Friday, 6 November 2009

Yours, from 9 to 5

The question of how to end a business letter, or indeed any letter, has always troubled me. When I started work, the letter had already ceded supremacy to the email and the fax was on its way to extinction (we still have a fax in the corner of the office, which hums away and occasionally spurts out flyers for new printer cartridges or similarly exciting merchandise, but nobody knows how to use it).
At the same time, the structures and strictures of business correspondence seem to be dissolving. No longer is a “Dear Mr” invariably followed by “Yours sincerely”, or a “Dear Sir” by “Yours faithfully”. “Hi there”, “Hi everyone” and “Hello ladies” now seem to be perfectly acceptable ways to begin an email to clients or colleagues, as is the brusque vocative (“John, further to our conversation this morning…”).
But it is the valediction where things really get sticky. However I end a business letter, I am always left feeling that there must have been some other, more elegant, friendly yet businesslike, way to conclude. Below are some of the most common.
  • Best – Efficient and breezy, but to some minds, uncaring and abrupt.
  • Best regards – I rather like “best regards”. The upbeat adjective “best” peps up the formal “regards”, and the combination of the two words is much less brusque than either on its own. It is the sign-off I end up using most often, but it is still very far from perfect.
  • Kind regards – Dull and safe.
  • Nothing – Not the word “nothing”, of course, but an email without any sort of sign-off at all, just a name (or even an initial with a full stop after it). This suggests that the sender is very busy and important, or alternatively cross about something. Short emails full of misspellings and contractions such as “u” for “you” are also intended to convey that someone is in a great hurry and has no time for trifles such as spelling and grammar.
  • Regards – Formal and businesslike, but somehow slightly chilly.
  • Warm regards – I have an instinctive aversion to this; the warmth somehow suggests physical contact and it reminds me of a handshake in which you find your hand clasped between two large, soft and insistent paws. But this is perhaps illogical.
  • Yours ever – A smooth and slippery sign-off, charming but ultimately meaningless (particularly in business letters). Apparently Tony Blair used it when writing to colleagues.
  • Yours sincerely – This seems to have fallen out of favour, as does “Yours faithfully”. When I was at school, letters to someone whose name you knew invariably ended “Yours sincerely”, while those to someone you didn’t know ended “Yours faithfully”. But I can’t remember the last time I received an email or a letter signed like this.
  • Yours etc. – Does anyone actually sign letters like this, or is it merely a form of shorthand used by authors like Jane Austen to denote a longer and more elaborate valediction? Julian Barnes, in Talking it Over, suggests that signing letters “Yours etc.” or “Yours &c.” is the “true sign of the Old Bastard”, something a “bespatted captain of industry” might use when writing to The Times (for this I am indebted to jackburton-ga who reproduces the extract from Barnes’s novel in full on Google Answers).
  • Yours (something else) – There are lots of variants on the “yours” theme. Dogberry used to send me letters signed with a flourish such as “Yours democratically” or “Yours free in a packet of cornflakes”, but this has lapsed in recent years.
Update: Here is an interesting article from the New York Times which gives an American perspective. The Americans seem to place greater importance on warmth than the British - "warmly" and "warm regards" both find favour among those surveyed, although breezy "best" does have its fans.

Never more, Miranda, never more


  1. When my father was negotiating the (brutal) corporate world of the Masurian Lake District in the 20’s and early 50’s it was custom to inscribe ornate yet masculine vers de circonstances to the addressee on the ponderous vellum of the corporate envelopes.

    Is this style still in fashion? My fascination with the world of corporations is endless, but my experience is regrettable.

  2. Couldn't agree more.


  3. Sculpture is a difficult business (and,incidentally, the verb is technically sculpture, not sculpt). If you chip something off you can't put it back, unless you fill the gap up with wax.
    Therefore Roman sculptors would, if they had managed to do a sculpture without wax, write that it was sine cere (without wax), from which we derive the word sincerely.

  4. And 'best wishes'? That seems to be quite common.

  5. I sign off yours, etc. Have done for years, tradition from before the 19th Century. It was to stop the long your most humble servant and well wisher etc etc. It means yours with the addition of the huge line of flowery valedictions.

    Yours, etc. just became a way round my area of signing off in a less time consuming manner but still implicitly being sincere/faithful/humble etc. to the recipient of the letter.