A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How should you address a business letter, now that "gentlemen" is out?

November 3, 1978

Dear Cecil:

Although I'm not what you might call a hard-line feminist, there are some sex-biased features of our language that really bother me. Specifically, how does one head a formal-type business letter to some anonymous person in an office? "Gentlemen" just doesn't make it. After all, in most business offices no gentleman will ever see your letter. "Gentlepersons" is obviously no improvement. "To Whom It May Concern" is the best I've been able to come up with, but it sounds like you tied the letter to a brick and heaved it over the wall. My husband suggests "Howdy!" but I fear this lacks dignity. Got any ideas?

Cecil replies:

You could try "Dear Sir or Madam," I suppose. Or "Gentlemen and Mesdames," although it does seem a little redolent of gaslight and spats. "Dear Folks," maybe? No? Well, then how about "Greetings"? Hmm — we do have a little problem here, don't we?

Time to call in the heavy artillery. Etiquette maven Letitia Baldrige suggests skipping the heading altogether and writing a memo, e.g.:

"Memo to: Internal Revenue Service

"Re: You think I owe WHAT?"

… following which you launch into your message. If that won't do either (and don't you feel you're being a little difficult about this?), the only solution is to get on the horn and find out specifically to whom your letter should be addressed, and then address it that way. A little more trouble, sure, but not without its practical benefits.

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A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams
A Straight Dope Classic by Cecil Adams

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