Category Archives: Punctuation

How Should You Begin a Business Email?

Expert advice on getting your email off to a good start from the guys who wrote the book on email etiquette

Recently, I’ve been spending probably too much time considering email salutations. Back when letters were the dominant way of corresponding, the salutation was fairly straightforward. For a formal letter, the convention was to start with “Dear” and address the recipient by last name, followed by a colon.

Dear Mr. Smith:

For an informal letter, the convention was to use the person’s first name, followed by a comma.

Dear Jacob,

But email salutations, if used at all, tend to be much less formal. I find that most people start business emails with something like,

Hello Jacob,


Hi Jacob,

These greetings are friendly, but slightly ungrammatical. When addressing someone directly, a comma should go between the greeting and the person’s name.

Hello, Jacob,

I experimented with starting emails this way, but I thought it looked weird to have two commas. Not incorrect, just weird. Then I tried using a colon.

Hi, Jacob:

I liked this better, but I’d never seen anyone start an email this way. Unsure of what to do, I thought I’d better get some expert advice.

David Shipley and Will Schwalbe, authors of , favor starting a new email relationship the same way you would if you were writing a letter: formally.

“Email is a more urgent form of communication, and we have many more emails to answer every day than letters,” note the authors. “But it strikes us as rude to bark out someone’s name … even in an email, especially if you don’t really know your correspondent.”

But what if the person you’re emailing with is less formal? If you get an email that starts with “Hey, Bro,” and you respond with “Dear Mr. Smith,” the recipient may feel reprimanded or even insulted.

I asked Will Schwalbe what he thought about an imbalance in formality and grammaticalness. Is it better to mirror the person who’s writing to you, even if the grammar is off, or to be more formal but correct?

“You can never go wrong STARTING with ‘Dear Mr.’ or ‘Dear Ms.’ with someone you don’t know and with whom you’ve never corresponded,” he replied. “But if they write back and sign with their first name only, then go to ‘Dear FIRST NAME’ if they addressed you ‘Dear YOUR LAST NAME.’ If they started ‘Hi Will’ or ‘Hi, Will’ or ‘Hey Will’ or any variation, though, in their reply, switch to mirroring them—it’s always safe and cordial.”

Since receiving this advice, I’ve adopted a three-category approach to sending emails.

1. Starting new relationships formally

Dear Mr. Smith,

2. Beginning a new email thread with an acquaintance or colleague less formally

Dear Jacob,

3. Mirroring the opening line of incoming emails

Hi Jacob,
[No salutation]

Do you have a preferred email salutation? Do you follow the lead of whomever you’re corresponding with? Share your strategies below.

How should you write a.m. and p.m.?

Bidding’s still going on eBay for this festive clock.

Being a night owl, I rarely go to bed before 1:00 AM. Or is that 1:00 A.M.? Or maybe 1:00 am? 1:00 a.m.? 1:00 am? Nope, it’s 1:00 a.m.:

The meeting was moved to 10:30 a.m. tomorrow.
My flight is at 8:10 p.m.

The abbreviations a.m. and p.m. come from the Latin phrases ante meridiem and post meridiem, meaning, respectively, “before noon” and “after noon.” As with many other Latin abbreviations that we use in English—e.g., i.e., et al., etc.—the preferred style is to use lowercase letters with periods.

The Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook, the MLA Style Manual, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary all recommend this style. But keep in mind that it is a question of style, so some people may disagree. If your company has an in-house preference for small caps with no periods, that’s what you should use.

Related fun fact: It’s not technically correct to say 12:00 p.m. and 12:00 a.m.; noon cannot logically be after noon, and midnight could be either twelve hours before or twelve hours after noon. If you want to be a real stickler, say 12:00 noon or 12:00 midnight.

Of course, we could solve both of these problems by using the twenty-four-hour clock. British people are laughing at us for even needing to consider these questions. But Americans seem about as likely to convert to the twenty-four-hour clock as to the metric system, so we’re stuck with these debates for the foreseeable future.

Do you have a preference for one of the other styles of writing a.m. and p.m.? Do you cringe when other people use 12:00 p.m.? Or do you roll your eyes about that technicality? Do you use a twenty-four-hour clock? Share your thoughts below.

National Punctuation Day Celebration: Apostrophes

Today (September 24) is , the celebration of correct punctuation. In honor of the occasion, I penned an ode to the apostrophe—when to use it and, more importantly, when to leave it out. The post is over at Sin and Syntax, an excellent resource for writers. Here’s a taste:

The apostrophe has been giving writers trouble ever since it first appeared in English in the 16th century. In this century, stray apostrophes became so irksome in documents of the English town of Nottingham that its City Council instituted an “.” (Every time a staffer made an error with this curvy little mark, he or she had to put £1 into the box, with proceeds to go to charity.)

5 Surprising Places You Need a Comma

The comma is one of the most misused punctuation marks, but—unlike its dreaded cousin the semicolon—it’s absolutely necessary to everyday writing. Since there’s no getting around it, you should probably learn to use commas correctly.

But there are so many rules about comma use that they’re difficult to remember. My go-to grammar guide devotes nineteen pages to commas. Who apart from hardcore grammar nerds has time to learn this stuff?

The good news is that you’re already using commas correctly most of the time. The old rule of thumb is to insert a comma everywhere you naturally pause when speaking. It’s not a perfect way to decide whether to insert a comma, but it will help you get it right most of the time.

There are some places you need a comma that you probably won’t guess if you’re doing it by ear, though. Don’t forget to put a comma in these five places:

1. After a location or date that contains a comma. Most people are comfortable writing that the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. And you know to say that the capital of the US is Washington, DC.

But if it falls in the middle of a sentence, you need to insert a comma at the end of the date or location.

On July 4, 1776, the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence.
Washington, DC, is the capital of the US.

2. After someone’s title. As with the error with dates and locations, many writers leave off the second comma after a person’s title. If the title follows the name, it needs to be set off by a pair of commas.

Stephen T. Colbert, DFA, holds an honorary degree from Knox College.
Stephen W. Hawking, CH, CBE, FRS, FRSA, holds four honorary titles.

3. Introducing a direct quotation. If you set up a direct quotation with a verb, you need a comma before the quotation starts.

J.M. Tyree observes, “The Death Star clearly has a garbage disposal problem.”
Jack Handy points out, “If you ever reach total enlightenment while drinking beer, I bet it makes beer shoot out your nose.”

4. Continuing from a direct quotation. If your sentence keeps going after the quotation ends, put a comma at the end of the quotation (inside the quotation marks).

“The Death Star clearly has a garbage disposal problem,” observes J.M. Tyree.
“If you ever reach total enlightenment while drinking beer, I bet it makes beer shoot out your nose,” points out Jack Handy.

But note: If the quotation ends with a question mark or an exclamation mark, leave out the comma.

“Holey rusted metal, Batman!” exclaims Chris O’Donnell’s Robin in one of the worst puns in a script full of them.
“How can a squirrel look cheap?” asks Michael Ian Black rhetorically.

5. After e.g. and i.e. When you use these abbreviations, make them lowercase with periods. And then insert a comma.

My favorite wild animals are the dangerous ones (e.g., polar bears, great white sharks, and porcupines).
I’ve learned a lot from the Muppets (i.e., it’s not easy being green).

Want to learn more about comma use? Don’t miss these follow-up posts:

3 Surprising Places You Don’t Need a Comma

3 Places You Can Use a Comma, or Not