I am confused about how to address a family in which all the members have kept their original surname. What is the proper way to address such a family in a note to a family which consists of a single mother, her parents and children with 3 different surnames? For example, can one say, "Dear Smith family," even though that surname is not shared by the entire family?

Are hyphenated names related to this or is that only the last name of children born to parents who both keep their surname? If blended families do use hyphenated names such as Smith-Martin, is it possible for a family when the collective members have more than 2 surnames, to use more hyphens (e.g., the Smith-Martin-Jones family)?

I found this, which gives several options for writing an address from a blended family, but my question is about the interior of a card, not the mailing address, and the family is unknown to me except the names of the children.

  • I'm curious why I was down voted a couple times. Is there some way I could improve my question or a reason why it was down voted? I wasn't sure this was on topic when I posted it, and whether it was a question of etiquette, but I'm particularly interested in whether there are rules for this situation.
    – Spare Oom
    Commented Dec 14, 2013 at 2:09

3 Answers 3


On the outside, it's perfectly acceptable to address the envelope to the head of the family alone. For comparison, when you write to your bank, it's traditional to address the letter to "The Manager", even though he/she might not be the one acting on your correspondence. You could also put "Ms. Smith and family" on the envelope.

On the inside of the card is a different matter. You probably have more space to write; keeping things short is not as important. It's also potentially a more informal setting. (Unless you were sending a condolences card, which would usually be formal unless you were very close to them.)

In Australia, where I'm from, using the phrase "the Jones family" is very unusual as a form of address, though I gather it must be a more common usage in the USA. We usually address the inside of the card using given names (starting with the adults), e.g. "Dear Helen, Steven, Ben and Sarah". But then Australians these days use first names for business relations and even superiors, which might not be the case where you come from. It's also a common usage here to address the people you know by name, adding and family to include the others, e.g. "Dear Helen, Steven, and family" (in this example, Helen and Steven are the adults whilst Ben and Sarah are the children).

You say that the family is unknown to you, do you mean that they are all strangers? Or that you have met the mother but not the other family members?

Is there some social connection? For example, are the children connected to your own children through school, sport, etc.? In that case, you may want to list the children by their given names, rather than include them in "and family". Unlike children addressing adults, it's rarely wrong for an adult to address a child by their first name. It might look weird to write "Dear Ms. Smith, Bob, Ben, Amy, and family", you would have to judge whether you like that style.

If you have to stay formal, then "Dear Ms. Smith and family" might be your only option apart from "the Smith-Martin-Jones family".

  • The particular issue was a benevolence case around Christmas time, as a school was asking for help with gifts for students who were in need. A gift was given to the children of a single mother who had a different surname from all of the children. Her mother also lived with her, but had a different surname too. But since there are so many blended families now, various mixtures of surnames could easily arise for different cases. No, I had not met any of the family at all. Just a list of names given for volunteers to help out. As far as I know, there was no letter, just a note in a gift bag.
    – Spare Oom
    Commented Jan 9, 2015 at 20:58
  • Thanks for the extra information, Spare Oom. That's an interesting case. On a simple gift tag, you could list the children's names and omit the adults, if the gift is solely for the children's use. Unless there are so many of them to make that unwieldy. Or unless using first names would be inappropriate coming from a stranger; but those are the names that the school provided. On the other hand, if there was a note of explanation, it would be intended for the mother's eyes, e.g. "Dear Ms Smith, please accept this gift for your children Bob, Mary, and Sarah...".
    – Celery Man
    Commented Jan 9, 2015 at 21:42

In the US, there had been a tradition of the term family name meaning the surname of the husband in the family. While this was a prevalent trend, there have always been families in which there was no husband actively present, (no marriage, separation, divorce, death), and circumstances where members of the family used other surnames (both spouses keeping their own names, hyphenated surnames, remarriage). There are numerous patterns of people in families changing their surname (upon marriage, divorce, remarriage, adoption, emancipation).

Many forms used by governmental agencies and businesses include the term family name, but others use the term surname. However, in most states in the US, an individual is free to use any name, given (first name) or surname he or she wishes, often without formal governmental involvement, so long as it isn't for a fraudulent or illegal purpose. Usually the most import issue is consistency of name or a clearly documented pattern of name change to avoid confusion.

In general, there are no formal rules in the US about requiring people to either keep or change their surname at marriage, or how children must be given surnames. Currently there widely divergent patterns of how people use surnames, even though it is still fairly common for women who marry men to adopt the male spouses surname and to give children of married couples the surname of the father. Again, there is wide variability.

As such, there really is no such thing as a standard name for a family. While it is common to refer to a family who all share the same surname as the Smith Family, this si a convention that makes no sense when members do not share a surname (unless they choose to refer to themselves in that fashion).

Where you know members of the family do not have a universal surname, and they have not labeled themselves with a common family designator, it probably is best for you not to make one up. Just as the mix of items in a salad may not fit a common single class label, the family members may not have a single word that is common to refer to them.

If you are writing within a document, consider limiting your labeling to your family.

  • +1 for mention of no formal rules in the US about no formal rule for naming children's surnames. However, I'm not quite willing to accept the answer yet. It would be ideal to see some documentation. Maybe someone works in a social services or government office and has more experience with this situation.
    – Spare Oom
    Commented Dec 14, 2013 at 1:53
  • 1
    For example, there is a discussion here about the right to choose any name. While this is about NY State law, other US states are similar. There is also an article here about children's names.
    – bib
    Commented Dec 14, 2013 at 2:32
  • "The kids don't know...why they have a different last name from those of their siblings. Teachers don't know what to make of it..." Exactly. Thanks. I still wish there was a definitive answer, but I'll go with "Dear Ms. Smith and family" for the reasons stated under the other answer.
    – Spare Oom
    Commented Dec 14, 2013 at 2:49

When there are no rules, invent them!

I think the Smith-Martin-Jones family, is the best option you have by so far.

One could address everybody and say a "Dear All"

Another unconventional way could be, the Family at 23, Elm Street.

To Mrs. Jones, Mr. Smith, Larry and Jane.

Hopefully one of them works, and when nothing else does humor does!

  • 'When there are no rules, invent them!' This may be the second time I've had to veer towards prescriptivism on this site to maintain balance. (But if you look long enough on the Internet, you're almost certain to find someone who has already invented the rule you're happy with. John Lawler calls most of these these people 'ungrammatical' (or 'unprintable'). Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 11:20
  • I very much like the "Dear All" suggestion, but I'd be wary of using light-hearted humour with a family (with the exception of the children), whose members are complete strangers to me. Some level of decorum has to be maintained.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 20:01
  • Moreover, I would never address a card or a letter to "The Family" that is borderline rudeness.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 13, 2013 at 20:03
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA I agreee. I'm unwilling to invent a rule that may offend some members of the family. Perhaps Ms. Smith and family (since I believe the children's mother is the head of the household rather than her parents) is the best form of address.
    – Spare Oom
    Commented Dec 14, 2013 at 1:43
  • @SpareOom I think that is probably the best solution, if you believe "Dear All" is too impersonal. You might want to include that suggestion in your question.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Dec 14, 2013 at 6:12

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