The Parts Of A Letter

The mechanical construction of a letter, whether social, friendly, or business, falls into six or seven parts. This arrangement has become established by the best custom. The divisions are as follows:

1. Heading

2. Inside address (Always used in business letters but omitted in social and friendly letters)

3. Salutation

4. Body

5. Complimentary close

6. Signature

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1. The Heading

The heading of a letter contains the street address, city, state, and the date. The examples below will illustrate:

2018 Calumet Street or 1429 Eighth Avenue
Chicago, Ill. New York, N.Y.
May 12, 1921 March 8, 1922

In the business letterhead appear the name of the firm, its address, and the kind of business engaged in In the business letterhead appear the name of the firm, its address, and the kind of business engaged in

When the heading is typewritten or written by hand, it is placed at the top of the first letter sheet close to the right-hand margin. It should begin about in the center, that is, it should extend no farther to the left than the center of the page. If a letter is short and therefore placed in the center of a page, the heading will of course be lower and farther in from the edge than in a longer letter. But it should never be less than an inch from the top and three quarters of an inch from the edge.

In the business letterhead appear the name of the firm, its address, and the kind of business engaged in. The last is often omitted in the case of widely known firms or where the nature of the business is indicated by the name of the firm.

In the case of a printed or engraved letterhead, the written heading should consist only of the date. The printed date-line is not good. To mix printed and written or typed characters detracts from the neat appearance of the letter.

In social stationery the address, when engraved, should be about three quarters of an inch from the top of the sheet, either in the center or at the right-hand corner. When the address is engraved, the date may be written at the end of the last sheet, from the left-hand corner, directly after the signature.

Letterheads used by a life insurance company, a law firm, and three associations Letterheads used by a life insurance company, a law firm, and three associations

In the case of widely known firms, or where the name of the firm itself indicates it, reference to the nature of the business is often omitted from letterheads In the case of widely known firms, or where the name of the firm itself indicates it, reference to the nature of the business is often omitted from letterheads

2. The Inside Address

In social correspondence what is known as the inside address is omitted. In all business correspondence it is obviously necessary. The name and address of the person to whom a business letter is sent is placed at the left-hand side of the letter sheet below the heading, about an inch from the edge of the sheet, that is, leaving the same margin as in the body of the letter. The distance below the heading will be decided by the length and arrangement of the letter. The inside address consists of the name of the person or of the firm and the address. The address should comprise the street number, the city, and the state. The state may, in the case of certain very large cities, be omitted. Either of the following styles may be used—the straight edge or the diagonal:

Wharton & Whaley Co.

Madison Avenue & Forty-Fifth Street

New York, N. Y.


Wharton & Whaley Co.

Madison Avenue & Forty-Fifth Street

New York, N. Y.

Punctuation at the ends of the lines of the heading and the address may or may not be used. There is a growing tendency to omit it.

The inside address may be written at the end of the letter, from the left, below the signature. This is done in official letters, both formal and informal. These official letters are further described under the heading "Salutation" and in the chapter on stationery.

3. The Salutation

Social Letters

The salutation, or complimentary address to the person to whom the letter is written, in a social letter should begin at the left-hand side of the sheet about half an inch below the heading and an inch from the edge of the paper. The form "My dear" is considered in the United States more formal than "Dear." Thus, when we write to a woman who is simply an acquaintance, we should say "My dear Mrs. Evans." If we are writing to someone more intimate we should say "Dear Mrs. Evans." The opposite is true in England—that is, "My dear Mrs. Evans" would be written to a friend and "Dear Mrs. Evans" to a mere acquaintance. In writing to an absolute stranger, the full name should be written and then immediately under it, slightly to the right, "Dear Madam" or "Dear Sir." For example:

Mrs. John Evans,

Dear Madam:


Mr. William Sykes,

Dear Sir:

The salutation is followed by a colon or a comma.

Business Letters

In business letters the forms of salutation in common use are: "Dear Sir," "Gentlemen," "Dear Madam," and "Mesdames." In the still more formal "My dear Sir" and "My dear Madam" note that the second word is not capitalized. A woman, whether married or unmarried, is addressed "Dear Madam." If the writer of the letter is personally acquainted with the person addressed, or if they have had much correspondence, he may use the less formal address, as "My dear Mr. Sykes."

The salutation follows the inside address and preserves the same margin as does the first line of the address. The following are correct forms:

White Brothers Co. White Brothers Co.
591 Fifth Avenue 591 Fifth Avenue
New York or New York
Gentlemen: Gentlemen:

"Dear Sirs" is no longer much used—although in many ways it seems to be better taste.

In the case of a firm or corporation with a single name, as Daniel Davey, Inc., or of a firm or corporation consisting of men and women, the salutation is also "Gentlemen" (or "Dear Sirs"). In letters to or by government officials the extremely formal "Sir" or "Sirs" is used. These are known as formal official letters.

The informal official letter is used between business men and concerns things not in the regular routine of business affairs. These letters are decidedly informal and may be quite conversational in tone.

The use of a name alone as a salutation is not correct, as:

Mr. John Evans:

I have your letter of—

Forms of salutation to be avoided are "Dear Miss," "Dear Friend," "Messrs."

In memoranda between members of a company the salutations are commonly omitted—but these memoranda are not letters. They are messages of a "telegraphic" nature.


In the matter of titles it has been established by long custom that a title of some kind be used with the name of the individual or firm. The more usual titles are:

"Mr.," "Mrs.," "Miss," "Messrs.," "Reverend," "Doctor," "Professor," and "Honorable." "Esquire," written "Esq." is used in England instead of the "Mr." in common use in the United States. Although still adhered to by some in this country, its use is rather restricted to social letters. Of course it is never used with "Mr." Write either "Mr. George L. Ashley" or "George L. Ashley, Esq."

The title "Messrs." is used in addressing two or more persons who are in business partnership, as "Messrs. Brown and Clark" or "Brown & Clark"; but The National Cash Register Company, for example, should not be addressed "Messrs. National Cash Register Company" but "The National Cash Register Company." The form "Messrs." is an abbreviation of "Messieurs" and should not be abbreviated in any way other than "Messrs." The title "Miss" is not recognized as an abbreviation and is not followed by a period.

Honorary degrees, such as "M.D.," "Ph.D.," "M.A.," "B.S.," "LL.D.," follow the name of the person addressed. The initials "M.D." must not be used in connection with "Doctor" as this would be a duplication. Write either "Dr. Herbert Reynolds" or "Herbert Reynolds, M.D." The titles of "Doctor," "Reverend," and "Professor" precede the name of the addressed, as: "Dr. Herbert Reynolds," "Rev. Philip Bentley," "Prof. Lucius Palmer." It will be observed that these titles are usually abbreviated on the envelope and in the inside address, but in the salutation they must be written out in full, as "My dear Doctor," or "My dear Professor." In formal notes one writes "My dear Doctor Reynolds" or "My dear Professor Palmer." In less formal notes, "Dear Doctor Reynolds" and "Dear Professor Palmer" may be used.

A question of taste arises in the use of "Doctor." The medical student completing the studies which would ordinarily lead to a bachelor's degree is known as "Doctor," and the term has become associated in the popular mind with medicine and surgery. The title "Doctor" is, however, an academic distinction, and although applied to all graduate medical practitioners is, in all other realms of learning, a degree awarded for graduate work, as Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), or for distinguished services that cause a collegiate institution to confer an honorary degree such as Doctor of Common Law (D.C.L.), Doctor of Law and Literature (LL.D.), Doctor of Science (Sc.D.), and so on. Every holder of a doctor's degree is entitled to be addressed as "Doctor," but in practice the salutation is rarely given to the holders of the honorary degrees—mostly because they do not care for it.

Do not use "Mr." or "Esq." with any of the titles mentioned above.

The President of the United States should be addressed formally as "Sir," informally as "My dear Mr. President."

Members of Congress and of the state legislatures, diplomatic representatives, judges, and justices are entitled "Honorable," as "Honorable Samuel Sloane," thus:


Honorable (or Hon.) John Henley



Honorable (or Hon.) John Henley

My dear Mr. Henley:

Titles such as "Cashier," "Secretary," and "Agent" are in the nature of descriptions and follow the name; as "Mr. Charles Hamill, Cashier."

When such titles as "Honorable" and "Reverend" are used in the body of the letter they are preceded by the article "the." Thus, "The Honorable Samuel Sloane will address the meeting."

A woman should never be addressed by her husband's title. Thus the wife of a doctor is not "Mrs. Dr. Royce" but "Mrs. Paul Royce." The titles of "Judge," "General," and "Doctor" belong to the husband only. Of course, if a woman has a title of her own, she may use it. If she is an "M.D." she will be designated as "Dr. Elizabeth Ward." In this case her husband's Christian name would not be used.

In writing to the clergy, the following rules should be observed:

For a Cardinal the only salutation is "Your Eminence." The address on the envelope should read "His Eminence John Cardinal Farley."

To an Archbishop one should write "Most Rev. Patrick J. Hayes, D.D., Archbishop of New York." The salutation is usually "Your Grace," although it is quite admissible to use "Dear Archbishop." The former is preferable and of more common usage.

The correct form of address for a Bishop is "The Right Reverend John Jones, D.D., Bishop of ——." The salutation in a formal letter should be "Right Reverend and dear Sir," but this would be used only in a strictly formal communication. In this salutation "dear" is sometimes capitalized, so that it would read "Right Reverend and Dear Sir"; although the form in the text seems preferable, some bishops use the capitalized "Dear." The usual form is "My dear Bishop," with "The Right Reverend John Jones, D.D., Bishop of ——" written above it. In the Protestant Episcopal Church a Dean is addressed "The Very Reverend John Jones, D.D., Dean of ——." The informal salutation is "My dear Dean Jones" and the formal is "Very Reverend and dear Sir."

In addressing a priest, the formal salutation is "Reverend and dear Sir," or "Reverend dear Father." The envelope reads simply: "The Rev. Joseph J. Smith," followed by any titles the priest may enjoy.

The form used in addressing the other clergy is "The Reverend John Jones," and the letter, if strictly formal, would commence with "Reverend and Dear Sir." The more usual form, however, is "My dear Mr. Brown" (or "Dr. Brown," as the case may be). The use of the title "Reverend" with the surname only is wholly inadmissible.

In general usage the salutation in addressing formal correspondence to a foreign ambassador is "His Excellency," to a Minister or Chargé d'Affaires, "Sir." In informal correspondence the general form is "My dear Mr. Ambassador," "My dear Mr. Minister," or "My dear Mr. Chargé d'Affaires."

4. The Body of the Letter

In the placing of a formal note it must be arranged so that the complete note appears on the first page only. The social letter is either formal or informal. The formal letter must be written according to certain established practice. It is the letter used for invitations to formal affairs, for announcements, and for the acknowledgment of these letters. The third person must always be used. If one receives a letter written in the third person one must answer in kind. It would be obviously incongruous to write

Mr. and Mrs. John Evans

regret that we are unable to accept

Mrs. Elliott's

kind invitation for the theatre

on Thursday, May the fourth

as we have a previous engagement

It should read

Mr. and Mrs. John Evans

regret that they are unable to accept

Mrs. Elliott's

kind invitation for the theatre

on Thursday, May the fourth

as they have a previous engagement

In these notes, the hour and date are never written numerically but are spelled out.

If the family has a coat-of-arms or crest it may be used in the centre of the engraved invitation at the top, but monograms or stamped addresses are never so used.

For the informal letter there are no set rules except that of courtesy, which requires that we have our thought distinctly in mind before putting it on paper. It may be necessary to pause a few moments before writing, to think out just what we want to say. A rambling, incoherent letter is not in good taste any more than careless, dishevelled clothing. Spelling should be correct. If there is any difficulty in spelling, a small dictionary kept in the desk drawer is easily consulted. Begin each sentence with a capital. Start a new paragraph when you change to a new subject. Put periods (or interrogation points as required) at the ends of the sentences. It is neater to preserve a margin on both sides of the letter sheet.

In the body of a business letter the opening sentence is in an important position, and this is obviously the place for an important fact. It ought in some way to state or refer to the subject of or reason for the letter, so as to get the attention of the reader immediately to the subject.

It ought also to suggest a courteous personal interest in the recipient's business, to give the impression of having to do with his interests. For instance, a reader might be antagonized by

Yours of the 14th regarding the shortage in your last order

How much more tactful is

We regret to learn from your letter of March 14th that there was a shortage in your last order.

Paragraphs should show the division of the thought of the letter. If you can arrange and group your subjects and your thoughts on them logically in your mind, you will have no trouble in putting them on paper. It is easier for the reader to grasp your thought if in each paragraph are contained only one thought and the ideas pertaining to it.

The appearance of a business letter is a matter to which all too little concern has been given. A firm or business which would not tolerate an unkempt salesman sometimes will think nothing of sending out badly typed, badly placed, badly spelled letters.

The first step toward a good-looking letter is proper stationery, though a carefully typed and placed letter on poor stationery is far better than one on good stationery with a good letterhead but poor typing and placing.

The matter of correct spelling is merely a case of the will to consult a dictionary when in doubt.

The proper placing of a letter is something which well rewards the care necessary at first. Estimate the matter to go on the page with regard to the size of the page and arrange so that the centre of the letter will be slightly above the centre of the letter sheet. The margins should act as a frame or setting for the letter. The left-hand space should be at least an inch and the right-hand at least a half inch. Of course if the letter is short the margins will be wider. The top and bottom margins should be wider than the side margins.

The body of the letter should begin at the same distance from the edge as the first line of the inside address and the salutation.

All paragraphing should be indicated by indenting the same distances from the margin—about an inch—or if the block system is used no paragraph indentation is made but double or triple spacing between the paragraphs indicates the divisions. If the letter is handwritten, the spacing between the paragraphs should be noticeably greater than that between other lines.

Never write on both sides of a sheet. In writing a business letter, if the letter requires more than one page, use plain sheets of the same size and quality without the letterhead. These additional sheets should be numbered at the top. The name or initials of the firm or person to whom the letter is going should also appear at the top of the sheets. This letter should never run over to a second sheet if there are less than three lines of the body of the letter left over from the first page.

In the formal official letter, that is, in letters to or by government officials, members of Congress, and other dignitaries, the most rigid formality in language is observed. No colloquialisms are allowed and no abbreviations.

Specimens of letterheads used for official stationery Specimens of letterheads used for official stationery

5. The Complimentary Close

The complimentary close follows the body of the letter, about two or three spaces below it. It begins about in the center of the page under the body of the letter. Only the first word should be capitalized and a comma is placed at the end. The wording may vary according to the degree of cordiality or friendship. In business letters the forms are usually restricted to the following:

Yours truly (or) Truly yours (not good form)

Yours very truly (or) Very truly yours

Yours respectfully (or) Respectfully yours

Yours very respectfully.

If the correspondents are on a more intimate basis they may use

Faithfully yours

Cordially yours

Sincerely yours.

In formal official letters the complimentary close is

Respectfully yours

Yours respectfully.

The informal social letter may close with

Yours sincerely

Yours very sincerely

Yours cordially

Yours faithfully

Yours gratefully (if a favor has been done)

Yours affectionately

Very affectionately yours

Yours lovingly

Lovingly yours.

The position of "yours" may be at the beginning or at the end, but it must never be abbreviated or omitted.

If a touch of formal courtesy is desired, the forms "I am" or "I remain" may be used before the complimentary closing. These words keep the same margin as the paragraph indenting. But in business letters they are not used.

6. The Signature

The signature is written below the complimentary close and a little to the right, so that it ends about at the right-hand margin. In signing a social letter a married woman signs herself as "Evelyn Rundell," not "Mrs. James Rundell" nor "Mrs. Evelyn Rundell." The form "Mrs. James Rundell" is used in business letters when the recipient might be in doubt as to whether to address her as "Mrs." or "Miss." Thus a married woman would sign such a business letter:

Yours very truly,

Evelyn Rundell

(Mrs. James Rundell).

An unmarried woman signs as "Ruth Evans," excepting in the case of a business letter where she might be mistaken for a widow. She then prefixes "Miss" in parentheses, as (Miss) Ruth Evans.

A woman should not sign only her given name in a letter to a man unless he is her fiancé or a relative or an old family friend.

A widow signs her name with "Mrs." in parentheses before it, as (Mrs.) Susan Briggs Geer.

A divorced woman, if she retains her husband's name, signs her letters with her given name and her own surname followed by her husband's name, thus:

Janet Hawkins Carr.

and in a business communication:

Janet Hawkins Carr

(Mrs. Janet Hawkins Carr).

A signature should always be made by hand and in ink. The signature to a business letter may be simply the name of the writer. Business firms or corporations have the name of the firm typed above the written signature of the writer of the letter. Then in type below comes his official position. Thus:

Hall, Haines & Company (typewritten)

Alfred Jennings (handwritten)

Cashier (typewritten).

If he is not an official, his signature is preceded by the word "By."

In the case of form letters or routine correspondence the name of the person directly responsible for the letter may be signed by a clerk with his initials just below it. Some business firms have the name of the person responsible for the letter typed immediately under the name of the firm and then his signature below that. This custom counteracts illegibility in signatures.

In circular letters the matter of a personal signature is a very important one. Some good points on this subject may be gathered from the following extract from Printers' Ink.

Who shall sign a circular letter depends largely on circumstances entering individual cases. Generally speaking, every letter should be tested on a trial list before it is sent out in large quantities. It is inadvisable to hazard an uncertain letter idea on a large list until the value of the plan, as applied to that particular business, has been tried out.

There are certain things about letter procedure, however, that experience has demonstrated to be fundamental. One of these platforms is that it is best to sign the letter with some individual's name. Covering up the responsibility for the letter with such a general term as "sales department" or "advertising department" takes all personality out of the missive and to that extent weakens the power of the message. But even in this we should be chary of following inflexible rules. We can conceive of circumstances where it would be advisable to have the letter come from a department rather than from an individual.

Of course the management of many business organizations still holds that all letters should be signed by the company only. If the personal touch is permitted at all, the extent of it is to allow the writer of the letter to subscribe his initials. This idea, however, is pretty generally regarded as old-fashioned and is fast dying out.

Most companies favor the plan of having the head of the department sign the circular letters emanating from his department. If he doesn't actually dictate the letter himself, no tell-tale signs such as the initials of the actual dictator should be made. If it is a sales matter, the letter would bear the signature of the sales manager. If the communication pertained to advertising, it would be signed by the advertising manager. Where it is desired to give unusual emphasis to the letter, it might occasionally be attributed to the president or to some other official higher up. The big name idea should not be overdone. People will soon catch on that the president would not have time to answer all of the company's correspondence. If he has, it is evident that a very small business must be done.

A better idea that is coming into wide vogue is to have the letter signed by the man in the company who comes into occasional personal contact with the addressee. One concern has the house salesman who waits on customers coming from that section of the country when they visit headquarters sign all promotion letters going to them. The house salesman is the only one in the firm whom the customer knows. It is reasoned that the latter will give greater heed to a letter coming from a man with whom he is on friendly terms. Another company has its branch managers take the responsibility for circular letters sent to the trade in that territory. Another manufacturer has his salesmen bunched in crews of six. Each crew is headed by a leader. This man has to sell, just as his men do, but in addition he acts as a sort of district sales manager. All trade letters going out in his district carry the crew leader's signature.

There is much to be said in favor of this vogue. Personal contact is so valuable in all business transactions that its influence should be used in letters, in so far as it is practicable to do so.

The signature should not vary. Do not sign "G. Smith" to one letter, "George Smith" to another, and "G. B. Smith" to a third.

A man should never prefix to his signature any title, as "Mr.," "Prof.," or "Dr."

A postscript is sometimes appended to a business letter, but the letters "P.S." do not appear. It is not, however, used as formerly—to express some thought which the writer forgot to include in the letter, or an afterthought. But on account of its unique position in the letter, it is used to place special emphasis on an important thought.

7. The Superscription

In the outside address or superscription of a letter the following forms are observed:

A letter to a woman must always address her as either "Mrs." or "Miss," unless she is a professional woman with a title such as "Dr." But this title is used only if the letter is a professional one. It is not employed in social correspondence. A woman is never addressed by her husband's title, as "Mrs. Captain Bartlett."

A married woman is addressed with "Mrs." prefixed to her husband's name, as "Mrs. David Greene." This holds even if her husband is dead.

A divorced woman is addressed (unless she is allowed by the courts to use her maiden name) as "Mrs." followed by her maiden name and her former husband's surname, as: "Mrs. Edna Boyce Blair," "Edna Boyce" being her maiden name.

A man should be given his title if he possess one. Otherwise he must be addressed as "Mr." or "Esq."

Titles of those holding public office, of physicians, of the clergy, and of professors, are generally abbreviated on the envelope except in formal letters.

It is rather customary to address social letters to "Edward Beech, Esq.," business letters to "Mr. Edward Beech," and a tradesman's letter to "Peter Moore." A servant is addressed as "William White."

The idea has arisen, and it would seem erroneous, that if the man addressed had also "Sr." or "Jr." attached, the title "Mr." or "Esq." should not be used. There is neither rhyme nor reason for this, as "Sr." and "Jr." are certainly not titles and using "Mr." or "Esq." would not be a duplication. So the proper mode of address would be

Mr. John Evans, Jr.


John Evans, Jr., Esq.

The "Sr." is not always necessary as it may be understood.

Business envelopes should have the address of the writer printed in the upper left-hand corner as a return address. This space should not be used for advertising.

In addressing children's letters, it should be remembered that a letter to a girl child is addressed to "Miss Jane Green," regardless of the age of the child. But a little boy should be addressed as "Master Joseph Green."

The address when completed should be slightly below the middle of the envelope and equidistant from right and left edges. The slanting or the straight-edge form may be used, to agree with the indented or the block style of paragraphing respectively.

Punctuation at the ends of the lines in the envelope address is not generally used.

The post office prefers the slanting edge form of address, thus:


If there is a special address, such as "General Delivery," "Personal," or "Please forward," it should be placed at the lower left-hand corner of the envelope.