Ask not for who the bell tolls...

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The Independent Online

In these days of e-mails and texting, the old certainties of letter-writing have begun to look less certain. When you have spent your whole life starting letters with the words "Dear Mr" or "Dear Mrs", it is a bit of a shock to start getting e-mails from strangers calling you "Hi!"

In these days of e-mails and texting, the old certainties of letter-writing have begun to look less certain. When you have spent your whole life starting letters with the words "Dear Mr" or "Dear Mrs", it is a bit of a shock to start getting e-mails from strangers calling you "Hi!"

Indeed, many of you have written to me asking what the etiquette of letter-writing is these days, and as I haven't the faintest idea, I am going to ask an expert to deal with your queries.

Please welcome Professor Ivan Evan-Evans, lecturer in calligraphy, communications and code-breaking at Milton Keynes University. And the first query...?

Dear Sir...

Professor Ivan Evan-Evans writes: Hold on! Stop right there! "Dear Sir" is not the opening of choice! "Dear Sir" is something that we say when we are writing to an office or a company, and we are not sure who is going to open the letter and read it. In this case, you know the question is coming to me, so you can address me personally. Let's try again.

Dear Ivan Evan-Evans...

Professor Ivan Evan-Evans writes: Whoa there! We do not address anyone by their first name until we know them well enough to do so. What is correct in this situation is to call me by my rank, which is Professor. OK, let's go again.

Dear Professor Evan-Evans...

Professor Ivan Evan-Evans writes: Not bad. "Dear Professor" would be better, but let it pass. Carry on.

Dear Professor, Why, when letter-writing was governed by such a firm set of rules, did not e-mails inherit the same rules? Why can't we start e-mails by saying "Dear So-and-so"? And end up "yours sincerely"?

Professor Ivan Evan-Evans writes: Because e-mails are not electronic letters. E-mails are written down phone messages. People approach the writing of an e-mail much as they would record a friendly message on someone's voicemail. That's why it is so common to start an e-mail with the word "Hi!" The person sending the e-mail to you is not writing to you so much as talking to you. The same goes for texting and chat-room messages and all that modern stuff. The reason it is all so informal is that talking is informal, and this is all written-down talking. The fact that writing it all down takes so much longer than saying it does not seem to deter anyone.

Dear Professor, I still write quite a few letters, but even after years of correspondence, I am never sure of the correct signing off procedure. When is it "yours sincerely" and when "yours faithfully" and when "with kindest regards"?

Professor Ivan Evan-Evans writes: The old standards no longer apply. The best thing to do these days is to evolve your own ending, which you can use invariably no matter to whom you are writing. I believe the late Frank Muir always used to end his letters with the word "thine". The mischievous American journalist HL Mencken, who was a devout non-believer, often signed his letters "yrs in Xt", or "yours in Christ". I know someone who has recently moved to the country who signs his letters to me "your rural chum". If I were Angus Deayton, I would sign my letters "yours allegedly", etc etc. It should not take you too long to work out a formula.

Dear Professor, I notice in that reply that you used the word "whom". Does anyone really use that any more?

Professor Ivan Evan-Evans writes: Sure. When writing letters of introduction, we should always open them: "To whom it may concern". Even today, it would be a rash correspondent who said: "To who it may concern", and I hope nobody would dare say: "Ask not for who the bell tolls..."

Old usages die hard. The word "Mister", for example, and the abbreviation "Mr", which are themselves from the old form "Master", as indeed "Mrs" is short for "Mistress". It's odd that you never see "Mrs" written out in full as "Missus". "Missus" is a word that is only spoken, never written...

Dear Reader, I can only humbly apologise for having hired this tiresome pedant. I will not make that mistake again. Yours sincerely, Miles Kington.

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