Business English Writing: How to Start an Email

Dear Sir? Dear Mr. Jones? Hello Robert? Hi Bob? What’s the best way to start your business emails? It may seem like a small part of business English, but salutations like these are incredibly important: they set the tone for the rest of the email.

An important purpose of most business writing is to build strong, friendly relationships with new people. So over a series of emails, your relationship can move, little by little, from a very formal level to a more friendly level. The easiest way to manage your progress through these levels of formality is through salutations and sign-offs.

How do I start a business email to somebody I don’t know?

Let’s say you’re emailing a man, Robert Jones, for the first time. You need a high level of formality, so the best way to start your email is usually “Dear Mr. Jones.” If you’re emailing a woman, you should start “Dear Ms. Jones.” Let’s call this Level-1 formality. (In earlier times, it was normal to use “Dear Mrs. Jones” for a married woman and “Dear Miss Jones” for an unmarried woman. But many people nowadays think these salutations are old-fashioned and even rude — in modern business writing, it really isn’t important who is married and who isn’t.) Of course, if you’re emailing a person with an official title, like Dr. or Prof., start your email with that title instead of Mr. or Ms.

If you don’t know the name of the other person, you can start with “Dear Sir/Madam,” but it’s a lot better to try to find out their name before writing your email. It usually doesn’t take long to check somebody’s name on the internet (e.g. using a networking site like LinkedIn), and it makes a much better impression. Of course, sometimes you might know the other person’s name, but not whether it’s a man or a woman. Or you might not be sure which part of their name is their surname — first names don’t always come first! In such cases, you could simply write their full name (Dear Jo Smith). But again, it’s much nicer if you take the time to check first, and it doesn’t usually take long.

Now you need to make your first decision. At the end of your email, after your complimentary close (e.g. Best regards), you can sign off with either your full name (e.g. Elizabeth Williams) or your first name (e.g. Elizabeth). A full-name sign-off is at Level 1, i.e. the same level of formality as your salutation. But a first-name sign-off shows that you’re ready to move to a slightly less formal level — let’s call it Level 2. Of course, the other person still needs to know your full name, but you can put that in your email signature (together with your job title and contact details), not your sign-off.

How do I start a reply to a business email?

So how should you start a reply to a Level-2 sign-off? Again, you have a choice. You can stay at the same level of formality (e.g. Dear Elizabeth), to show you’re trying to be friendly. Or you can move back to Level 1 (e.g. Dear Ms. Williams), to keep things formal. Just be careful, though: if you also sign off your reply at Level 1 (e.g. Best regards, Robert Jones), you’ll start to sound a little cold. The other person might take this as a signal that you don’t want to build a friendly relationship.

By the time we get to the third or fourth emails, the signals should be clear. If the relationship is going well, you can start with a Level-3 salutation, like “Hello Robert,” or even risk Level 4 (e.g. Hi Elizabeth). Before long, you can start all your emails with the simplest of Level-5 salutations, “Hi” or “Hello.” That’s when you know you’re no longer writing to a stranger but communicating with a business partner or a friend.

The trick is always to stay on the same level, or go one higher, than the previous email. If you jump straight from Level 2 (Dear Elizabeth) to Level 5 (Hi), for example, it seems a little unprofessional. Most people don’t mind, of course, but a few people might think you’re not showing enough respect. Similarly, if you reply to a Level-4 email (Hi Elizabeth) by going back down to Level 2 (Dear Robert) or even 1 (Dear Mr. Jones), it will seem cold and unfriendly. The other person might worry that you don’t like them or aren’t interested in them as a person. But if you can get this little dance right, you’ll quickly find that your business relationships will grow strong and healthy.

Note: Articles published here are done so without the learning materials and functionality provided on our native platform. To continue improving your business English with The Wall Street Journal, please register for your free 30 day trial and Learning Team Newsletter.

Originally published at

Like what you read? Give Newsmart a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.