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I have received an email from someone at work. He’s quite senior and probably would get quite angry to get an “accusing” message like:

I wasn’t supposed to get this email. It looks like you sent me it by mistake.

What is a more gentle but formal way of pointing out his mistake?

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11  
This looks pretty gentle to me. There are probably even more polite forms around, but if he gets angry if he gets that, then that might be the problem. –  Joachim Sauer Aug 19 '11 at 10:38
    
As an alternative to replying directly it may be worth asking around to see if you can find who the email WAS supposed to be for and forward it to them. Is there someone in the company with a similar name to you who covers the kind of thing that's in the email? –  Waggers Aug 19 '11 at 10:48
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This is a more appropriate question for an etiquette website (writer.SE is not relevant either). –  Mitch Aug 19 '11 at 12:30
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@Waggers: as convenient as that solution might be (finding who it was really meant for), when sensitive information is concerned, the accepted solution is to return it to sender. No further possible mistakes. –  Mitch Aug 19 '11 at 12:36
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Questions like these sadden me. You shouldn't be afraid of your own language. If they're taking offense to something as simple as this, they deserve to be offended. No one has a right to not be offended. –  zzzzBov Aug 19 '11 at 20:48
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6 Answers

up vote 28 down vote accepted

As you mention that the sender is your "senior", you want to tread carefully.

You could simply state:

I believe this email was sent to me by mistake and wanted to make you aware of it possibly reaching the wrong destination. If this message was intended for me, I look forward to discussing the matter with you further.

Or, if doing so would not "step on toes", you could simply stop by their desk/office and tell them in person.

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+1, cool wording! –  RiMMER Aug 19 '11 at 11:16
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This is both formal, yet polite, yet gentle, and I believe even the sensitive senior would have difficulty trying to get offended. –  Thursagen Aug 19 '11 at 11:23
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"If this message was intended for me, I look forward to discussing the matter with you further." - That feels fake and forced. Do you really look forward to telling the guy that he made a mistake? –  jjnguy Aug 19 '11 at 20:04
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@jjnguy There's nothing forced or fake about it. It's simply being polite and respectful, i.e. proper business etiquette. I've used this many times throughout my professional career with positive results. –  RGW1976 Aug 19 '11 at 20:31
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I suppose instead of simply criticizing, I should have offered an alternative. "If this message was indeed intended for me, then I apologize for my misunderstanding." –  jjnguy Aug 19 '11 at 20:38
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Try:

I'm afraid I wasn't meant to receive this. Thank you.

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Simple, but polite. :) –  daGrevis Aug 19 '11 at 13:55
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Don't call it a mistake, and start by mentioning its a common error.

I think you meant to send this to someone else. Just letting you know so you can send it on to the right recipients (or correct me if I misunderstood). Have a great day.

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I would probably say something like:

I'm afraid I don't quite understand. Is it possible that this message was intended for someone else?

Which implies that, if it wasn't a mistake for you to have received the message, you at the very least don't know what to do with it.

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Not really an answer but yesterday, somebody sent me an email that ran as follows (full names omitted):

Attached is a copy of your approved appraisal report for your refinance transaction with M---- Loan Company.

The attachment was wrong so I replied:

Attached was NOT a copy of my approved appraisal report for my refinance transaction with M----- Loan Company.

Attached was a copy of addenda to a bill of sale between a Michael G---- (not me, Michael L----) and an Angus McC----, who, by the way, I bet doesn't get a lot of faxes intended for other Anguses.

It's hard to make loan officers laugh, but I did it.

And about two weeks ago, I got a warm email from the CEO of a company where I had applied for a job, welcoming me on board. I had to delicately respond that her VP had already (rather rudely) turned me down for the position.

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Here’s a contrarian viewpoint for your own protection.

First, emails are not formal, so you have not interrupted a formal communication. Why then elevate it to formal and so make yourself look naïve?

That said, and taking you at your word that he engenders fear, the only gentle way to inform him is not to actually inform him at all. Believe me, he is not interested in your dilemma, nor in noble or fawning words.

One approach is to use a go-between, such as an executive secretary if he has one. Without mentioning your surname, simply hand it to his secretary with the simple statement that this came to you by mistake. An administrative aide’s job is to know what preens and what ruffles a boss’s feathers, and to act accordingly.

If no one is available to bring the electronic mishap and misdelivered letter to the gent’s attention, simply forward it back. It is likely that your own address was but one of many addressees, so word may have already spread.

The problem with making excuses to him, aside from wasting two persons’ time, is that you expose yourself unnecessarily. Do you think he will take any kind of contrived politeness as other than self-promotion? I wouldn’t. Neither would you.

Finally, seniors do not typically use email, so take advantage of the protective layer that surrounds any exec and forward said mail without further delay.

Or shred it and throw its tattered remains in the trash.

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