Ever wondered about the etiquette of address in letters?
Write Now reader Joanne King asked us for a guide to using salutations and ‘Yours sincerely/faithfully’ for titled individuals, such as service men and women, religious leaders and people who have been honoured or decorated.
Happy to oblige, Joanne.
It seems that the necessary formality of this task these days is not what it was, and the occasional slip will be more readily forgiven. But even in today’s informal, fast-paced, flick-a-switch world, the courtesy of addressing people correctly still counts.
These days, ‘Dear’ is almost always the best place to start (rather than, say, ‘My lord’ or ‘Very Reverend Sir’). That is, unless you have cause to write to the Pope, in which case, you should begin ‘Your Holiness’ or ‘Most Holy Father’.
Apart from when dropping an email to his Holiness, the best rule of thumb is to begin ‘Dear [position]’, so just ‘Dear Bishop’, ‘Dear Chief Rabbi’ or ‘Dear Vicar’ will suffice. For priests and rabbis, you might add their surname, eg ‘Dear Father Jones’.
Here you will mostly find yourself writing (if not exclaiming) ‘Dear Lord’ (or ‘Dear Lady’), plus the surname, eg Dear Lord Albright. This rule goes for a peer, baron, viscount/viscountess and a marquess/marchioness. But there are some exceptions:
• Earl/their wife – Dear Lord/Lady [place they are Earl ‘of’]
• Duke/Duchess – Dear Duke/Duchess
• Knight or Baronet – Dear Sir [first name], eg Dear Sir Sean (‘You’re still my favourite Bond…’)
• Dame – Dear Dame [first name], eg Dear Dame Judi (‘Please petition to bring back Sean Connery…’)
These rules aren’t quite as strict as they once were, but politeness is still important. As, naturally, is rank, and it’s vital to note the differences between the different branches. For example, for a lieutenant in the Army, you write ‘Dear Mr [surname]’, while a Naval lieutenant should be greeted ‘Dear Lieutenant [surname]’.
Again, the general rule (no pun intended), is: ‘Dear [rank] [surname]’.
For the lowest ranks in each Force – a pilot or flying officer, a midshipman or a lieutenant (in the Army) – put ‘Dear Mr [surname]’.
And for the highest ranks, do your research and find out what titles they hold. An admiral, field marshal or RAF marshal would most likely also be a knight or a peer. Try to find out whether they prefer to be addressed by rank or as ‘Lord’ or ‘Sir’, and salute them accordingly.
Unfortunately, no-one but personal acquaintances should write directly to a member of the Royal Family. So if you are holding out to turn the tables on the Queen by sending her a one hundredth birthday card, along, perhaps, with a letter of commiseration for Prince Charles, you’ll actually need to send each letter to their Private Secretaries. Find out if this Secretary is male or female, then start your letter ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Madam’, and finish ‘Yours faithfully’.
It’s worth noting that although you don’t need to open your letter with the full name in the formal style, you should observe this on the envelope, including their full title plus any ranks, decorations or honours as applicable. For example, although your letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury began simply ‘Dear Archbishop’, the envelope would read: The Most Rev and Rt Hon the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury. And your Christmas card to Gordon Brown would be addressed to: The Rt Hon Gordon Brown, MP, Prime Minister (for now at least).
The straightforward rule for writing to any of the above is that if you are writing to an unnamed ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’, you use ‘Yours faithfully’. If you are addressing a specific person, whether by name or by title/position, you use ‘Yours sincerely’. (And you only need to capitalise the Y, never the first letter of the second word.)
Once again, the Pope is the exception (as well he might be). If you are Roman Catholic, finish with, ‘I have the honour to be, Your Holiness’s most devoted and obedient child’. If you aren’t, go with ‘I have the honour to be, Your Holiness’s obedient servant’. And try to resist the urge to put ‘hugs and kisses’.
More etiquette advice
Since the sheer quantity of titles out there could rival the shelves in Waterstone’s, it’s not possible to create an exhaustive guide here. But, if in doubt, every eventuality of etiquette for forms of address is available from the very polite people at Debrett’s.