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How to Properly Start Formal Letters

How to Properly Start Formal Letters

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There are many things to consider when writing a formal letter.

In this article, we are focusing on formal salutations & greetings that are perfect for opening formal letters such as cover letters, letters of recommendation and inquiry letters.

Depending on the nature of the letter, a different salutation might be most suitable.

However, many other factors come into play when deciding on which salutation to use in your business correspondence:

  • Is the letter in British English or American English?
  • Who is the recipient of the letter?
  • What is your relationship with the recipient of the letter?


How to start formal letters: salutations

Let’s have a look at some common greetings that you can use when writing a formal letter. For the purpose of simplicity, I will divide this section into two paragraphs:

  1. Greetings that you can use when you are familiar with the recipient of the letter
  2. Greetings that you can use when you are NOT familiar with the recipient of the letter


If you do indeed know the name of the recipient:

  • Dear Mr. Firstname or Dear Ms. Lastname, (in British English it is Dear Mr Firstname, and Dear Ms Lastname,)
  • Dear Mr. Firstname, (only if you know the person well, in British English this would be Dear Mr Firstname,)

In case of doubt, you should omit using Dear + Firstname.

However, if the recipient will (suddenly) address you with [Dear + Firstname], you can assume that it is OK for you to do the same and switch to [Dear + Firstname] as well.


If you don’t know the name of the recipient:

  • Dear Sir or Madam,
  • Dear Sir/Madam,
  • To whom it may concern, (considered old-fashioned by some)


Is [Dear Firstname + Lastname] an acceptable salutation if you don’t know the gender of the recipient?

Let’s assume you are writing a formal letter to a person called “Alexis Bravo.” Unfortunately, you don’t know if you are dealing with a man or a woman.

You have been searching the internet to find a solution to the problem.

However, you couldn’t find any pictures or any other reliable info about the gender of Alexis.

So how would you actually greet this person in a formal letter?

Would you go with:

  • Dear Alexis,
  • Dear Alexis Bravo,
  • Dear Mr/Ms Bravo,
  • Dear Mr./Ms. Bravo,

The safest way to go about this would be using the salutation [Dear Mr/Ms Bravo] (in American English) and [Dear Mr./Ms. Bravo] if your letter is in British English.

While using [Dear Alexis Bravo] is not impossible, it might come across as rude by some.

[Dear Alexis] is not a good option here either, as the greeting [Dear + Firstname] is only used in cases where you are already pretty familiar with the person and have been in contact for a while.

In our example, we don’t even know what gender the recipient is, therefore it is safe to assume that we don’t have a close relationship with Alexis.


How to start a formal cover letter?

If you are writing a cover letter, a letter that goes along with your resume to provide additional information about your skills and your personal experience, then you can choose one of the following openers:

  • Dear Sir or Madam
  • Dear Mr. or Ms.
  • Dear Hiring Manager (or any other job title) in case you don’t know the name of the person


Do Your Research

You should always make an effort to find out who you are actually writing to. It is always better to use a personal salutation rather than using something along the lines of [To whom it may concern] or [Dear Sir/Madam].

Linkedin is an excellent platform to learn more about the recipient of your letter. In case you don’t even know the name of the receiver, you might want to call the company to find out who is responsible for your inquiry, rather than just writing [Dear Hiring Manager].


How to start a formal letter of complaint?

As far as the opener goes, you can use the same greetings as for cover letters (see above).

Before doing so, you might want to insert a line for the subject matter of the complaint, though.




Subject: Incorrectly dispatched goods. Order Number 3202347.


Dear Mr. Adams, 

I am writing to complain about…


How to format a formal letter salutation

As we have seen in this article, the general formula for formal letter salutations is as follows:


Dear + [Mr./Ms./Mrs./Mr/Ms/Mrs] + [Lastname]


One more thing you need to make sure always is that this greeting formula is always followed by a comma or a colon (only in the US!). 


Dear Mr. Linguaholic, 

We are very happy to…




Dear Mr. Linguaholic:  (only in the US!)

We are very happy to…


The use of a colon instead of a comma at the very end of the salutation is only found in American English. Both a comma or a colon is acceptable in American English.

In British English, however, a colon at the end of a salutation is an absolute no-go.

The same goes for many other countries, such as Germany, Switzerland and Austria. In all of these countries, the salutation needs to be followed by a comma rather than a colon.


How NOT to start any formal letter

In this article, we took a closer look at how to adequately greet people in formal letters.

To make sure that you don’t make any mistakes in your professional letters, it might be a good idea to also quickly talk about how NOT to start your formal letters. As above, we will skip the address part and will dive right into the greetings (salutations).

Here are some openers that you should NOT use in your formal letters:

  • Hi,
  • Hello there,
  • Greetings,
  • Hello Sir / Hello Madam,
  • Good morning,
  • Good evening,
  • Yo,

So what is wrong with these greetings? Well, you’ve probably guessed it. They are all (very) informal.

Some of these greetings might be suitable for casual e-mails to friends & family, but none of them acceptable in formal writing.


Different cultures, different salutations

Did you know that in some Asian countries such as China, it is common to write the Lastname first, followed by the Firstname?

Well, we are talking about letters in American English and British English, so why should I care?

Well, it might happen that you get some business correspondence from a Chinese company and at the end of the letter you might see something like this:


Yours sincerely, 

Peng Liyuan


So far, so good. As you like the products that they are offering, you decide to write them back.

Unfortunately, you are not familiar with Chinese names, so you don’t know if you are dealing with a man or a woman. So you open the internet and check the info on the company’s website….with success.

You found a picture of Peng Liyuan and are now sure that it is a man that you are dealing with. Lucky me, you might think.

So you open Microsoft Word, and start the letter with:


Dear Mr. Liyuan

I am writing…


STOP!!!! We got a problem right here. And that problem is the following:

In China, people always introduce themselves by using the Lastname first, both in letters and also in formal oral conversation. So in our little example, the Lastname is actually Peng and not Liyuan.

But what if that Chinese person was that smart and already knew that you might misinterpret his name and, therefore, decided to write the name just as expected as [Dear Mr. Firstname + Lastname]?

It’s getting a little bit complicated right here, agreed. But let me tell you the following:

Chinese names are usually 3 syllables long. The Lastname is usually just 1 syllable long. An educated guess would, therefore, always be that the syllable that stands alone is actually the Lastname.


Peng Liyuan Peng is the Lastname

Mao Zedong Mao is the Lastname

Li Keqiang  Li is the Lastname

Jinping Xi   Xi is the Lastname. Does that name sound familiar to you, by the way? Call him Xi Jinping instead, would you?


Now that you know how to start a formal letter, have a look at how to write a formal letter altogether!


Frequently asked questions related to the topic “How to start formal letters”


Is it Mr and Ms or Mr. and Ms.?

If you are writing in British English, Mr and Ms is the way to go. If you are writing in American English, Mr. and Ms. are your weapons of choice.


What is the difference between Ms and Mrs? (Ms. and Mrs. respectively)?

Ms (Ms.) stands for Miss. It is used to address women regardless of what their marital status is. So you can use Ms (Ms.) for both married and unmarried women. In case you are unsure of the marital status of the woman you are addressing, Ms (Ms.) is the safest way to go. Mrs (Mrs.), on the other hand, is a respectful way to address a married or widowed woman.


What does the honorific Mx. stand for?

The honorific Mx. is a gender-neutral title in the UK. It is widely used by nonbinary people and by people that do not wish to reveal their gender.