In formal letter writing, it is customary to include an opening greeting known as a salutation. In a standard business letter, it generally appears two lines below the recipient's address, if one is included. Otherwise, the greeting begins near the top right of the letter. A proper salutation for a formal letter generally begins with the word Dear, followed by the title and name of the letter's recipient: "Dear Mr. Smith," or "Dear Professor Jones," for example.
Some business or formal letters drop the word "Dear" altogether and start off with only the recipient's name. It may be followed by a comma, a semi-colon or even a dash. The point is to ensure the proper recipient receives the message and to set the letter's overall tone. Some modern letter writers may leave out the greeting entirely, especially when using electronic communications with limited capacity.
An informal letter can include an informal salutation, such as hello, hey, hey there, or what's up? Email correspondence can be especially informal, with the sender's initial message containing a more formal greeting such as "Hello Mr. Jones," and subsequent responses dropping it altogether.
Some writers who do not know the specific name or title of their intended recipient may use a more generic salutation such as "To Whom It May Concern," or "Dear Sir or Madam," although business etiquette experts strongly suggest obtaining specific contact information before resorting to such a general greeting. Even a general greeting, such as "Dear Customer Service Representative," may be considered an improvement over "To Whom It May Concern."
A proper salutation should equal the level of familiarity between sender and recipient. A formal letter addressed to the president of the United States, for example, should open with "Dear Mr. President," not "Hello Barack," or "Hey Prez." There are reference books that contain the proper greetings for dignitaries, political leaders, celebrities, religious figures, and other professionals, so a letter writer should be sure to use the proper greeting for the proper occasion.
The opening greeting of a business letter should also match the tone and formality of the closing. The traditional "Sincerely yours," or "With warmest regards," may sound a little stodgy or outdated in a modern business letter, but using a closing line such as this does help personalize the message. Ending a complaint letter with "Respectfully," can restore a sense of civility to the process, while ending a cover letter with "Awaiting your timely response," demonstrates interest and initiative.
Using a formal salutation may not be as critical in many modern communications, but it does help to ease the recipient into the rest of the letter and sets the tone as either formal or informal.