12

When writing a letter or an e-mail to a man I know the (sur-)name of ("Smith"), I would write:

Dear Mr. Smith,

What should I use when addressing a woman?
Is it (like for married women):

Dear Mrs. Smith,

Or just:

Dear Ms. Smith,

Or:

Dear Miss Smith,

Or even:

Dear Ms./Mrs. Smith,

What is more polite, particularly as I do not know whether she is married (coverture)?

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    The answer may depend on the country where she lives. In the US, "Ms" is almost universally accepted. It is not expected that you know the marriage-status or acknowledge the marriage status of a woman here when writing. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 13 '18 at 11:06
  • What about the UK? is it the same? – aschipfl Jul 13 '18 at 11:23
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    But most women (and men) would expect you to use their professional title if they have one, especially if you are writing to them at their business address (Dr., Professor, Dean, etc). – Tᴚoɯɐuo Jul 13 '18 at 11:28
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    This might seem obvious, but if you do not know them well enough to know their first name - are you certain you know their gender? If you know their full name, just using that and no prefix can be seen as more respectful in many situations (and if that's the case, I'll write up an answer) – Bilkokuya Jul 13 '18 at 12:02
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    @Bilkokuya In this age of gender preferences and identities, your comment is particularly relevant. Moreover, many first names are gender neutral (Robin, Jan, Charlie, Tatum .......) and you might well hear Eve for Yves. – Ronald Sole Jul 13 '18 at 12:58
29

Use Ms., not Ms./Miss

The "Ms." abbreviation was created in large part to avoid the awkwardness of using Mrs./Miss.

I can't speak for all of the English-speaking world, but, in the U.S., Ms. has become the norm.

  • The "Ms./Miss" in my question was not meant literal in my question (I edited it), I meant using "Ms." or "Miss", which means the same... Thank you anyway! – aschipfl Jul 13 '18 at 11:21
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    Ms does not mean the same as Miss. Miss carries the connotation that the woman is unmarried. Ms does not carry any connotation regarding her married status, she may be married or she may not be. If you do not know what title a woman prefers, most authorities on business or social etiquette recommend that you use 'Ms', even if you are aware of her marital status. If a woman has expressed a preference for 'Miss' or "Mrs' then you should respect her preference. In the UK most younger women do not object to 'Ms', older women are less accepting, but this is not universal. – James Jul 13 '18 at 12:04
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    to add onto @James comment, not only do they mean different things, but when speaking they are pronounced differently (in US English at least). Ms rhymes with "fizz" and Miss rhymes with "hiss". – MMAdams Jul 13 '18 at 12:59
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    @Kevin Master vs Mister was one of age not marital status though. Past a certain age (generally 16-18) a man became a mister even if unmarried. Master was typically used with a first name or full name whereas Mister is only used in certain cases with just a first name – eques Jul 13 '18 at 17:19
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    I've heart way too many complaints about this one. "We used to need to know marital status. Now we need to know marital status and political affiliation." Maybe this issue won't exist for the next generation. – Joshua Jul 13 '18 at 17:23
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J.R.s answer is perfect if you do know the gender your subject identifies with, and only their surname.

However, as the purpose of these email introductions is simply to show respect - it is common that you will not know for certain the person's gender (including if you only see their name, and try to infer their gender from this). In these situations, I feel it's worth giving extra care to your opening, to be gender neutral.


If the recipient has a professional title, use it

Firstly, as this is formal communication, until told otherwise, it is best to use the person's known honorifics. For example:

Dear Dr. Surname,
Dear Judge Surname,
Dear Baron/Baroness/Lord/Lady Surname,

These titles convey the most respect, and although some people may find it "too much", they will never risk being rude if used appropriately.

Note: As each title has very specific meanings, and some titles modify the name used - you should be very careful about using the honorific titles. It is unlikely you will be able to guess their title, unless you have seen it used elsewhere (for that specific person). Getting an honorific title wrong, may come across worse than not using it at all.


If you know their full name, use it.

Arguably, the second best case is to just use their entire name if you know it. This avoids any implied gender, and by using their surname - still comes across as respectful and formal.

Dear Firstname Surname,

Again, some care does need to be taken to use the correct order. In western cultures, it's common to use Firstname Surname, while other cultures (such as some Asian cultures) may prefer Surname Forname. Generally, you should use the name order they provided to you and not try to guess or re-arrange their name.

This is a relatively common format, and should not be surprising to any recipient who communicates with western cultures regularly.


If you only know their surname and not their gender

In this case, you have a real lack of information - which I'd argue is very unlikely in most cases. There are a few possible suggestions to use:

To whom it may concern,

This is a generic opening, that's commonly used when writing to a company or organisation - where multiple people may be able to respond to you. If you know the surname of the individual - this is likely inappropriate, but it's worth mentioning as a common, generic opening to letters.

Greetings,

This may seem like an odd choice - to completely remove their name from the letter. However, when in doubt - it is sometimes best just to make sure you don't get it wrong.

Opening a letter with "Greetings" or a similar non-specific phrase ("Salutations" used to be fairly common), will come across as less personal than other options. However, if you know so little of the person's name, then I'd suggest you may not actually have the information required to be more personal.

Dear Role,
(e.g.) Dear Colleague,
(e.g.) Dear Customer,

If the person you are writing to is in a certain role or capacity, it can also be appropriate and respectful to use their role as the opening. Again, this is impersonal - but it keeps the letter formal and professional, which if you lack further information on the person's name/gender, is a situation you just have to accept.


Recommend NOT using Dear Sir/Madam

It's worth a mention here, that as a last-resort some people will recommend the generic:

Dear Sir/Madam, (or)
Dear Mr/Mrs Surname

While these will not often cause great offence, there are a couple of gotchas to be aware of - which is why I would generally recommend against using them.

Firstly, the generic nature of this is not much better than just saying:

Dear valued recipient,

And is the form used by a lot of spam, junk mail - where the sender knows nothing about you.

Secondly, while it will only affect a small minority of people, you are implying that the recipient must be one of two genders. To those who identify as non-binary, while they will be "used to it", it definitely does not do the job of conveying respect - which is the entire point of including an opening line in the first place.


There are of course a plethora of common openings that are in use today, however - the above hopefully gives enough information on the pitfalls of each approach, that other openings can be judged at your discretion.

Again, it might seem like a lot of effort to be gender neutral (if you do not know their gender), when that will only affect a minority of people. But, it's worth remembering the purpose of the opening line - to set a good tone for the rest of the letter. If your opening line actually does the opposite of this, and shows disrespect - it has failed entirely.

Worth noting: If you know your recipient is non-binary, or has preferred openings, but do not know what those are - the scope of that issue is large enough to warrant a separate question entirely dedicated to it.

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    Another useful opening line would be Good Morning, or the like (if the letter is an email -- less appropriate if it's just a printed page). I use this a lot, especially when I'm writing to multiple people. – Cullub Jul 13 '18 at 13:15
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    Yes, it is much better to use a generic than to get a name and title wrong. I would occasionally get things addressed to me as if I were a woman. I tossed them without even looking at them, as I did anything with Mr/Mrs. My late wife often got things addressed to "Mr. Lee Smith." None of them were important. – NomadMaker Jul 13 '18 at 18:26
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    "Dear Sir, Good day and compliments. I am the wife of the late head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces of the federal republic of Nigeria. My late husband had/has Eighty Million USD ($80,000,000.00) specially preserved and well packed in trunk boxes and I need your help to get it out of the country yadda yadda ..." "Dear Sir" may sound polite but because it's a common salutation in these kind of scams, many will choose to ignore it. – Andrew Jul 13 '18 at 20:47
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    "Hello," is another greeting option for email, where formal introductions are generally less important. It's a little less formal, but also more modern, than "greetings" or "salutations." – Zach Lipton Jul 15 '18 at 5:48
0

Possible forms of address in a formal letter:

Dear Mrs. Smith [if the person goes by that and if you know she does; usually an older generation woman, where she is used to: Mr and Mrs Smith on letters, this is something you would have to know about her]

Dear Dr. Smith [if the person is a Phd or a medical doctor]

Dear Ms. Smith [if you know the person is a woman. This form means the person is a woman and does not address her married/unmarried status.]

Dear Mary, [if you know the person well enough to use her first name. A lawyer who writes a formal letter but also knows the client can use a first name.]

The term Miss is still sometimes used in speech in some places, but it is not used in letters. Why? Because Miss has been replaced by Ms. since it is considered no one's concern whether a woman is married or not married. It is the politically correct way to address any woman.

These are the only forms with the exception of letters to, say, a prime minister or president or elected officials or a host of administrators of all kinds and functions. I am not giving those examples here as they were not part of the question.

  • Rubbish; Miss is still very commonly used, at least in Australia. No one would think of addressing a letter to a young school-girl with 'Ms'. 'Ms' indeed has connotations of a middle-aged feminist and I've found most younger teachers at least prefer 'Miss'. – JDF Jul 15 '18 at 10:19
  • @Deonyi Yes, I hear it in Australian movies and TV series in speech. It is also used in speech in the US. There is this caveat: Ms to parallel Mr (except where the woman prefers Miss or Mrs). hr.uwa.edu.au/policies/policies/equity/languageSo..... A young girl would probably be just the name (Dear Sophie), wouldn't it? How often are letters written to young school girls? The letters usually go to the parents..... – Lambie Jul 15 '18 at 14:09
  • Not necessarily. Say there is a class letter-writing activity to the local MP: I remember everyone in my class receiving responses, generic ones mind you, with 'Dear Master Smith' or 'Dear Miss Smith'. Similarly, when signing up to a library card one receives a card and letter with 'Miss A. B. Smith'. However this has nothing to do with the actual question as I assume we're not talking about young girls. – JDF Jul 15 '18 at 21:29

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