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Emails and letters commonly end with a closing phrase such as

Yours faithfully,
Jonny McJoe

...but I never understood the reason why such a thing would come up in the first place.

Maybe it's because letters were (a long time ago) longer and better written, possibly a glorified form of communication that expressed more than just the message they contained, and closing them in a way that showed good taste, politeness, etc was part of that glorification?

In modern usage they sound very weird to me, like

Hello.

I've sent the PDF with the report, be sure to backup before the maintenance this time!

Yours sincerely,
Gregor McGreg

So, why it was invented, or under what sort of influence it became the norm?

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Welcome to EL&U! This question is not a good fit because it's open ended. We limit ourselves to language and usage questions that we can give a definite "right" answer to. –  MετάEd Feb 3 '12 at 22:00
    
For purely communication purposes, it tells the reader that the mail transmission is complete. –  Mitch Feb 3 '12 at 22:06
    
@MetaEd Is it? I'll try to edit, please tell me if it still is. –  Camilo Martin Feb 3 '12 at 22:21
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I doubt an edit will help. This is, fundamentally, not an English language question. Letters in many languages and cultures have these features. –  MετάEd Feb 3 '12 at 22:35
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@CamiloMartin Well, you could accept an answer. That might remove the motivation for others to add their own and draw it out. Or not. I don’t know. –  tchrist Feb 4 '12 at 0:15
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closed as off topic by MετάEd, Matt Эллен, Marthaª, aedia λ, Daniel Feb 6 '12 at 1:13

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3 Answers

up vote 2 down vote accepted

I can’t imagine writing a proper letter out in longhand without a proper valediction at the end. Would you leave a friend’s home without saying good-bye?

It’d be like having a converstation with someone, or even delivering a lecture to a group, and then without any warning or adieu rudely turning your back on them and strutting off without even so much as a ‘Thank you’ or a ‘See ya’ or an ‘Hasta pronto, tonto.’

It seems rude and precipitous, even capricious. Definitely unfriendly.

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@CamiloMartin I know what the phrase means; I’m a fluent Spanish speaker. I’m making a joke about the old Lone Ranger series, where the Ranger’s sidekick was named Tonto. It’s rhyme-y and silly in English, if they don’t clue. With email, it depends on the length whether I have a comma-terminated “Something something,” line before my name at the end, but I always always have my name at the end. It lets the other person know that you actually meant to end the letter, that it didn’t just escape unfinished. Which, in fact, has also been known to occur to me from time to time. Unfortunately. –  tchrist Feb 3 '12 at 22:03
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+1 for (among other things) a new good word for me - valediction :) –  Armen Ծիրունյան Feb 3 '12 at 22:18
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@CamiloMartin To clarify, Hasta pronto, Tonto is American slang, kinda like See ya later, Alligator. It would be rude in Spanish. Also, it has to be pronounced Hasta pranto, tanto which makes no sense in Spanish (pranto is Portuguese for Spanish llanto, though). The formula “Hasta ______” is reasonably common slang in (non-bilingual) American English. Think of Schwarzenegger (my what a rude name! :) when he famously said ‘Hasta la vista, baby.’ You even hear folks say ‘Hasta la byebye’, which of course makes no sense, but still. –  tchrist Feb 3 '12 at 22:19
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@ArmenTsirunyan As saludictorians have their salutations, so too do valedictorians have their valedictions. Most everybody else just says hello and goodbye. :) –  tchrist Feb 3 '12 at 22:31
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@CamiloMartin Just so. The OED2 gives the first hasta la vista citation in English as 1935, but I bet that gets antedated for its 3rd Edition update. Last year the OED added gordita 1835, abuelo 1879, abuela 1836, abuelito 1937, & salsa verde 1957 as attested English words — ¿Quién lo sabía? ☺ And from Portuguese, turbinado (sugar) 1909. Lots of French like giclée 1995, and Latin, including the famous ab urbe condita (A.U.C.), whose first attested English citation is 1602. Gee, it sure takes them long enough, eh? And framboid 1962 for raspberry-shaped, but of course. –  tchrist Feb 3 '12 at 23:48
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It's a marker. You would want to have a symbolic end-of-message marker before your signature. Your reader would not appreciate something that seems to abruptly lead to your signature, without so much as a "so that's just about it, then".

It is not special to the English language; it exists in communications in practically all languages.

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I wonder when it was first invented. Japan traditionally was a very isolated country, yet they seem to have a quite mechanical approach to addressing each other, so maybe the standardization of messages is a natural step after the creation of a language. –  Camilo Martin Feb 4 '12 at 22:15
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It's very simple. Whenever you meet people, it is common to greet them as a way of starting some form of communicative activity. As the activity comes to an end, you indicate this by using appropriate language.

In the English language, "Hi" and "Bye" are among the simplest ways of observing this convention. At the other end of the spectrum, you may have an audience with Her Majesty, The Queen. In which case, the ritual will become much more embellished.

By the same token, other forms of communication also observe an appropriate form of this convention. For example, "Dear Sir or Madam:" and "Faithfully yours,".

Of course, rituals do change over time. However, I imagine that the convention of "Hello" and "Goodbye" (opening and closing) is pretty basic and will be with us for a long time to come.

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Let's leave complicated greeting boilerplate to the Borg. Minimalism is so important in a society whose biggest communication problem is noise, IMHO. –  Camilo Martin Feb 6 '12 at 8:03
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