Have you ever wondered if you should write “Dear Joe,” or “Dear Joe:” at the start of an email or letter? The difference between the comma and the colon might seem insignificant, but it actually reflects the level of formality in your message. Today’s post explains how to punctuate salutations in emails and letters so you can begin all your correspondence with the desired level of business professionalism or casual coolness. (Don’t worry—you can be professional and cool at the same time.)
Salutations (or greetings) in formal letters and emails are followed by a colon:1
Dear Mr. Periwinkle:
Please accept my resignation from my position as lead bank teller. I am leaving to pursue my career as a trapeze artist.
To Whom It May Concern:
I have attached my application for stamp collector of the year.
Informal Salutations with Adjectives
There is a common misconception that commas should never be used after salutations. That’s just not true. Commas can be used after informal salutations that include an adjective such as “Dear.”2 The trick is that you have to decide if your message is formal or informal. Letters and emails to family are pretty much always informal; however, the level of formality in business letters and emails will depend on your work environment and your personal relationship with the recipient:
Dear Mom and Dad,
Thank you for the birthday gift! I really love my new bagpipes and intend to play them at every family gathering from here on out!
I look forward to seeing you at tomorrow’s sales meeting. Let’s grab a cup of coffee afterward, okay?
Informal Salutations with Interjections
Realistically, most of us will use an interjection such as “Hi” or “Hello” instead of “Dear” when inviting a coworker for coffee. In this situation, a comma follows the interjection and a period or exclamation point follows the recipient’s name:
Good morning, Sam.
Casual Salutations between Friends and Family
Let’s be honest: the comma and period format can look too fussy for messages to family and friends. Even the online Q&A section for The Chicago Manual of Style conceded that efficiency trumps formality in casual communication; so don’t worry too much about starting that next email to your grandparents with “Hi Grandma and Grandpa,” rather than “Hi, Grandma and Grandpa.”
Update: CMOS Shop Talk, the official blog of The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago), published a post stating that Chicago’s punctuation rules don’t apply to email salutations. While I am glad that Chicago addressed this issue, until the issue is included in the print manual itself, I strongly caution against using nontraditional punctuation in a formal email salutation; after all, the recipient of the formal email may think that your nontraditional punctuation is a typo or think that you are a punctuation renegade (which may not be the persona you want to present in a formal email).
1. Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 748; The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 6.66.
2. The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 6.53.