[Updated 4 August 2017, 9:45 a.m. EDT]
Yikes! This is my second update to this post. (I inserted the first update below, in the original post.) In the past 24 hours I’ve considered this issue for the first time, proposed something new, then had readers drag me in another direction. I now happily bow to the logic of those who said I should get rid of the salutation. Here’s the current version of what I plan on putting in MSCD4:
If the recipient is an individual, use as a salutation Dear and the individual’s name. A salutation is standard in correspondence with an individual, and it would allow you to reflect the nature of the relationship: in a letter to Jane Doe, the salutation would presumably refer to Jane or Ms. Doe.
If the recipient is an entity, dispense with a salutation—it would be pointless to use a salutation such as Dear Acme Corporation, as we would know from the recipient address stated above the salutation that the recipient is Acme Corporation.
A traditional choice for a salutation to an entity would be Dear Sirs, but it suggests you’re writing to a group of individuals, it’s old-fashioned, and it’s gender-specific (see 17.10). Dear Sirs and Madams (or Mesdames) and Ladies and Gentlemen exhibit the first two of those problems. To whom it may concern suggests that you either don’t know to whom you’re sending the letter or don’t care.
I’m currently reviewing the first set of page proofs of the fourth edition of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting. It’s going alarmingly smoothly. Besides checking the copy editor’s fixes and doing my own hunting for glitches, I’ve also been adding a few riders relating to stuff I’ve blogged about over the past couple of months. I expect that this post will allow me to generate the final such rider.
Chapter 19 (Letter Agreements) in the third edition contains the following:
If the recipient is a person, the salutation should refer to that person by name. If the recipient is an entity, the simplest salutation would be Dear Sirs, although it’s commonplace to use the name of the chief executive officer. (That person’s name would presumably be in the “Attention” line of the recipient’s address; see 19.6.) Although it’s best to avoid gender-specific drafting (see 17.10), the gender neutral alternatives to Dear Sirs are too awkward to use in this context. For example, Ladies and Gentlemen makes it sound as if one is writing to a group of individuals.
The problem with that is that Dear Sirs is not only gender-specific but also old-fashioned. So I sent out the following tweet:
Anyone have a decent alternative to "Dear Sirs" for a letter addressed to an entire organization (e.g., a letter agreement)? 1/2
— Ken Adams (@AdamsDrafting) August 2, 2017
Here’s a sample of the responses I received, some of them suitably of the wisenheimer sort:
— Andrew Legrand, Esq. (@LawByLegrand) August 2, 2017
Dear gentle people,
— Anthony Cerminaro (@acerminaro) August 2, 2017
I see folks leaving it out, more and more
— Bob Jessup (@bobjessup) August 2, 2017
— Nicholas Popp (@nicholaspopp) August 2, 2017
— Alexander Hanff (CIPPE, CIPT, FIP) (@alexanderhanff) August 2, 2017
But here are a couple that are close to where I ended up:
If you expect it to be signed by someone, Perhaps address to that person?
— Lawrence Brown (@HLawrenceBrown) August 3, 2017
The one shortcoming I see in Neil’s and Lawrence’s suggestion is that often your contact at the company isn’t the person who ends up signing on behalf of the company. I’d want to recommend a formula that works in all contexts.
[Updated 3 August 2017, 4:00 p.m. EDT]
OK, I’ve digested the tweets and the comments, and I’ve adjusted, for the following reasons:
The standard salutations are lame. I find even Dear cringe-inducing on those occasions—increasingly infrequent—when I use it. The Sir and Madam stuff is no better.
In this post as originally written, I avoided the generic salutation by referring to the individual to whom the letter is directed. But as A. Wright Burke notes, for consistency it would be better if the letter were addressed to the entity and the salutation referred to the entity. So I propose you use the following salutation for entities: To Acme Corporation. Boom.
But you could do without any salutation. The online world tells me that that’s an increasingly popular option. And it does seem rather silly to repeat Acme Corporation’s name just under Acme Corporation’s address. So use a salutation, don’t use it, I’m not sure I care. (You hear that, Jeff Wheeler?) I suspect that once I get used to the idea, I’ll get rid of the salutation. (Give me another couple of days!)
If the letter agreement is with an individual, go ahead and use Dear if you want, but To would work fine too. So would omitting the salutation.
And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of Yours sincerely and any other polite closing formula. I recommend keeping the concluding clause in long-form contracts, even though it serves no substantive function, so consistency might suggest that I should be in favor of keeping the polite closing formula in letter agreements. Nah—letter agreements are generally slighter documents, and Yours sincerely and its kin are too annoying.
So here’s my revised summary:
If the recipient is an entity, use a salutation with the format To Acme Corporation:. Or you could dispense with a salutation, as the recipient’s address makes it clear to whom the letter is directed.
A traditional choice for a salutation would be Dear Sirs, but it’s old-fashioned and gender-specific (see 17.10). And you’re not writing to a group of individuals. Dear Sirs and Madams (or Mesdames) and Ladies and Gentlemen exhibit the same problems. To whom it may concern suggests that you either don’t know to whom you’re sending the letter or don’t care.
If the recipient is an individual, use Dear, use To, or omit the salutation.
Don’t be surprised to see further movement on this.
So here we go:
If the recipient is an individual, the salutation should refer to that individual by name. If the recipient is an entity, the traditional choice would be Dear Sirs, but it’s old-fashioned and gender-specific (see 17.10). Ladies and Gentlemen is similarly old-fashioned, and it also makes it sound as if one is writing to a group of individuals. To whom it may concern suggests that you either don’t know to whom you’re sending the letter or don’t care. A better alternative would be to refer to the individual to whom the letter is directed—that individual’s name would presumably be in the “Attention” line of the recipient’s address (see 19.6). Because that individual might not be the one who will sign the letter agreement on behalf of the company, the closing sentence of the letter agreement (see 19.11) should reflect that by saying please have a copy of this agreement signed in the space provided below. That would be unobjectionable even if the specified individual is the one who will sign the letter agreement.
22 thoughts on “What Salutation Should You Use in a Letter Agreement Sent to a Company?”
I usually use “Dear Sirs / Mesdames” as the salutation. Not the most elegant, but addresses most, if not all, of the other relevant concerns.
I hope you don’t mind my getting all schoolmarmish on you, but the space-slash-space thing ain’t great, and Mesdames is too Frenchified. But more to the point, the letter isn’t going to a group of individuals.
Not the question asked, but why include the words “a copy of”? Would you mind if they had the original signed?
What I was aiming for is “a tangible version of”. But that’s not necessary, as someone could sign a digital copy. So I hereby strike a copy of. Thank you!
Let us call a spade a spade. “Dear Sir(s)” is not just “gender-specific,” it is (at best) lazy sexism in that it connotes the implicit assumption that men run the joint. You could more accurately describe the phrase as “old fashioned and sexist” (or is that redundant? There is perhaps nothing more old fashioned than sexism.). Lack of a more elegant solution is no excuse for reverting to sexist nomenclature. “Dear Sir or Madam” is perfectly acceptable and no less awkward than “Dear Sir”.
If you have written a letter to “Dear Sir(s),” I can assure you that at least one woman read your letter, thinks less of you for it. My company’s president, GC, and half the c-suite are women, so the assumption that a man will sign receive and sign the letter would be particularly egregious.
Thanks, but I’m just fine with gender-specific. It means the same thing as “sexist,” but without the soapbox.
Women’s colleges and men’s clothing stores are gender-specific. Assuming your reader is a man is sexist. I was standing on a dictionary, not a soap box.
I suggest that saying “Don’t be gender-specific” is functionally equivalent to saying “Don’t be sexist.”
There are not lot of good choices, but I agree with what you said. As a backup, I use “Ladies and Gentlemen:” when I don’t know who the right recipient for the organization addressed is, and the letter is formal (such as a letter agreement).
Also I have a pet peeve about the many salutations and closing lines of formal letters.
“Dear” is now a rote formalism that used to have a nuanced meaning as a salutation. That nuanced meaning is almost entirely inappropriate in modern formal correspondence, and emails have replaced informal correspondence.
“Very truly yours” and “Sincerely [yours]” are an abbreviation of some version of “I remain very truly your humble and obedient servant,” which would often set a very wrong tone in the letter if you actually spelled it out.
The best choice is to omit the salutation. The entity won’t mind.
The name in the attention line does not affect the identity of the addressee of the letter. A letter to ‘ABC Limited, Attention Mr John Bull’ is to ABC Limited.
Don’t address the letter to the entity but salute someone else, even if the salutee is the person whose name is in the attention line.
In other words, don’t do this: ‘ABC Limited [etc.], Attention Mr John Bull, Dear Mr Bull’.
The idea here is, don’t address a letter to A and salute B. The attention line does not determine the letter’s addressee.
The only danger in this whole area is that addressing a letter to an individual might not count as notice to the entity in some context.
If that danger concerns you, you can follow the best practice of making the addressee the entity and omitting the salutation.
If that’s too stiff for you, you can use an opening sentence to cover the issue.
Mr John Bull
ABC Limited [etc.]
Dear Mr Bull, This letter is addressed to you in your capacity as president of ABC Limited.
Changing gears, don’t salute ‘Sir or madam’ unless the letter is addressed to a person of unknown name: ‘Remittance Clerk, ABC Limited [etc.], Sir or madam’.
‘Madam or sir’ is okay whenever ‘Sir or madam’ is okay.
Don’t use the salutation ‘Sir or madam’ when the addressee is an entity because the salutation should match the addressee, and a corporate entity is gender-free.
Don’t use ‘Sirs or madams’. The reason for Frenchifying the plural is that the English suggests an occupation more than an honorific.
The only objection to ‘To whom it may concern’ is: why bother? How does it improve on nothing at all? –Wright
Since others mentioned omitting the salutation, I guess it’s a thing.
And yes, I’m aware of the inconsistency between having an individual in an “Attention” line and in the salutation. But I’m not sure perfection is an option. I’ll ponder.
The years have mellowed me. Absence of salutation seems sterile; the document is, after all, a *letter* agreement. So make a nod toward the letter format. Current first choice: ‘Sir or madam’ (or ‘Madam or sir’). Second choice: ‘Greetings’.
My second choice quickly becomes my first if someone challenges me on the ground that ‘Sir or madam’ discriminates against the non-binary.
Another option is, don’t make it a letter agreement. Make it a regular agreement with an enclosure letter, where the stakes are lower.
For things that I need to have actually signed by someone, I have it addressed to the individual who has the authority to execute. Otherwise I tend to do “Ladies and Gentlemen:”.
Dear Sir or Madam:
East Coast: Yo!
Best Coast: Hey!
Third Coast: Howdy!
In Between: Dear Sir or Madam
Third Coast: Hey, y’all.
Concerning “And you’re not writing to a group of individuals.”
There is a difference in usage between American English and the-rest-of-the-world-that-doesn’t-know-how-to-talk English. The difference is that in God’s own American English, we use a singular verb when referring to an organization. The funny-sounding furriners use a plural verb: e.g., “TIC do not agree with your assessment.” Their position makes a tiny bit of sense in that, by referring to a company, you are kind of referring to a group of individuals. But they still mess it up, because (in all forms of standard English that I’ve ever heard of) you would use a singular verb if you said “the group [does / do] not agree with your assessment.” Still, it is a pretty well established idiom abroad.
This was really just an excuse to poke fun at my furriner friends.
Wondering where furriner begins for you. Oklahoma? :-)
Orbis est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Texanae, aliam Yankee, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua furriner.
What if you are addressing multiple individuals from organisations, e.g. an emailed invitation to a formal meeting?