When it comes to writing emails, there is a lot of confusion on proper etiquette. For instance, when should you use “Dear Smith” in an email, instead of “Dear Mr. Smith?” Should you ever do this? And if so, when?
We’ll cover the answer in this post, and provide some explanation as to why the answer is what it is. After all, knowledge is power!
When to Use “Dear (Last Name)” in Email
It is only appropriate to use “Dear (last name)” in an email if you are addressing someone from a culture where it is appropriate to do so. It is generally considered inappropriate to do this in English, where formality demands that you should address individuals as “Mr., Ms., or Mrs.”
In English, there are really only two ways to address someone in an email. For the sake of these examples, let’s say we are writing an email to someone named John Smith. In the first case, let’s assume that John Smith is a close personal friend. In that case, you could just say “Dear John.”
That is acceptable because it is an informal letter between you and a friend. However, if John Smith was your boss at work, you would address them as “Dear Mr. Smith” because that is considered formal and respectful in the English language.
The only time you would use “Dear Smith” in an email is if John Smith was from a culture where addressing someone solely by their last name is considered normal and appropriate. For instance, in Japan, it is normal to address people that you are not particularly close to by last name.
But on the other hand, there is an argument to be made that one should use English grammar and conventions if you are communicating in English. If adhering to such an argument, then you should only address John Smith as “Dear John” as a friend or “Dear Mr. Smith” in a formal setting.
Is “Dear (Last Name)” Grammatically Correct?
Technically, there is nothing wrong grammatically with saying “Dear (last name).” It does not break any particular rules of English grammar. It is merely considered inappropriate or informal. This means you could use it without being grammatically incorrect. But of course, it’s not recommended to do so.
At best, you will come across as clueless and overly friendly. At worst, you may be perceived as disrespectful. Because of this, while you would be in the clear grammatically, it’s better to just not do this, as it doesn’t work in a formal or informal setting in English.
Origin of “Dear (Last Name)”
While it’s impossible to say for certain, it is likely that “Dear (last name)” is a phrase that was unintentionally coined by a foreigner whose first language as not English, particularly a foreigner from a country where addressing someone by last name alone is considered normal.
For example, in Japan, it is social standard to address people that you are not very close to by last name. A Japanese person who has learned English may unwittingly say “Dear Smith” in an email without realizing that the customs do not translate perfectly between cultures.
That said, there is no concrete evidence as to the exact origin of “Dear (last name).” However, this is a likely explanation to take into consideration.
Alternatives to “Dear (Last Name)”
OK, so we’ve established that it would be inappropriate to say “Dear Smith” in an email to someone whose last name was Smith. But what are the alternatives, if you can’t use that? Fortunately, there are plenty of options, and we’ll go over all of them in some detail.
Dear Mr./Ms. (last name)
This is the most common and formal way of addressing someone in an email or letter. Assuming someone whose name is John Smith, it would almost never be considered poor form to address them as “Mr. Smith.” It is acceptable to address anyone in this manner if the letter is formal in nature.
That said, if you are writing a letter that is not particularly formal (such as to a friend or someone who doesn’t care much for decorum), “Mr. Smith” could be considered almost too formal. Either way, here are some examples:
- Dear Mr. Smith, it is a pleasure to work with you today.
- Dear Mrs. White, I am reaching out to you in order to inquire about tomorrow’s venue.
Dear (First Name)
If you were on particularly close terms with the person you are writing to, it would be acceptable to say “Dear John” (assuming their name is John Smith). It’s very informal and friendly. If you would address someone by their first name in a normal conversation, it is safe to address them like this in an email.
Some examples of how this could be used in an email are as follows:
- Dear Cody, thanks for inviting us over to the party last night!
- Dear Kyla, are you interested in spending the night with us tomorrow?
Dear Mr./Ms. (First Name)
Assuming someone’s name was John Smith, it would be a little odd to address them in an email as “Mr. John,” though you could get away with it in some scenarios. Some individuals prefer to be addressed by first name even in formal scenarios, and this would be appropriate for that type of person.
Otherwise, it could be suitable in a situation where you feel it is necessary to be a little formal, but not overly stuffy. But if you’re unsure, it’s safer just to either go to one extreme or the other. Here are some examples of how “Dear Mr./Ms. (First Name)” could be used in an email:
- Dear Mr. Kyle, thank you for speaking to my class today.
- Dear Ms. Tanya, I wanted to ask you about something you said in today’s meeting.
Dear Mr./Ms. (First Name) (Last Name)
If you wanted to go to the absolute height of formality, you could say “Dear Mr. John Smith” when writing an email to someone. Thing is, this would likely be considered too much in most cases. Usually, this kind of address is done by companies and corporations giving out official mail or emails.
But if you felt that it was appropriate to use someone’s full name along with a prefix like this, you could do it. Here are some examples of how you could use an address like this in a sentence:
- Dear Mr. Liam Stones, we are contacting you about your utility bill.
- Dear Mrs. Riley Cho, this is a response to an inquiry you made last week.
Dear (Full Name)
Finally, you could address someone (John Smith, in this case) as “Dear John Smith,” using their full name without any form of honorific or prefix. This strikes a nice balance between being casual and formal. It doesn’t sound too stuffy, but still puts a decent amount of respect on the full name of the recipient.
Of course, you should be careful with who you address like this: generally speaking, if someone has expressed that they wish to be called “Mr.” or “Mrs.” that is how you address them in all correspondence. Here are some examples of “Dear (full name) in a sentence:
- Dear Chris Wilson, we hope you are having a wonderful day today!
- Dear Courtney Cardenez, are you interested in a sale at your favorite store?
You should generally not use “Dear (last name)” when emailing someone. In English, you should either address someone by first name if they are a friend or by “Mr./Ms.” is the message is formal. You would only use “Dear (last name) if addressing a foreigner from a country where that is normal.
Martin holds a Master’s degree in Finance and International Business. He has six years of experience in professional communication with clients, executives, and colleagues. Furthermore, he has teaching experience from Aarhus University. Martin has been featured as an expert in communication and teaching on Forbes and Shopify. Read more about Martin here.