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I posted this question In "Dear X" what function does "X" serve? and realized that I didn't express the question properly. This is my meaning:

One can start a letter with Dear Jane, Dear Mr Jobs: or Dear Bob

Why is it that the expression Dear (person's name) can take either a comma, colon, or nothing and still be acceptable? What kind of phrase is Dear (person's name) that makes it open to such varied interpretation and use?

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2 Answers 2

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In the US, there is a long-standing convention that colons end the salutation in a business letter and commas end them in a personal letter. From the 1910 Style-book of Business English, Designed for Use in Business Colleges, High Schools, and for Self-instruction by H. W. Hammond, we find the following instruction for punctuating a business letter:

The explanation to give in connection with punctuating the salutation is that there can be only one form employed, and that is the colon.

I found an amusing set of letters to the editor of The Phonographic Magazine from 1899 explaining the use of the colon in business letters based on the mark's formality and the dictates of the pedagogy of the day. The Magazine was a publication of The Phonographic Institute, a school in Cincinnati, Ohio for teaching shorthand.

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  • Well, I can kind of understand the punctuation with a comma, as in "Dear Bob, I hope this letter reaches you." Dear Bob being a subordinate phrase (?) that can be put at the end, "I hope this letter reaches you dear bob." But I can't think of this with a colon. Colons are for lists and clauses that further explain or clarify. Did the colon have another use that fell out of fashion? Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 6:03
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    Thanks for taking this question seriously. As you can see I don;t accept "because that's the way we do it," for answers. There's always a reason for why things happen. Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 6:06
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    Latin has a vocative case, which is why it's "Et tu, Brute?" and not "Et tu, Brutus?" But English needs a punctuation mark to set off a vocative. Without one, "Bob, will you come here?" becomes the confusing "Bob will ...." and the comma seems the natural choice. Salutations are just vocatives. Modern typewriters (QWERTY, four-row, visible-type) became popular in the US in the 1890s, so the colon for business correspondence would seem to predate mechanical type.
    – deadrat
    Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 6:38
  • another user commented about this in the sense that Latin doesn't have punctuation... So in Latin, Dear Cicero, would be written Dear Cicere (?)...the word form IS the punctuation. Ok, what about the colon? Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 7:31
  • @michael_timofeev No, a salutation in a Latin letter would use the dative case with a verb in the third person, as though the letter (or its deliverer) was speaking, so Ciceroni salutem dicit or "To Cicero I say greetings" Somewhere before 1890, somebody in the US decided that a colon was more formal than a comma and thus more suitable for a business letter. I'm not sure how to go about tracking down first usage.
    – deadrat
    Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 8:05
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You can think of X as a variable that several different sorts of critter can occupy.

If you want a formal salutation, use a colon or semi-colon. If you want an informal salutation, use a comma.

I would not write "Dear Bob" with no punctuation at all.

"Dear X" is called a salutation or greeting.

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  • I know it is called a salutation but why is that we can use a colon to make it more formal? Why is comma ok? What kind of phrase is it that allows so much variation? Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 4:55
  • Well, I've seen many a discourse here on ELU about punctuation being a preference thing, not a rule thing. The custom is that the colon and the semi-colon are more formal, respectful and reserved than the comma. One is taught those customs of letter writing during one's youth, and the more examples one reads, the more ingrained this becomes. Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 5:04
  • I know...I watched my dad write letters when I was a kid and saw the different punctuation. But was it a random decision at one point to just put a colon and say "This means it's formal." There must have been some sort of grammar thinking. Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 5:09
  • Besides, I don;t see the colon much anymore...what happened to it? Why is the comma used more? Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 5:10
  • I have learned here not to confuse grammar and punctuation. / The colon is used a bit less now because some people are sloppy and some people are ignorant. / I do still use and see colons and semi-colons in formal letters plenty. Commented Sep 20, 2015 at 5:16

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