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Is it appropriate to start a business letter or email with just "Dear,"?
I specifically refer to the case where there is no noun following "Dear,", so no "Dear All,", or "Dear Mr.,", or "Dear Colleagues,", ... (which is covered in other english.stackexchange.com questions)

Or would "Dear," only be appropriate between lovers?

(I am unsure about this because in Dutch, it is common to start an email or letter with 'Beste,' or 'Geachte,', which could be (and is often) very loosely translated to something like 'Dear,')

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Perfectly appropriate, IYAM. And no, "Dear," is not only between lovers. "Dear Father," "Dear Son," "Dear Brother," "Dear Friend," are all used. You can also address a complete stranger with "Dear Mr.(so-and-so),". –  Kris Jan 23 '12 at 8:56
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Perfectly inappropriate. @Kris misunderstood what you're asking. 'Dear' cannot stand alone; it requires an object that it is modifying. If it were to stand alone it would sound very strange and be forced in this strangeness to be very literal, so it would be both grammatical and inappropriate in a business letter. If it were to someone who very literally is very dear to you (not a business addressee), even 'Dear,' sounds wrong. Did you mean 'Dearest'? –  Mitch Jan 23 '12 at 13:35
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A lot of my spam (particularly, but not exclusively, of the Nigerian variety) is addressed that way. It's a pretty clear signal that the sender couldn't even bother to have his bot use the name that he already harvested for the "to" line. I expect a human who wants to talk with me to do better than that, or not pretend (just use "hello" or some such). –  Monica Cellio Jan 23 '12 at 15:28
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In speech, one certainly can say, "Dear, have you taken out the trash yet?". But that is in speech, and "Dear" is a noun and a stand-alone and informal term of affection/endearment for someone very close. A business letter or email is not informal enough. So if you are forwarding a deposition to your spouse, you'd still want to use 'Dear (name),...'. Talking to them, using the vocative 'dear' would be OK by itself. –  Mitch Jan 23 '12 at 20:56
    
It is perfectly appropriate—if (and only if) you are a Nigerian scammer-spammer. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 17 '13 at 11:33

5 Answers 5

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Dear is a perfectly appropriate letter greeting in all circumstances. However you do need a noun to follow. "Dear, " on its own doesn't work.

The standard opening if you don't know enough about the reader is "Dear Sir/Madam,"

Note that when used to open a letter, dear is an adjective:

Dear Mr Smith,

Dear Susan,

Dear Sir/Madam,

Dear is also used as a noun, typically in conversational speech:

Yes, dear.

Calm down, dear.

This usage is usually reserved for loved ones -- but this is a completely different usage from the letter opening greeting.

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So, you are actually saying that "Dear," on its own is not appropriate in all circumstances? –  Rabarberski Jan 23 '12 at 9:32
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On its own, it is never appropriate. –  slim Jan 23 '12 at 9:47
    
Yes, Slim is correct! It is NOT appropriate in a business letter or email to open with "Dear," unless there is a name, a title, something, following it. Specifically, "Dear Mr. X", or if no name is known, "Dear Sir/Madam", or "Dear Anne" if it is an email to your colleague or supervisor, whose name is Anne, and you are on a first name basis with each other. The question was for a business letter or email, not a personal one. –  Ellie Kesselman Jan 23 '12 at 10:13
    
If someone writes to you without using "Dear Mr / Miss <Whatever>" or "Dear Sir / Madam" - for example, opening an email with "Hello" or "Hi" - it's probably because they feel uncomfortable with the formality. In that case, replying and opening with their first name is IMO fine, if you feel comfortable too. –  Lunivore Feb 18 '13 at 0:14

Dear on its own is not a valid opening for a letter, whether personal or business. I have seen this usage quite a lot, though, in messages posted to online groups by people from India. I suspect this is commonly taught there, but no native English speaker would use it.

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A small qualification: a large percentage of people in India are native speakers of English, but almost always as a second language learned at school as the language of instruction (i.e. not just as a foreign language but the only language the teacher speaks to the class). A similar great percentage also speak Hindi this way. The large majority of people in the country of India speak neither English nor Hindi at home. But they will speak English or Hindi fluently, and Indian English (the style of English spoken in India) is a well-recognized variety of English. –  Mitch Jan 23 '12 at 20:48
    
...which is to say that some things that sound strange to BrE or AmE ears may be perfectly accesptable to IndE speakers. "Dear," seems to be a machine constructino rather than something a person would feel natural saying, whatever the variety. –  Mitch Jan 23 '12 at 20:50
    
Gosh. I have seen this a few times, but I've just assumed it was only used by people who were going to offer to sell me black-market Viagra or suggest I help take part in a fraud involving the transfer of large sums of money between countries for which they would need me to front a few thousand. Do you mean some real people might have been deleted after one word? –  Jon Hanna Feb 1 '13 at 1:39
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@Mitch I would not call those people native speakers. Fluent speakers, perhaps; but English is not their native language. There are native English speakers of Indian English, too, but the vast majority of its speakers are what I would call non-native. And “Dear,” is not just a machine construction. I have seen it used quite frequently by Indian English speakers (though clearly non-native ones) on Internet fora, including Stack Exchange itself. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 3 at 17:19

No, it isn't (unless you are addressing your sweetheart). The word "dear" demands a complement.

If you don't know who you're writing to, the traditional salutation is

Dear Sir,

These days, to avoid sexism, most writers prefer

Dear Sir / Madam,

Alternatively, you can address your letter to the group of people you are addressing. E.g.

Dear Purchasing Department,

Dear Stack Exchange Moderators,

Finally, don't forget that when you close a letter, if you don't know the name of the person you are addressing you should sign it:

Yours faithfully,

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If you address a letter simply as "Dear,", you are actually using a vocative to a person you are calling dear. This would be the same as starting a letter, "My dearest love," such as the famous Sullivan Ballou letter.

I can think of no case in which a formal letter, sent to an institution, would would ever make logical sense.

That said, if you started a personal letter with "Dear," you are calling out to your dearly beloved.

Also note, if you are writing a formal letter, the salutation should be followed by a colon, not a comma. Thus,

Dear Snookums,

but

Dear Sirs:

(Or for that matter To the John Deere Company: or To Whom it may concern: )

Of course, if you follow the link, you'll see that Sullivan Ballou himself actually punctuated his very personal letter with a colon. This is no longer appropriate in Standard English.

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The comma/colon distinction is for American English only. British English uses a comma in both cases. –  TRiG Mar 9 '12 at 15:58

Personal Letter

You should know the name, so "Dear John," is the only appropriate salutation.

Business Letter, informal, such as an invitation to an event.

"Dear John," if you have a strong personal relationship.

"Dear John Smith," if you are an acquaintance.

"Dear Mr. Smith," if the person is in a senior position.

"Dear Principal Smith," if the person is a senior administrator, in this example principal of your child's school.

"Dear Claims Adjustor," if you do not know the name.

"Dear Claims Department," if you do not know the position, or are inviting the entire department.

"Dear John Smith Incorporated," if you are inviting the entire company.

Formal business Letter

"Dear John Smith:"

Use a colon for formal business, a comma for personal. The above salutations with a colon would be appropriate.

To whom it may concern:

Do not use "To whom it may concern:" other than for a legal letter, and this would be rare in itself; mainly it would be used for some kind of warning to desist or notice that is required, but the recipient is completely unknown. Possibly a noise complaint to an untraceable occupant. As much as possible include some detail, such as "Occupant, 1234 Oak Street:"

"To whom it may concern" puts the onus on whoever opens the letter to read it and find out where it should be forwarded. Unless your intent is to be rude and troublesome, it does not add anything positive to your letter. Addressing the letter to a job title would be preferred.

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What's the source of this? Right now it seems like an unsupported opinion. –  Matt Gutting Dec 3 at 15:46
    
Well, and where is the answer to the original question??? –  Honza Zidek Dec 3 at 16:05

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