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In a formal letter addressed to one or more unknown recipients, "Dear Sir or Madam" is the customary salutation. As a German native speaker, who is used to "Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren", writing "Sir" before "Madam" sounds impolite to my ear and I feel the urge to change the order. I know that I must never directly carry over conventional expressions from one language to another, but it makes me wonder:

Are there any differences between "Dear Sir or Madam" and "Dear Madam or Sir"? In particular, would the latter sound more polite or rather come across as outlandish?

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    It's quite a weird quirk of English; after all, we usually say it the opposite way in the phrase "Ladies and Gentlemen"! – Herr Pink May 13 '15 at 9:30
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In English, "Dear Sir or Madam" is the traditional and customary order. It does sound quaint (and sexist to some) — but's that's how it is.

You would indeed be thought "outlandish" (a good choice of term there) if you were to reverse that order.

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    However, women are placed first when it comes to "ladies & gentleman" but I am not sure if we can write "Dear ladies & gentleman" in a formal letter. – Imran Bughio May 13 '15 at 9:56
  • @imran Bughio: It seems you might, provided you are sure that your addressees include at least two of both. But I think this is mainly an oral expression. – Brian Hitchcock Jul 26 '15 at 21:08
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    @BrianHitchcock: At least two ladies and exactly one gentleman... – gnasher729 Aug 17 '16 at 17:22
  • @ImranBughio Or we can write "Dear All" instead of "Dear ladies & gentleman". – Wishwas Jul 29 '19 at 8:56
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While I realize the traditional way to write it is with "Sir" first, but I practice writing most anything requiring a choice in order alphabetically. Thus, I write "her/him," "he/she" and even lists such as: "charismatic, determined, enthusiastic, influential and multi-faceted" in alphabetical order.

Sometimes, the words I'm alphabetizing seem out of order and yet, as with anything new, I expect that to be the case. Thus, I endure the discomfort and write them as I've reasoned is optimal until such feels more comfortable, which it inevitably does, save some overt flaw in my reasoning. Oh, to an earlier reference about "ladies and gentlemen," I'd opt for "gentlemen and ladies," for reasons herein explained.

I believe that this type of practice constitutes progress (even if minute) in our overall work toward gender equality and so it pleases me. I realize that some may find it confusing or off-putting, which only means that they are thinking about it and if enough of that occurs, then we all just might get to a better place.

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    It's a nice idea and I'll see how it feels. Have you seen this theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/… ? – Dan Jul 28 '19 at 21:50
  • WOW, I almost entirely forgot about that little nugget, Dan. Yes, I have seen it - well, possibly not the same exact post, but certainly the nearly identical content. Seeing as it is categorized in such a seemingly random and yet absolutely accurate-to-cultural-norms way, there is really no reason for me to order adjectives alphabetically after all. Thanks for the reminder - I feel a bit silly for having seen it and failed to adopt it in my writing earlier. I still hold solidly on the pronoun matter, though. Thanks mucho! :-) – Jennei Preston Jul 28 '19 at 22:09
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Dear Sir or Madam is the customary ordering, which is reason enough to do it in a formal setting. But also consider the "rhythm" of the opening; sir has half the syllables as madam, and therefore it sounds better when sir is uttered first. Same thing with Ladies and Gentlemen, where ladies has less syllables than gentlemen. Compare this to German, where Damen and Herren have an equal amount of syllables. Now, I (as an ESL writer) am not sure if this effect actually carries over to writing, though it is something to consider.

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In English, "Dear Madam or Sir" may be used less often. But I believe this is more tradition from the anglosaxon world. In southern parts of Europe it is offensive not to go from woman to man even. In Dutch and French I know this equivalent is evenly less used but formally correct, so why should English be any different?!

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