What Do You Call People?

With email what to call your reader is frequently a non-issue, because many email writers just begin with what they have to say, using no greeting at all.

Some participants in my workshops are offended by this practice, and want a friendly word – maybe even just their name will do it for some. Others want a “hi,” or a “good morning.” A very few like a simple pleasantry, asking for the family, the kids, or perhaps the weekend golf game. To avoid giving offense, consider your reader, his or her probable preference, and the tone you want to establish or reinforce with that reader.

At least an equal, and growing number say, “Just the facts, Ma’am!” and happily cut their reading time by getting to the meat of the issue immediately.

But what about the more formal emails, like letters? If your company has an established style for this type of correspondence, use it. If not, here are a few guidelines:

A longer, formal, traditional letter will probably be an attachment to a short email cover letter. For a formal letter, even when emailed, the rules of date, inside address, greeting, body, complimentary close, and signature line are also traditional. Most organizations use an electronic version of their letterhead as well.

If you call your reader “Dear Mr. Smith” on the letter, call him “Mr. Smith” on the cover letter as well. If you call him “Dear Joe,” then it’s acceptable to call him the same in the cover letter. Use the appropriate level of familiarity. “Miss,” “Mrs.,” “Ms.,” or “Mr.” are all acceptable titles, and “Ms.” is a convenient title when you are unsure, or simply prefer it. Professional titles are always acceptable, and frequently preferable. Consider your reader, your tone, and your purpose for writing.

Be aware of gender bias. Here are some tips:

1. Use the person’s name, “you,” or “your.”
2. Start your sentence with an action word. This is using the “you understood.”
3. When you have a plural (more than one) subject, then you can use plural nouns and pronouns, avoiding the “he/she” dilemma. For example:

• Each employee will have a chance to show his or her best practices at the conference.

• All employees will have a chance to show their best practices at the conference.

• NOT: Each employee will have a chance to show their best practices at the conference.

4. Avoid pronouns when appropriate:

a. Not: When you are explaining this issue to a friend, send him written….

b. Use: When you are explaining this issue to a friend, send written….

5. Use “generics”: Mailman = Letter Carrier; Cleaning Lady = Cleaner
6. Replace “him” or “her” with words like individual, participant, member
7. Replace the pronoun with a gender-neutral article, e.g.,

Not: The veterinarian always carries his “little black bag.”

Use: The veterinarian always carries a “little black bag.”

How do you punctuate what you call people?

Let’s talk about your friend Mary. Notice how the commas are used:

One of my friends, Mary, told me…

My friend Mary told me…


Gail Tycer offers business writing workshops and presentations; executive coaching, consulting, writing, and editing services. Call Gail at 503/292-9681, or email gail@gailtycer.com to learn more.

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