When you’re trying to figure out how to address a letter, the first thing you should know is that the term address might refer to at least two aspects of letter writing and mailing. The first potential answer to “how to address a letter” concerns the writing of the recipient’s information on the envelope, but it can also refer to the opening or salutation of the letter. This guide will explain how to do both.
With the popularity of email and other electronic communication, letter writing has become less common, even in the most formal situations. However, knowing how to address a letter is still important, and the knowledge can help you write more effective and polished formal and business emails as well.
Whether you want to know how to address a business envelope or just a birthday card, the process is easy once you know where all the information goes. Business and personal letters have a similar configuration, but we’ll start with how to address a letter in general and then identify any refinements specific to business letters.
First, the top-left corner of the envelope is where you write your return address. Write your name on top, and then under your name, add your building number and street (and your apartment number, if relevant). Below those items, write your city, the two-letter abbreviation of your state name in capital letters, and the five-digit zip code. All together, these components should take up three lines.
Write the recipient’s name and address in the center of the envelope. If your recipient has a long address or if you’re sending it to another country, make sure you leave enough room to finish the entire address.
Finally, place a stamp in the top-right corner of the envelope, leaving a small amount of space on all sides between the perimeter of the stamp and the edges of the envelope. Make sure the stamp provides enough postage that the letter will be delivered. There are rules not just about letter weight but letter size, so if you’re in doubt, it’s worth a visit to the post office.
When determining how to address a business letter, there are some special considerations to keep in mind. The overall configuration is the same as a personal letter: your name and return address in the top right, the stamp in the top left, and the recipient’s name or business name and address in the middle.
Sometimes, especially for business letters, you might need to add a line directing the letter to the “care of” a particular person other than the general addressee. This helps a company know the staff member for whom the letter is intended. In these cases, add C/O and the person’s name on the second line, underneath the name of the company.
On the letter itself, you need to include both your address and the recipient’s address. Put your own address (no need to include your name) in the top right-hand corner, and write the date below your address. Since this is a formal piece of writing, you should spell out the month. For example, instead of writing “10/20/2018” or “Oct. 20, 18,” write “October 20, 2018.” This ensures the appropriate level of formality.
Below that, type the recipient’s name and address flush with the left margin. Leave a space before you move on to the salutation.
Knowing how to address a letter is important. However, it’s critical that you know how to use salutations in a letter as well. Proper salutations ensure your letter makes the appropriate impression, which matters a great deal if this is a formal letter to a business you are hoping to work for.
Informal salutations can be anything you like. If you are writing a letter to a close friend, you can write “Dear Mike,” or “Hey, Mike,” or “Yo.” It’s up to you.
However, standard, formal business letters should use Dear¸ then the person’s title and name, ending with a colon. For example, “Dear Mr. Green:” or “Dear Ms. Jones:” are both correct.
Social business letters are slightly less formal. You might, for example, want to send a card to a coworker who has a birthday or send a thank-you note to your boss. For these, you can use the same format, but end the salutation with a comma instead of a colon.
In rare formal letter writing situations, you may wonder when you should use “To whom it may concern.” To answer that question, we’ll outline some of the situations where this salutation can be used.
You might have learned in middle school that if you don’t know the name of the person you’re writing to, you can write “To whom it may concern.” However, now that we have the internet, that should be a rare occurrence because it’s almost always possible to find the name of the specific person you are trying to contact.
If your letter is more general or you can’t pinpoint the right single recipient, it has become more acceptable to use less formal variants of “To whom it may concern,” even for business letters. If you still cannot find the name of the specific person, “Dear (Role of Person)” is a good alternative. This could be something like “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Marketing Department.” However, for letters such as formal complaints and reference letters, it can be appropriate to use “To whom it may concern” as a salutation.
So how do you write “To whom it may concern”? Well, be sure you capitalize the first word, but leave everything else in lowercase—and yes, the whom is correct here.
Whether you’re writing the most formal of letters or the most informal of joke cards, knowing the rules of how to address a letter means you can be sure that you’ve done everything you can to ensure your letter is delivered, received, and interpreted the way you need it to be.
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