Starting a formal email in English can be tricky as it involves following some strict rules and conventions. Unless you’re familiar with them, deciding how to start a formal email can be confusing – but it doesn’t need to be.
This detailed article will explain how to use the correct formal email greetings, salutations, and opening lines. By the end of this post, you will know how to start writing a formal email in your personal and professional life.
What is a formal email?
Formal emails are those written in the correct format. Formal emails follow a tried and tested formula that all readers will understand.
A well-written, professional and polite email can start a successful and productive relationship. Conversely, a poorly written email can damage relationships, confuse and even upset recipients in some circumstances.
Every formal email should consist of:
- Subject line
- A salutation or greeting
- Body copy
Formal emails are respectful, using polite terminology to address the recipient. They are written in a simple-to-understand format that’s clear about what you want and why.
The English language is used worldwide by businesses, but there are cultural differences in how we communicate. Formal emails reduce the likelihood of any misunderstanding or miscommunication.
In most cases, poorly written emails won’t damage your career, says Jeff Su in the Harvard Business Review. In contrast, “writing professional emails will affect how competent you are perceived to be in the eyes of your colleagues.”
In your personal life, when contacting a school, for example, you’ll want to ensure your communications are clear, professional, and polite. In this context, formal emails are essential.
We’ve delved deeper into the details of what makes a great formal email in our guide, so check that out if you want to learn more.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the fundamentals of how to greet in a formal email.
The formal way to start an email
We’ve already covered how to start a professional emails in previous posts, but in this time, we’re going to delve deeper into the two critical things you need to know when starting a formal email in English:
- Formal greeting and salutation
- Formal email opening lines
We address both parts in detail before applying them to a series of examples later.
Formal email greetings and salutations
The first thing you need to know about greeting in a formal email is using the correct salutation.
It can appear confusing as the appropriate formal way of greeting in email changes, depending on whether you know the person you are writing to or not. The first rule is: if you know someone’s name, address the person directly using their full name.
In the past, you’d use what’s called an honorific – such a Mr and Mrs – with a surname. However, we must be conscious of the risks of what Harvard calls “misgendering”.
Unless we know someone’s gender for sure (and even in those cases where we think we know, we should never make assumptions), we should avoid using gendered terms.
Instead, use a person’s full name where possible. This is both professional and respectful.<
Take an example of emailing someone called Robert Johnson.
Instead of saying:
- Dear Mr. Johnson
We would say:
- Dear Robert Johnson
The question of which greeting is appropriate for a formal email arises regularly. We’ve provided some formal email salutation examples below that illustrate how to greet in an email formal. Still, we’d also urge you to use your judgment, too.
Before sending your email, spend some time attempting to identify the person you’re writing to. Using a person’s full name can establish a stronger connection than a formal approach, such as Dear Sir/Madam.
We’ve covered a lot of what you need to know here, but for further insights into how to start a professional email, read our detailed blog.
Formal email opening lines
The rules around how to address a recipient in a formal email are relatively straightforward. However, when it comes to starting the body of a formal email, you have greater freedom.
The best formal email opening lines are straight to the point. In most cases, you request something (information, to attend an event, or payment); or respond formally to a request.
If you know someone or have spoken to them in the past, you can get straight into the details of your request.
Some examples of suitable formal email opening lines include:
- I am writing to request some information from your company.
- I am contacting you to invite you to my event
- I appreciate your interest in our company. I am attaching the information requested.
Suppose you’re writing to someone you’ve never communicated with before. In this case, it’s polite to explain who you are and why you’re contacting them. For example, simply stating, “my name is XX, and I’m contacting you from YY” is enough for the reader. This quickly tells them who you are and why you’re messaging them.
Here’s how that can work in practice:
- I’m the marketing director at (company name), and I am interested in learning more about your business.
- I am contacting you from (company name) with some details of exclusive new offers
- I’m leaving (company) on 25 September and would like to invite you to a leaving event being held at (insert details).
Of course, you’re not bound by these rules. However, by following them, you won’t confuse or upset your reader.
Can you use “I hope you are doing well in a formal email”? If you know the person, then starting a formal email this way isn’t incorrect. If you don’t know the individual personally, it’s unlikely to achieve the results you want. It can seem overly informal and out of place.
Our advice is to get straight to the point in your formal email opening. We explain more about crafting the best email opening sentences in this detailed blog post.
6 examples on how to start a formal email
So, we’ve broken down the process of how to start a formal email into two steps; now, it’s time to put it into practice. Here we provide six examples of how to start a formal email. Each example is accompanied by a short explanation of our reasons why.
In this section, we include some specific examples of how to start formal examples. We cover:
- How to start a formal email without a name
- How to choose a formal email greeting for an unknown recipient
- How to start a formal email to multiple recipients
- How to start a formal email to a school
- How to start a formal business email
- How to choose the formal email greeting for a job application
These templates included here are used to illustrate how to approach each task. We recommend that you use these as the basis for developing the approaches that best represent you and your business.
How to start a formal email without a name
We’ve written about how important it is to attempt to find a person’s name when emailing them, so we’d always urge you to do so if you can. However, there are likely to be times when this is impossible for some reason.
Some writing guides will still encourage you to use “Dear Sir/Madam,” and while a little old-fashioned, it’s still OK to do so if you need to.
While you’re free to use it if you’d like to, we recommend finding an alternative. You can do more research to identify the recipient. If not, here are some other options:
- Dear (Job title)
- Dear (Department or team)
Starting a formal email in English is, thankfully, pretty straightforward. Here’s an example of how to start a formal email with no name.
How to choose a formal email greeting for an unknown recipient
If you’re struggling to identify the right formal email greeting to an unknown recipient, you’re not alone. It can be challenging to find the right approach in how to start a formal email to an unknown person.
Other writing guides will suggest you use “To whom it may concern,” but we think this isn’t just formal; it’s a little too fussy for our liking. We’d also recommend opening a formal email with “Hi” or “Hey”. That’s a step too far in the other direction.
So, how do you choose a formal email greeting for an unknown recipient? Here’s a tried and tested method.
How to start a formal email to multiple recipients
It’s evident that there are different rules when you are emailing a group of people. There are fewer rules when deciding upon a formal email greeting to multiple recipients. The question of how do you start a formal email to multiple recipients depends on who they are. We advise you to choose a safe collective term.
If they’re fellow employees, acceptable formal email greeting lines include:
- Dear colleagues
- Dear team
If you’re emailing a generic email address (such as customerservice@), you could use:
- Dear Customer Service Team
If you’re emailing a business, you could simply use their company name.
- Dear (company name)
Here’s a fool-proof example of how to start a formal email to a group.
How to start a formal email to a school
If you’re wondering how do you start an email to a university teacher or professor, here’s how. The important thing is to ensure that you use the correct honorific; in this case, we’re emailing a professor.
Check out this example to see how we’ve approached the task.
How to start a formal business email
In the business world, it’s crucial to ensure your emails are correctly formatted and respectfully formal. The question of how do you start a formal business letter is often asked by those worried about how they will be perceived.
Our example template below provides an example you can adapt to your circumstances. You can find more detailed information on how to craft a business inquiry in our in-depth guide.
How to choose the formal email greeting for a job application
When sending a cover letter for a job, you’d traditionally use “Dear Sir/Madam.” Still, as we’ve established, this may not be appropriate anymore.
Firstly, you should attempt to find out who the recruiting manager is and use their full name. If you can’t find their name, then the following alternatives are all acceptable:
- Dear recruiting manager
- Dear recruiter
- Dear (company name)
Here’s an example of starting a formal email to a recruiter.
Starting a formal email can be a challenge for anyone, but we hope we’ve simplified the process. The key learning point is to understand how to use formal email greetings and salutations and how to craft strong formal email opening lines. We hope we’ve helped you on how to start writing a formal email. Be sure to check out our blog with further articles on how to write formal emails.
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