrs." or "Doctor"), a name, or a neutral gender title (such as "Sir" or "Madam") depending on the relationship:

  • If you know the person well enough to be on a first-name basis (a current colleague or supervisor, for example), follow the salutation with their first name only.
  • If you don't the person well, use Mr./Ms. Lastname, or Mr./Ms. Firstname Lastname. If your contact has a gender-neutral name (such as Taylor Brown) and you are unsure whether you are addressing a woman or a man, follow the opening term with the person's full name ("Dear Taylor Brown").
  • For a potential employer or supervisor, always use Mr. or Ms. (Mrs. or Miss when you know if the woman is married or single) unless you have been specifically asked to use the first name.
  • Use the appropriate gender title (such as "Sir" or "Madam") if you know the gender of the person but not their name. While you should always address your letters as specifically as possible if you can't obtain the person's gender, use "Dear Sir or Madam" as a last resort.
  • When addressing several people, the greetings and salutations above are still appropriate. However, you should include the names of all the recipients if there are three or fewer names. You can write "Hi Rick and Jen" or "Dear Mary, Bob, and Sue." But if there are more than three names, or you prefer a group greeting, use "All" or "Team" after the name ("Hi All" or "Dear Team").

The salutation "Dear Sir or Madam" may be construed as outdated by some, but it’s better to err on the side of conservatism when addressing correspondence within business relationships. It generally doesn't hurt to be overly formal, whereas your professionalism may be questioned if you choose an overly familiar greeting.

Punctuating Salutations

At the end of the greeting, you should tack on either a comma or a colon. For example, all of the following are acceptable:

  • Dear Ms. Brown:
  • Dear Ms. Brown,
  • Dear Sarah:
  • Dear Sarah,

That said, the colon is the more formal option, making it suitable for both written and email correspondence. In contrast, the comma is a slightly more informal choice, making it more suitable for emails or casual written or printed letters.

The Balance/Melissa Ling

Switch to Less Formal Salutations Over Time

Keep in mind that certain opening terms that communicate a professional tone in your first correspondence can convey a stiff tone if used in subsequent messages, at which point you will know the person better.

For that reason, consider reserving formal terms such as "Dear" or "Greetings" in the first point of contact, and then switch to more familiar greetings and salutations (such as “Hello again,”) in subsequent emails.

Likewise, change salutations as your relationship with a business contact deepens. For example, once a potential employer becomes a supervisor, you can transition from "Dear" to "Hello."

Keep Salutations in Context to Create Effective Letters

A greeting is an important component of formal correspondence that draws in the recipient and sets a professional tone. However, there’s more to learn about writing business letters beyond which salutation to use.

Improving your overall business letter writing skills will help you craft a persuasive body of the letter so you can get that interview, send that thank-you letter, and ultimately win over business contacts. Referencing business letter samples can help you evaluate and perfect your letter writing skills.