I'm writing a formal appeal letter as a reply to a letter I got from a government agency. Unfortunately, the person sending it only put their name with an intial, e.g. "J. Smith" and no title. They're in a foreign French speaking country, and I don't want to be too informal.

What would be the correct way to address them in my reply? "Dear Sir or Madam", "Dear J. Smith"... any suggestions?

  • 2
    I would use "Dear J. Smith," on the theory that J. Smith's ambiguous self-identification renders any honorific speculative. I wouldn't use "Dear Sir or Madam" because it seems to hint at perplexity about J. Smith's gender and perhaps to include a note of rebuke at J. Smith's failure to clarify that point; If J. Smith isn't inclined to reveal him- or herself as male or female, I would take it as a hint that inquiries in that area are unwelcome.
    – Sven Yargs
    Aug 8, 2016 at 21:53

3 Answers 3


I would suggest "Dear J. Smith", unless you know a title or honorary that you could use in place of the first initial. While it seems impersonal, it's clear that there is no personal relationship involved since you don't know the sender.

The other option would be to try to research the sender prior to replying to gather a gender, title, or honorary.


What is their title? (If they have one)

For example:

Dear Ambassador Smith:

Dear Senator Booker:

Just title and last name will do...


If you know their title, then definitely use that.

"Dear Sir" or "Dear Sirs" was long considered the correct salutation on all formal or semi-formal business letters in the US when title was not used, however recently the "Dear Sir or Madam" is what I have seem more.

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