I answered a question (Should I use capital or small letter here? "Dear All" or "Dear all"?) about capitalizing "all" in "Dear All," In answering this, my thinking was "what function does "all" serve?" Today, while answering another post, I came across a website discussing the use of a colon (http://www.grammarbook.com/punctuation/colons.asp). It states that in formal greetings you should use a colon after Dear Mr. Jobs, as in "Dear Mr Jobs:" In my writing classes, I teach students to use a comma after the name and after "sincerely," (closed style). When I was growing up, I remember seeing the colon used a lot, as well as "Sirs:" These usages seem to have gone out of fashion. I know that open style does not use comma.

If, as the writer of the wesbite says, you should use a colon, X has one function; if you use a comma, another function; and if there is no comma, something else. Also, we call "Dear X" a salutation but it is the beginning of a sentence. Did people in English at one time start letters with more full "openings" such as "My dear Constance, ..." so the comma makes more sense? What about in ancient times? Did the Romans use a comma or no comma after "Dear Cicero[ ] I hope this letter finds you well in exile."

So, in a letter, what function does the "X" serve in "Dear X" and what function is the phrase "Dear X?"

  • The Romans had no punctuation marks, these were introduced in later times. – rogermue Sep 19 '15 at 11:23
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    In Dear X, X is a placeholder. – Drew Sep 19 '15 at 16:15
  • @Drew what do you mean? – michael_timofeev Sep 19 '15 at 16:17
  • You asked what function does the "X" serve in "Dear X"? It serves the function of a placeholder. It is presumably to be replaced by various terms: Cicero, Constance, Mr. Jobs, all, and so on. – Drew Sep 19 '15 at 16:21
  • @Drew I meant grammatically. – michael_timofeev Sep 19 '15 at 16:24

IT'S NOT A SENTENCE (or even just the beginning of one). It's a salutation. Doesn't matter whether it ends with a comma, a colon, a dash, or simply the end of the line. It is not a grammatical part of what follows.


The X would serve as a proper noun in this context.

Dear Jane

  • I think he's asking about the function of Jane in your example sentence, and he was using X as a placeholder in the question. – Barmar Sep 20 '15 at 3:23
  • @Barmar yes that is correct...if I use a comma after Jane it is different than if I use a colon...this means the phrase dear Jane is different...what kind of phrase is dear x that it can take either a comma or a colon or nothing? – michael_timofeev Sep 20 '15 at 3:55
  • @michael_timofeev Well the X <--> Jane here has lexical rather than grammatical meaning as you say. I would therefore 'phrase' it as a lexeme. – silenceislife Sep 20 '15 at 6:29

"Dear Jane" grammatically is the case of addressing a person. In Latin this sixth case was called vovative from vocare to call. In English grammars the term vocative is almost never used, but I found the term in Quirk/Greenbaum, A University Grammar of English (not useful for beginners).

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