• Become tutor
  • Find tutor

If you’ve ever received a letter from somebody you don’t know, it probably started with “Dear Sir/Madam.” This is a polite way to address people whose names we do not know. It’s far more common in letters than in emails, but if you want to increase the formality of your emails, you can start them as such.

When to use “Dear Sir or Madam”

We use this formal opening when we do not know who we are writing to. You may be writing to a company or organization or a specific department or branch within an enterprise, but you do not know who will receive the letter. You might not know the person’s name because it is a large organization with several employees who may receive your letter or simply because you couldn’t find the name of the person who will deal with your inquiry. In this case, it is always appropriate to use Dear Sir/Madam.

Similarly, you can use this letter opening when sending letters to many people, such as on a mailing list. For example, when sending out a formal letter to residents of a local constituency, each person will receive the letter individually; therefore, a special salutation is required, yet it would be difficult to find and write the names of each constituent.

“Dear Sir or Madam”—Alternatives

The most popular alternative, equally formal, if not more formal, is “To whom it may concern.” Once again, this is perfect for situations where you do not know who you are writing to. The only slight nuance between the two opening phrases is that “Dear Sir or Madam” is ideal when you’re addressing one particular person, while “To whom it may concern” is better for a whole department.

For example, if you’re writing to the Admissions office of a university, you would use “to whom it may concern.” If your letter is addressed to the Head of Admissions, you will use “Dear Sir or Madam.

If you wish to contact your company’s human resources department, you should use “to whom it may concern”; however, if you’re addressing the Employee relations manager, you should opt for “dear sir/madam.”

Formal alternative

If you know who you are writing to, the most simple and appropriate form of address is the person’s name. You should avoid first names unless you know them well and are first-name-terms in real life. Using “Dear Mr (or Dear Mrs)” with a person’s surname is perfectly acceptable in all circumstances where you know the person’s name, whether you have regular contact with them or have never met them.

Examples of when to use “Dear Mr/Mrs + Surname” include your teachers, your boss or work superiors that you do not know well, or a person you’ve never met but have found their name online, in a directory, or are responding to correspondence where they signed off using their name.

If the person has another title, such as Doctor or Professor, you should favor this over Mr/Mrs, for example, “Dear Dr. Smith.”

Informal alternative

You can simply use the addressee’s first name in emails and letters to people you know. You can open with “Dear,” “To,” or an even more casual “Hello” or “Hi.”

Letter endings

It’s not only the greeting that you have to worry about when writing formal letters. You must pay just as much attention to the letter ending. When you don’t know who you’re writing to, you should sign off with “Yours faithfully.” On the other hand, when you have used the addressee’s name, you should sign off with “Yours sincerely.”

Dear Sir or Madam—Yours faithfully.
To whom it may concern—Yours faithfully.
Dear Mr. Washington—Yours sincerely.
Dear Dr. Amanda Jones—Yours sincerely.

Learn English with Personalized Path and AI-powered practice sessions
learning path Start for free
learning path