Email Salutations: Formal or Informal? Comma or Colon?

man_sending-emailEmail continues to be the predominant form of business communication, yet many business climates are becoming even more casual. What’s the best way to start a message? How formal or informal should your salutation be?

The best answer: It depends.

An email opening consists of a greeting and a name. It can set a formal, respectful tone or an informal, friendly tone.

Dear Mr. Lee:
Good morning, Brad.
Hi Brad!

A reader questioned whether to include a comma between an informal greeting and the person’s name:

Hi Brad.  Hi, Brad.
Hello Brad.  Hello, Brad.
Good morning Brad.  Good morning, Brad.

I hopped online and visited several grammar sites. They agreed on the convention of inserting a comma between the greeting and the name:

Hi, Brad.
Hello, Brad.
Good morning, Brad.

Here are more recommendations for email greetings and how to punctuate them:

In business emails, the most formal way of ending a salutation is with a colon. So instead of “Dear Mrs. Johnson,” you should write “Dear Mrs. Johnson:” and then continue with the body of the message.

However, this caveat follows:

In some cases, it might not be a faux pas to use a comma at the end of the salutation. You might write a business email where the utmost formality is not necessary, and in that case, the colon is not required.

Yes, you need to use a comma between the person’s name and the greeting. The reason is “direct address.” We use commas to show that we are talking to the reader, not about the reader.

Hello, Rene.
Danny, thank you for your thoughtful message.
Congratulations, Michael!
I am writing to you, Kathryn, with some sad news.

Never use a comma after the greeting Dear: Dear, Claudio:

In very formal circumstances, you could follow your salutation with a colon. For example:

Dear Mr. Smith:
Dear Professor Jones:

When the salutation in your email starts with Hello or Hi, then you should put a comma before the name of the person you’re addressing. It is also standard practice to put a comma after the name of the person you’re addressing.* For example:

Hi, Michael,
Thanks for paying for dinner last night.

Using a colon (instead of a comma) after such an informal salutation would not be an error, but it would be unusual.

* I have seen many informal salutations that use a period at the end.
Hi, Michael.  Hello, John.  Good morning, Mrs. Vincent.

The difference between the comma and the colon might seem insignificant, but it actually reflects the level of formality in your message. There is a common misconception that commas should never be used after salutations. That’s just not true. Commas can be used after informal salutations that include an adjective such as “Dear.” The trick is that you have to decide if your message is formal or informal.

Letters and emails to family are pretty much always informal:

Dear Mom and Dad,
Thank you for the birthday gift!

However, the level of formality in business letters and emails will depend on your work environment and your personal relationship with the recipient.

The consensus:

As you see, you have some choices. Here’s my summary:

  • If your email has a formal tone, use Dear and a colon at the end your email salutation.
  • If your email has an informal tone, insert a comma between the greeting and the name, and use either a comma or a period at the end of the greeting.
  • If you want to set a tone of excitement in an informal email, you might want to end the greeting with an exclamation point: Hi, Brad! But use this mark sparingly.

Perplexed by punctuation? Puzzled by the correct use a particular word?  Send me an email! I’m a ruthless editor who loves reader questions about grammar.

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Kathy Watson

Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence. She encourages and welcomes questions and comments. (Email)