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Piece of Advice: Never start a letter "To Whom it May Concern"

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markses Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 12:53 PM
Original message
Piece of Advice: Never start a letter "To Whom it May Concern"
This stilted opening has seen its day come and go, and now lives on in a kind of bizarre twilight. It does not increase the formality of the letter - as it once may have - instead providing the reader with a pretty good reason not to read further. It concerns, of course, nobody, or at least not yet, at the beginning of the letter. It does, however, come off as pompous, or paint you as somebody who does not know the current forms, or someone who is trying to sound formal without really pulling it off. That is, the greeting handicaps your purpose from the beginning. End it. Stop it. Don't do it.

Just as some background, I taught business writing for several years when I was in graduate school (for badly needed cash, ok?), so I've read through the major textbooks and the literature. I've also worked extendsively in fairly formal business settings (stodgy old law and securities firms). "To Whom it May Concern" is cringe-worthy, for rizzeal. It's not just a "pet-peeve." It is functionally counter-productive.

So, on to solutions. If you have an idea of the role or function of the person to whom you are writing, use that. Obviously, if you have or can get a name, use that:

Dear Ms. Smith:

To the Customer Service Representative:

Or, use the name of the department:

To the Human Resources Department:

I have to tell you, and in my experience with business letter writing it is pretty common, "To Whom it May Concern" makes people take you less seriously; it reduces your credibility at the outset. So, don't use it.
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TeeYiYi Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 12:57 PM
Response to Original message
1. I don't know what came over you . . .
. . . to share this tidbit of information out of the clear blue at this time . . . but . . .

You're Absolutely Right! This is important information for anyone looking for a job and sending out resumes and cover letters. Great timing. Thanks markses. :thumbsup:

TYY
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cheezus Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 01:00 PM
Response to Original message
2. nice tip, but perhaps more Lounge than GD?
I'd move it
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Village Idiot Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 01:02 PM
Response to Reply #2
3. with the number of layoffs this summer,
you might want to put it under "Breaking News!!!";^)
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markses Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 01:29 PM
Response to Reply #2
10. Hopefully, folks see this before they fire off emails and letters
As they are being urged to do...in GD.

Perhaps more appropriate for the Lounge, but I was responding to the several urgings to write so-and-so, and some of the sample letters placed in those GD threads.
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aquart Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 01:02 PM
Response to Original message
4. Thank you. The department name is an excellent idea.
To Whom It May Concern makes me cringe, too.
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2Design Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 01:08 PM
Response to Original message
5. thanks and tell us more...start a thread in DU lounge once a week
on tips for good business writing. Maybe each week have a different subject.

One on resume cover letter writing and hints on getting them read and whom to send to.

Another week on resumes
* memos
* writing to the editor
* writing manuals
* etc
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quinnox Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 01:11 PM
Response to Original message
6. Very good lesson
I like stuff like this, seriously. The little things do matter.
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hlthe2b Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 01:11 PM
Response to Original message
7. Question....
If there is an attention line in the recipient address
(e.g., Jo Blow Industries Customer Service Department
xxxx Clifton Street
Houston, Tx)

You suggest, Dear Customer Service Representative (or Manager), which is my usual approach.

However, sometimes there is no clear department for small businesses and it may not be clear whether you are addressing a male or female. Is Dear Sir or Madam (which sounds very old fashioned) also out of vogue or considered inappropriate? An alternative would certainly be "Dear Representative of Jo Blow Industries," but that would be fairly redundant given the recipient address....
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markses Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 01:25 PM
Response to Reply #7
9. In that case
I think "Dear Representative" would work. People are of several minds on this. The representative is not really "dear" to you, so should "dear" be used? Then again, "dear" does soften the tone a bit. I tend to lean toward the more formal "To" in such situations, but it really has to be judged by context and audience.

As far as "Dear Sir or Madam," I think that obsolete as well (and participates in the "Dear" problem, to boot.

Honestly, if the company is really that small, I suggest calling them and getting a name of an owner or manager, even to write them afterwards. A personal touch is not a bad idea when dealing with a small company; you are assured that the letter will be directed, even if it is subsequently delegated to somebody else in the organization.
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gibbyman Donating Member (78 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 01:22 PM
Response to Original message
8. WELL
You Don't Say....... MY, MY, MY
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Mechatanketra Donating Member (903 posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 01:33 PM
Response to Original message
11. Huh. This is really a problem?
I agree, it's cringe-worthy -- the only places I've ever seen THIMC used is on stereotypical suicide notes. For that reason alone, I'd have assumed people would intuitively avoid it. :-)
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markses Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 02:19 PM
Response to Reply #11
17. Check the "I just sent this letter!" posts throughout GD
And you'll find out differently. It's only rhetorical suicide in those cases. ;-)
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Eloriel Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 01:38 PM
Response to Original message
12. And this is in G.D. because -- ??
That said, I will also tell you that there are times when you have absolutely no idea what the job function or department is of the person(s) you're addressing. Or, there may be a number of people/functionaries who will see it. These situations are rare, but they happen. IOW, there are times when the ONLY remaining choice is "To Whom It May Concern," unless you want to make something else up.
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markses Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 02:18 PM
Response to Reply #12
16. First
This is in GD because there are many calls to write letters or emails to various organizations currently circulating in GD. If you have a problem with the placement, feel free to alert the moderators.

Second, I'd argue that "To whom, etc." is an archaic form that simply should not be used anymore. I find it hard to believe that you would have cause to write a letter without having some sense of the role of the person who should or will be reading it within an organization, at least as an initial reader, or point of contact. I've never yet written such a letter, and I write a helluva lotta business letters. Generally, if a number of people in different roles will have the letter addressed to them, you will know these people by name or function in advance (the cover letter for a formal report, for example). In this case, you are generally sending different versions of the letter to the various functionaries. If you are only sending one letter, you address the letter to the person who will receive it at point of entry, or to the specific role or person who should receive it. How it is desseminated after that is another story, but your salutation need not contemplate it (since most people reading it subsequently will understand that it is addressed to the point of entry or contact person).

"To Whom it May Concern" is like saying "Verily I say unto theee." It's archaic and obsolete, and there is no situation in which it should be used.
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TeeYiYi Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 02:38 PM
Response to Reply #16
20. Verily I Say Unto Thee . . .
. . . that's funny. I live in Utah. I think I'll try that it just might work. ;)

TYY
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berry Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 01:38 PM
Response to Original message
13. Do you have any advice about how to begin letters of recommendation?
Edited on Mon Jun-14-04 01:43 PM by berry
I mean the ones that are generic, to be filed for future use in a college office. So there's no knowing who they may be sent to. I have to admit to using the awful "To Whom..." I'm quite willing to stop (I agree it's cringe-worthy), but is there a more acceptable (but still generic)salutation?

All I can think of is to just write it not as a letter, but as an affidavit-sort-of document.... Any ideas?

Oh, and I too would be glad to find more posts like this. Quite interesting and useful! Thanks.

on edit--just saw your post #10, and now I see why you posted this in GD. *Definitely* this is good advice when writing letters to pols and news outlets!!
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markses Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 02:37 PM
Response to Reply #13
19. Excellent question
Edited on Mon Jun-14-04 02:40 PM by markses
The letter of recommendation (for college files) is especially tricky for the very reasons you cite: you don't know to whom they will be directed. There are, however, several fixes by which to avoid the dreadful To Whom etc.

1) You know the purpose of the recommendation - Here I'm assuming that you know the general purpose of the recommendation (employment, graduate school, study abroad or some other selective program, such as the Peace Corps). I really think it is hard to write general recommendations for which you do not know the purpose, because in those cases it is difficult to select out the candidate's best qualities for the given purpose; the candidate's best qualities for employment (particularly within a specific industry) may be far different from a candidate's best qualities for graduate school, or the Peace Corps. If a student or employee has let you know the purpose, then the salutation is easy:

Dear Employer: (or)
Dear Admissions Officer: (or)
Dear Program Officer:

Some folks use "Dear Potential Employer:" which I think is equally useful and perhaps even more respectful.

2) You do not know the purpose of the recommendation - Here the problem is more severe, and it goes deeper than the salutation. You have to be vague enough so that the recommendation could be used for either employment, school, or selective program. I think the problem with the salutation in this case is just a symptom of the deeper problem: How can you recommend a candidate for such different activities? Does your recommendationreally carry weight if it must be so general? I tend to think not. The whole point of the recommendation is that you think the candidate is particularly suited for some sphere of activity, so a general recommendation tends to be weaker than a specific one. I generally cautioned students against it when I was teaching. However, it can obviously be pulled off, though you have to pan out to the most general (and therefore least noteworthy) characteristics (hard worker, intuitive, etc., with examples general enough to apply across the board). The letter as a whole will have this kind of generalized feel, so the salutation will as well:

Dear Employer or Program Officer:

Here, "program officer" is used as a general term that can apply to admissions officers as well, and helps you avoid the increasingly vague "Dear Employer, Admissions Officer, or Program Officer" ("the person I'm recommending is confused and not goal-driven" this salutation says). Even this soft vagueness, however, is to be preferred over "To Whom..." which merely compounds the vague recommendation with a diminishment of the recommenders credibility.
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berry Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 09:27 PM
Response to Reply #19
22. Excellent answer!
Very thoughtful. You're absolutely right that the problem isn't limited to the salutation. And in fact, now, in the internet age with e-mails so easy, most students can keep in touch (or get back in touch) to request better-tailored recs even from profs who've moved on. Still, there is the occasional request for the on-file generality, and I like your suggestions for handling it. Thanks.
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FlaGranny Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 01:44 PM
Response to Original message
14. While I see your point,
doctors often do this. A patient comes to them and asks the doctor to write them a letter, no recipient specified. "Doc, can you write me a letter that I've been sick, so I can get a refund for my tickets?" I can't tell you how many times I've heard that one. The doc always writes "To Whom it May Concern" and mails the letter off to the patient to give it to whomever he wants. What is your suggestion for this one? I guess the doc could make sure the staff asks for a name and address, but often the patient does not have one at hand.

I must add, doctors do not take kindly to spending the time trying to find out this kind of thing. Are YOU going to be the one to call the doc and tell him that "To Whom It May Concern" is not appropriate and ask him to find out to whom the letter should be addressed? Ha, I dare you. ;-)
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markses Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 02:22 PM
Response to Reply #14
18. I'd tell them in a second
They have their professional expertise, and other folks have other professional expertises. If a doctor saw me attempting to perform a surgery, I'm sure he or she would have something to say about it. Same thing.
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BiggJawn Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 02:02 PM
Response to Original message
15. How about "Hey Dumb-ass!" especially for your cable company?
Bet they REALLY take you seriously if you start off "Yo."

We were taught never to write "Dear Sir", because the person reading it may not be a "sir". Same for "Dear Madam", unless you're writing to Heidi Fleiss...Our instructor showed us how easy it is to find out the name of the person who SHOULD be reading your letter (everyone knows Mr. Smith's secretary Griselda reads his mail first, but you wouldn't say "Sup, Grizzy-bay-bee?") and that was in the day before the internet...

Guess maybe "Hey, Dumb-ass" would work. "Dear Numb-nutz" wouldn't work, it's too "gender-specific" again, much like "Dear Sir"... :P

but if it's not a complaint letter?

Hmmm......"Yo, Homie!" could work... :7
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Lisa Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Jun-14-04 04:53 PM
Response to Original message
21. oh, and don't forget "To WHO it May Concern"
Which turns off even more people! One of my students had a form recommendation letter starting off that way, which he had composed and wanted me to sign -- I suggested to him that this wasn't a good idea.

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