Punctuation marks serve as the reader’s traffic signals in a metropolitan sheet that is congested with textual characters.
But other than that, these tiny and seemingly insignificant symbols are also responsible for setting the tonality and the rhythm of the text.
One of the most frequently asked questions about punctuation marks is related to the comma usage after salutations in English.
So, if you’ve always wondered about this topic, I highly suggest reading ‘til the end of this post to discover how salutation post-commas work.
When do we need a comma after a salutation in an email?
A comma after a salutation or greeting in an email should only be reserved when the email’s content is informal and personal. When using adjectives such as “dear” in the salutation, the comma should come after the addressee’s name and not after it. When using casual greeting expressions like “hi” or “hello,” the comma should come before and after the addressee’s name or only after it. For formalistic emails and business letters, a colon should be used instead.
A background on salutations
Both British and American English make use of similar words for salutations in emails and letters. However, they may differ in punctuation usage.
Salutations are the initial remarks that we use to greet an addressee in correspondence, which is essential for official transactions to happen.
With regards to punctuation, we might be able to argue that a slight difference or misplacement may not necessarily impede the addressee’s interpretation of the greeting.
But, we do have to bear in mind that neglecting these writing elements could leave a negative impression on the writer, as well as on the organization he or represents.
This is especially true when dealing with an addressee who is not intimately connected with us, as well as with someone who is quite critical of writing skills.
In a nutshell, improper punctuation usage, in the worst-case scenarios, could impede the success of a transaction.
The American vs. British Salutations
Some similarities and differences have been observed as to how native English users use and punctuate salutations, particularly between American and British English.
The punctuation convention in American English encourages the use of periods after abbreviated name titles such as “Mr.,” “Ms.,” or “Dr.”
American English also recommends the use of colon after salutations used in formal and official correspondence and a post-comma for less formal ones.
Whereas, the more lenient British English dismisses the necessity of periods or full stops after abbreviated titles as in “Mr” or “Mrs.”
(The period after “Mrs” above is actually the one that is used to end declarative sentences.)
Also, supporters of British English do not typically make use of a colon, may write salutations without any punctuation, and practice post-comma usage sometimes.
As these are the cases in these two major types of Englishes, should we say that is one more correct than the other?
If you are doing the correspondence in a company that embodies British English principles, then it is best to adapt their rules to avoid miscommunication.
But, if you’re working with colleagues who are more familiar with American English, then following their grammatical conventions would also do more good than harm.
The recommended comma placement after a salutation
Now, let’s take a look at the conditions that guide the comma placement after salutations that are applicable in a more general context.
When writing a casual email content to a colleague
A casual message to a colleague regarding a minor yet still official concern is best punctuated with a comma, rather than a colon.
Addressing the colleague on a first-name basis also suggests a rather immediate relationship than a distant one.
And, pairing it with a comma prompts a fairly casual tone that is useful in decreasing social distance, or put simply, sounding more friendly.
In contrast with direct messaging applications, email correspondence generally prompts users to use a more polite tone, and thus, messages are crafted in a friendly yet still polite manner.
When writing an email or letter to a family member
Another case that would prompt the use of a post-comma is when we are exchanging emails with family members.
Although this less likely happens at present, older-generation family members like grandparents might still prefer communicating via email.
So, to set a personal tone, using a comma after the greeting is also highly recommended in such cases.
When using adjectives such as “dear,” “dearest,” or “my dearest,” the comma should come after the addressee’s name.
However, if we wish to use other greetings such as “hi” or “hello,” the comma should be placed after the greeting expression.
We may conveniently use an exclamation mark after the addressee’s name to denote more enthusiasm.
Or, we may also use two commas instead to make the salutation more grammatically correct, which meanwhile evokes a more neutral tone.
Lastly, we may also just use one comma after the addressee’s name to make it even more casual and personal, which is the format likely used nowadays.
Removing the comma after “hi” could be considered more textually attractive than the previous one.
Even though business correspondence is becoming more personal and casual to date, using punctuation marks appropriately is still a more professional decision.
If we keep neglecting punctuation marks, they may eventually disappear in the writing system, which would make correspondence mundane and restrained.
The incorrect comma after a salutation
Now that we’ve discussed how, when, and why we use post-commas in salutations, let’s also look at the circumstances that fall under incorrect comma placement and usage.
When the comma is directly placed after “dear”
As previously mentioned, putting a comma after adjectives in salutations is grammatically incorrect, not to mention being a bit of a textual eyesore.
The use of the timeless adjective “dear” followed by an addressee’s name in salutations is equivalent to saying “This letter is dedicated to my dear addressee.”
Hence, we must not separate the adjective from the noun that it pre-modifies, regardless of the number of included.
But, the comma before the conjunction “and,” known as the Oxford comma, is optional when there are more than two addressees, as in the example below.
The confusion on whether the comma should come after “dear” may be caused by other salutation formats like those introduced by “hi,” “hello,” and “welcome.”
Such kinds of greeting expressions are actually followed by a direct address, which can be the full or first name of a person, an endearment, or a name title.
Using greetings like “hello” or “hi” prompts a comma usage before a direct address; but adjectives like “dear,” “dearest,” or “sweetest” don’t.
Therefore, being able to recognize adjectives or words that qualify a noun is a precursory skill to the comma decision.
When the comma is placed after the abbreviated name title
Another incorrect way of placing a comma is when putting it between the name title and the name of the addressee.
The name title is just a preceding element to the addressee’s name, and by all means, it should not be separated with a comma.
In this case, again, we have to consider the first element of the salutation wherein an adjective should not be followed by a comma.
But, a greeting expression like “hi” or “hello” should be succeeded by a comma, for as long as we know the addressee very well.
When the email’s content is formal and official
Lastly, a comma should be replaced by a colon instead when writing formal and official documents.
As explained, commas work well in casual letters and emails to personalize the tone of the content.
However, a different punctuation mark is necessary for increasing the formality of documents including transmittal, application, and complaint letters.
Doing so subconsciously prompts the reader that the content otherwise contains more serious and official content.
The formalistic intent in the example above also calls for a formal letter format, so a comma, which signals a personal tone, is typically discouraged in such cases.
Any authority figure whose task is to review and approve such kinds of letters is generally keen on written output, especially if the job role being applied entails such a skill.
So, we had better be aware of what tonality punctuation marks evoke in order to increase the chances of approval.
The optional comma after a salutation
Although some elements of rigidity have been implied by the last two sections, it is also essential to recognize the condition in which using a comma is rather optional.
Again, the decision should be based on the contextual details surrounding the text, as well as the environment in which it is being utilized.
When adhering to the open-punctuation system
As more and more transactions and interactions occur online, the need for communicative convenience has also become even more apparent than ever.
With this, supporters of concise language use have come up with a relatively new punctuation system that promotes the notion of leaving out terminal punctuation marks like commas and periods within the text.
However, this relatively new concept is mainly used and practiced in business email writing, which leans more toward the British English guidelines.
Moreover, it is also worth noting that there isn’t a single, rigid rule as regards the open-punctuation system because establishing one would obviously overthrow its purpose.
Since the open-punctuation system is not completely practiced yet, the decision of whether to adhere to it is dependent on the organization’s business culture.
In other words, it would be considered respectful to use open punctuation when corresponding with a person who also adheres to this system.
But, if we are still unsure how to use the open-punctuation system, then the default process is to use the guidelines suggested in the previous sections.
Finally, although commas are sometimes omissible, question marks should never be tactlessly left out because doing so means proactively inviting misinterpretation.
Frequently Asked Questions on Comma After Salutations in Email
Can we use a semicolon in a formal letter’s salutation?
The grammatical convention demonstrates that a colon should be used in formal letters’ salutation part, such as transmittal, complaint, application, and intent letters. Not putting any punctuation at all is also acceptable when adhering to the open-punctuation system or full-block style in business correspondence, but a semicolon should not be used in salutations by all means.
How can we punctuate “good morning” in a salutation?
We can write “Good morning, John!” to introduce enthusiasm; “Good morning, John,” to sound neutral and grammatically correct; or “Good morning John,” to make the salutation textually attractive and more personal.
Is it impolite to use “to whom it may concern?”
Using “to whom it may concern” in formalistic emails and letters generally creates the impression of “not making enough effort to confirm” who the intended recipient is. Letters bearing this salutation could easily get misplaced or ignored, and thus, it is relatively less formal and polite than explicitly writing down the name of the recipient.
Though comma decisions are quite tricky, we only need a lot of both theoretical know-how and practical applications to make them happen.
And this is because understanding the nuances behind the existing punctuation systems is inarguably an integral part of healthy information sharing and consumption.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.