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Many languages, such as German (and Spanish), have "Sie" (you-formal) as a formal version of you. One can say use "Mr." and "Mrs.", but in a thank-you note / email, there is no formal word for English you can use to address your speaker. How does one get around it, to sound as proper as possible?

marked as duplicate by oerkelens, Janus Bahs Jacquet, Kris, Mitch, Robusto Sep 7 '18 at 1:58

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    The question of why English has no formal "you" has already been answered in this question (in particular, the second highest scoring answer). What you're asking about addressing the reader is not clear to me: are you talking about what goes at the top of it ("Dear ____")? – Laurel Sep 3 '18 at 0:33
  • What do you mean "why"? English doesn't like fawning language, at least in modern times. If his lordship would care to recreate bygone days, he is welcome to do so. That or become an ambassador. – tchrist Sep 3 '18 at 0:49
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    There is no problem with using you in a letter. Ever. It’s what we do. You add other, extra words to that when you want to address someone formally. But there’s no other personal pronoun. Even if the Queen herself address you, once you've said your majesty once, it’s okay to say you and maam in speech. Thank you, your majesty is just fine as a response to the monarch. – tchrist Sep 3 '18 at 0:58
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    @HotLicks Thou is archaic and poetic only, and it’s the familiar version not the formal one. Plus nobody knows how to conjugate verbs with it any longer. It would be completely wrong. – tchrist Sep 3 '18 at 1:50
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    Taking up @tchrist's earlier comment, in bygone fawning days one might have said "It was nice meeting your good self yesterday". Or replace "good" with "esteemed", "worthy", "excellent", etc. Although when being so formal, "it was nice" would not have been used - too colloquial. In any case, this level of formality would sound insincere or mocking in modern English, except in some regions where greater formality is still practised (I'm thinking perhaps in Indian English?). – Chappo Sep 3 '18 at 2:19
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English does have a formal you: "You", for both singular and plural.

What is missing in most modern English is the informal or familiar you: Thee or Thou. Those forms are preserved for some uses, notably Christian prayers. We may address God as Thee because we feel as close to Him as a child to a father.

Some English speakers still use thee and thou. My father was born in the 1920s into a Quaker family. Within the family, he would say, "What thinkest thou?"

  • No, that isn't true. You is both familiar and formal, singular and plural in today’s English. And that is not what the asker wanted to know, since they already know that. – tchrist Sep 3 '18 at 0:37
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    If he asks what is formal, he does not know that "you" is formal. I have now looked at the linked question and there is plenty of support that the forms thee and thou still have niche uses. – Theresa Sep 3 '18 at 0:43
  • I think the OP is asking about an equivalent of "sie" (both singular and plural formal) as opposed to "du" and "ihr" (singular and plural informal respectively). As far as I know English didn't have an equivalent even before the 18th century and French doesn't have one now even though it retains the informal "tu". – BoldBen Sep 3 '18 at 5:33
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At one point there were formal and informal second person pronouns (informal: thou, thee, etc; formal: you, ye, etc.) However, "[b]y the late seventeenth century you had become normal in almost all contexts and thou and thee were limited to the Bible and religious use, the Quakers, and regional dialects" according to the OED Blog. (More on this can be found here.)

Thus, the most formal second person (singular and plural) pronoun is you (in contrast, there are currently several widely-used informal second person pronouns in different regions such as "y'all" and "you guys"). You can see you used in examples of letters/emails in pretty much any source you pick up. Here's an example from a book (Technical Communication, page 369) I happen to own (emphasis added):

Dear Mr. Larsyn:

As steady customers of yours for over 15 years, we came to you first when we needed a quiet pile driver for a job near a residential area. On your recommendation, we bought your Vista 500 Quiet Driver[...]

Yours truly,
Jack Robbins, President

Use of "you" can create an informal tone in some types of writing, such as essay writing, documentation, or academic writing. In other words, writing which is not addressed to anyone where it would make sense to use "one" instead of "you" or rewrite things entirely.

And of course, there are other (unrelated) strategies to make writing more (or less formal), such as not using contractions.

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It’s not true that English has no word that you can use to address someone formally. Indeed, it has at least two, depending on gender. They simply are not personal pronouns.

The tu–vous distinction is best implemented in English by addressing your interlocutor as sir or ma’am (or sometimes madam or miss) used vocatively as a noun of direct address.

Would you like ice in your whiskey, sir?

Why thank you, madam, that would be delightful!

It’s that extra word that makes it formal, as you might do with their full name Mr Smith or Mrs Jones, without either having to know it or to repeat it. The sir or ma’am stands in for the full formal name.

But if you talk like this all the time, people will think you’re very stand-offish. After all, you aren’t always addressing a police officer you’re trying to talk out of arresting you, or speaking solicitously to a well-heeled customer at some ritzy high-street shop.

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    Sir and ma'am (contraction of madam) are still commonly used in the southern USA and in the military. In those two cultures, there is no condescension or stand-offishness expressed, and the address is received as polite. – Theresa Sep 3 '18 at 0:49
  • @Theresa The entire point of saying something formally is because you want to be off-putting: you’re trying to put some social distance between you and your interlocutor. That’s what formal speech is all about. It's not friendly, and that's the point: the person you're speaking with is not your friend or your family. They're a stranger whom you have no intimacy with; that's all well and good in the service industry or with cops. They aren't your buddies, nor you theirs. Mom once told us that if we ever called her maam she'd cry because it's disowning her as family. There it's rude. – tchrist Sep 3 '18 at 1:10
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    @tchist, You are from a different culture than I am. In the southern states of the USA, children do call their parents "sir" and "ma'am". By the time I was in my teens, my parents addressed me as "ma'am". My husband, also southern, calls me "ma'am". In none of these examples from my personal experience is there any distance intended or created. To us, it is an ordinary courtesy. – Theresa Sep 3 '18 at 1:20
  • @Theresa That's right: I'm from the North, which means my social cues are the opposite of yours. Saying sir or maam to family is considered extremely rude where I'm from, since it says you are not really family at all but strangers and servants to boot. We should not tell people to do things that would be rude. Otherwise we'd have to tell them what the Northern equivalent to yankee is but for Southerners, and you wouldn't like that. :) – tchrist Sep 3 '18 at 1:40
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    @Theresa: I don't know what part of the South you're talking about, but most places I know pretty much ditched the ma'am-sir business back in the 70s except for emphasis. – KarlG Sep 3 '18 at 1:45

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