‘Correspondence Etiquette’ (or: a potentially never-ending topic. All sorts of language geeks welcome)

Dear Sir/Madam,


God knows how many times most of you have come across this opening in their life. Which turns out to be wrong, as it usually means the writer doesn’t KNOW who to refer to.

Nevertheless, it sounds familiar if you have worked/still work in an office environment or if you deal with legal documents on a regular basis.

Well, this is just the starting point for a topic which I would now call ‘Correspondence Etiquette‘, in the attempt to include both hard copy letters AND e-mails.

A quite sticky topic indeed – who proved to be a very modern and up-to-date one in the recent weeks – about which most people have no worries whatsoever.
When I say ‘most people’ I clearly mean ‘non-linguists‘. I don’t want to ostracise anybody from the discussion here, but let’s face it: it can be true that, say, MY MUM may find that grammar and etiquette are ‘such a fascinating’ topic, but it is also equally true that she would NOT feel the urge to start talking about it over… dinner, for instance. OK, OK, she may want to be able to tell what’s what (how can we deny that right to anybody?), but truth is… she will never cringe at a badly written letter. Let alone e-mails – she doesn’t even use e-mails… O_o

What I mean is: this is a topic for language and grammar geeks (ie. us).

Apologies for the lengthy introduction, I just wanted to get to the my point thoroughlly. Which is: chances are that those of you who write/teach/talk/interpret/translate (and the likes) for a living, have recently had the chance to listen to BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Today’, that discussed the rights and wrongs of email etiquette. Specifically, this was focusing on opening and closing salutations.
I had a very entertaining and pleasant exchange on the matter on Twitter, where fellow linguists – like @MarianDougan and @golanguages, to mention a couple – shared their interesting views. GoLanguages also was quicker than me and posted this

At school, in Italy (circa 1993, when e-mails were yet to come our way…) I was thought (and therefore decline any responsibility) the following:

the English ‘dear‘ (caro/a, mio/a caro/a, carissimo/a etc.) is to be used strictly for formal letters (ie. mostly addressed to people we do not know personally/well enough or towards which some degree of solemnity is required), to pay respect to the elderly (like in Dear Grandfather… = Caro nonno….) or, last but not least, to open letters addressed to the loved ones. Well, the range of application varies but this is pretty much what they told us back then.

As for the informal approach to letters (and now e-mails), this realm is (still) dominated by the universally know Italian term ‘ciao‘. Originally from the Venice dialect, ciao is OK for kids, adults, teens and elderly alike, depending on the degree of closeness and friendship.

In business situations, ‘ciao‘ is in fact a good way to deal with clients, too: if they’re young and easy-going, they would be the first to choose ‘ciao’ right after the first contact with you. So, if their first e-mail or letter reads:

Gent.ma Dott.ssa Aliperta,

con la presente Le scrivo al fine di…

PorgendoLe i miei più distinti saluti, attendo fiducioso un Suo riscontro quanto prima.

In fede,

Dott. Mario Rossi

… the second one may, on the other hand, look totally different:

Gentile Valeria (or why not, Ciao Valeria),

ti scrivo due righe perché avrei bisogno di un preventivo per questo file, con carattere di urgenza.

Attendo tue notizie,

Grazie, a presto


Why? Well, one reason is that in the meantime you may have talked to them on the phone (some Italians still do like to speak to ‘real’ people), both ‘guestimating’ the other person’s age, based on his/her voice, or maybe they are particularly funny and friendly people and it just comes naturally. Whicever the case, in no time you/the client will revert to the ‘tu‘ form where ‘darsi del tu‘ means to address the other person informally, in friendly terms.

The only exception may be the case where one of the two (usually me 😀 ) is much younger than the other. It will then be up to elder person in the conversation to adopt the informal or formal approach. This situation is crucial: some people keep on addressing each other formally for YEARS!

I think the current Internet-based global business environment we live in has dramatically changed the way businessmen and businesswomen interact, forcing them to be flexible and less ‘stiff’. Nonetheless, clients are a sophisticated and complex breed and some, like it or not, may still apply the ‘old school’ rule, i.e. stick to ‘gentile, gentilissimo/a, egregio/a‘ in all correspondence to you. I personally receive a lot of e-mails featuring ‘gentile‘ (in medio stat virtus, a good compromise between the über-formal ‘egregio’ and the fairly colloquial ‘ciao’) but I cannot deny I have a few contacts who still enjoy the tones of a classical, old-fashioned formal letter.

Closing an e-mail or letter can be a painful situation. Again, in school I was told that the formal way was ‘in fede‘ – which, as my teacher explained, could translate pretty much either Sincerely or Yours Faithfully/Truly, with no great distinction.
Lovers (both happily in love and desperately broken-hearted) would possibly end their correspondence with a romantic ‘tuo‘ or ‘tua‘ + name = yours + name. In any case, this is strictly confined to “love and those drugs” sort of situations.

As a general rule, among the most acceptable, common solutions to close an e-mail we have:

Best wishes = distinti saluti, cordiali saluti
Best regards = distinti saluti, cordiali saluti
Warmest regards = con i miei più cordiali saluti

all followed by your signature / position etc. e.g. Best wishes, Valeria (Aliperta)

but I have to say I have also come across those with capitalized initials, e.g. Best Wishes – even though I am not knowledgeable enough to speculate on their trend.

Next in line, the ones I personally would never use…


(…exactly, just those. Plain and simple.)

also available in their acronym forms, more often than expected: BW, BR, WR,… *cringing*

Yet to conclude… last but not least:

cheers, a term that I will always associate to the so-called ‘pub etiquette‘ rather than ‘e-mail etiquette‘.

Well, how to conclude, then?

I think this time I’d go for ‘bestest BR to all’



PS: below the translations for the sample e-mails above:

*Dear Miss Aliperta,

we hereby request…


Looking forward to your feedback as soon as possible.


Mr. Mario Rossi

**Hi Valeria,

I am dropping you a line as I would need you to provide me with a quote for this file. It is rather urgent.

Please let me know as soon as you can.


Best regards,



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