“I am teaching the salutations used in email. Should I still be teaching Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms, or should I simply tell students to avoid them?”

Quick answer: English today opts for gender-neutral salutations. Use Dear + first name (+ family name) in most contexts, but in academia consider using a title (Professor, Doctor, Dr). When replying, take your cue from the other person.

In learning email salutations, and how to use them, learners are essentially acquiring pragmatic competence in that context in an L2. Pragmatic competence can be defined as “the ability to use language appropriately in a social context” [Taguchi, 2009]: these contexts are therefore medium (i.e. speech, writing) and language dependent.

Cultural norms

Learners are likely to have full pragmatic competence in their first language, but as cultural norms in terms of forms of address, levels of formality, and degrees of distance between interlocutors may differ across cultures, learners may experience difficulties with ‘pragmatic interference’, where the norms of one culture are misapplied to another. It is therefore important for learners to have access to knowledge about degrees formality and distance existing between participants in an email exchange as well as to the language they can use to express these.

Avoid gendered language

While English has traditionally used differing forms of address for female correspondents depending on (known or assumed) marital status rather than age, the situation today (writing in 2023) is less clear cut. The degree of distance existing between correspondents in formal email exchanges has on the one hand lessened in the business context; on the other hand, gender expression is more fluid, and society as a whole is less willing to assign gender-specific pronouns to an individual without reference to their own expressed preference. The careers advice website indeed.com cautions writers against the use of gendered language altogether.

Job applications and correspondence with tutors

Two contexts in which learners might commonly find themselves in need of writing an email are job applications (business emails) and in correspondence with an academic advisor or tutor. Following the precedent of avoiding gendered language, whilst still maintaining appropriate social distance in each case, possible guidelines could be as follows:

  • Academic titles: if the addressee holds an academic title (Dr, Professor) this should be used in the salutation. In English, academic titles are gender-neutral and their use confers the degree of distance/respect generally associated with tutor/student relations in the UK. Learners should be aware that these titles are not honorifics in English.
  • Preferred title: if an individual has stated a preferred title in their own email signature, this should be used in any correspondence. (However, preferred pronouns do not imply a preferred title: if someone uses she/her pronouns, no assumption can be made about marital status.)
  • Full or first name: indeed.com states that using ‘Dear + first/full name’ is an acceptable salutation in business correspondence. Again, gender-neutrality is maintained and this approach allows the addressee to reply giving their own preferred title (as part of the email signature) should they so wish.

What is also important is therefore to raise learners’ awareness of reading for personal detail when processing an email they have received: not just the main body of the text but the email signature is of interest in order to achieve pragmatic competence and maintain the face of all correspondents. Titles such as Ms, Mrs, Miss, or Mr may not be entirely obsolete, but their use is more charged than was previously the case, and alternatives exist which learners could use more safely: awareness of the social implications of one title or another is as important for learners to master as the language itself. 

Kirstie Jackson Wilms worked as a face-to-face General English trainer in Oxford before moving to Germany in 2010, where she continued to teach (mainly) Business English online. She joined the Publishing team of an online training provider in 2018. Kirstie is CELTA and DELTA qualified and is currently working towards an MA in Professional Development in Language Education (MA PDLE). Her professional interests are in developing learner autonomy through materials writing and classroom practice. In her free time she enjoys hiking, reading crime novels, and watching cricket. Check out her blog: https://tefl45.wordpress.com/

https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/career-development/professional-email-salutations [accessed 20.05.2023]

Taguchi, N. (2009). Pragmatic competence in Japanese as a second language: An introduction. In N. Taguchi (ed.), Pragmatic competence, 1-18. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter