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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

How to sign a letter

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Cryptology is the art of using the same set of words (or other symbols or images) to say more than one thing at once, potentially to different people. Here is a famous example, from Arthur Conan Doyle's novella A Scandal in Bohemia:


You really did it very well. You took me in completely. Until after the alarm of fire, I had not a suspicion. But then, when I found how I had betrayed myself, I began to think. I had been warned against you months ago. I had been told that if the King employed an agent it would certainly be you. And your address had been given me. Yet, with all this, you made me reveal what you wanted to know. Even after I became suspicious, I found it hard to think evil of such a dear, kind old clergyman. But, you know, I have been trained as an actress myself. Male costume is nothing new to me. I often take advantage of the freedom which it gives. I sent John, the coachman, to watch you, ran upstairs, got into my walking-clothes, as I call them, and came down just as you departed.

Well, I followed you to your door, and so made sure that I was really an object of interest to the celebrated Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Then I, rather imprudently, wished you good-night, and started for the Temple to see my husband.

We both thought the best resource was flight, when pursued by so formidable an antagonist; so you will find the nest empty when you call to-morrow. As to the photograph, your client may rest in peace. I love and am loved by a better man than he. The King may do what he will without hindrance from one whom he has cruelly wronged. I keep it only to safeguard myself, and to preserve a weapon which will always secure me from any steps which he might take in the future. I leave a photograph which he might care to possess; and I remain, dear Mr. Sherlock Holmes,

Very truly yours, IRENE NORTON, née ADLER.

A Scandal in Bohemia was published in 1891 in London. The storyline was that the famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes was commissioned by the King of Bohemia to recover a photograph of the King and his former mistress, Irene Adler, an American opera singer, that threatened to compromise his forthcoming royal marriage that would comprise a political union of Bohemian and Scandinavian political interests. Irene Adler, or "the Lady" as Holmes would come to call her as a term of respect, was holding the photograph back from the King as an insurance policy to prevent the King from murdering her, who was known to be an extremely dangerous and violent man. Holmes therefore had a distasteful client and was set up against an adversary who outwitted him in his attempts to recover the controversial photograph. When Holmes finally identified the location of the photograph (hidden in a safe behind a painting in Irene Adler's London home), by the time he arrived with the King to collect the image Irene had married an English solicitor and fled England overnight, throwing the photograph into the English Channel as she and her new husband took the boat to the Continent.

The letter, transcribed into English literature as a classic for time immemorial, was of course a letter both to Sherlock Holmes and the King at the same time, and said different things to each of them. To Mr Holmes, it was a mark of respect and an explanation of how Irene Adler had outwitted him. To the King, it was a threat that if he pursued her any further then she would expose him. But she had couched her language carefully, and in a letter to Mr Holmes and not to the Kind, so that the threat could be made without incurring the risk of wrath of the criminal law. Sometimes people use language of this kind for benign purposes, to make a threat with good intentions.

Sometimes people use the language of threats for altogether more malign purposes. Of course lawyers are experts in the making of veiled and overt threats; really it is their business. A substantial part of human business is done by the exercise of leverage, which really means making threats to the effect that if B does not comply with what A wants, then A will cause harm of some kind to B. It is a tragedy of humanity that this is how people choose to conduct the greater part of their existences, and it is everything that the teachings of Jesus tried to show us to get around; but it still remains a fundamental part of human nature. When threatened, the most important rule in life is not to give into the threat but to persuade one's interlocutor to engage reasonably and honestly. Reason and honesty are what raise humankind above the beasts.

English contains the most extraordinary array of methods for beginning and signing off on correspondence, and these are also a form of cryptology, because each of them have hidden meanings. Moreover these habits have changed with time, and American and British English have changed in different directions. Irene Adler's letter, because she was an American, opened with the phrase "My dear Mr. Sherlock Holmes:". There are two features of this of note from the perspective of differences between American and British English. Americans virtually always use a full stop (a "period", as Americans call it) after titles such as "Mr", whereas British people seldom do. Also, Americans use a colon at the end of an opening address, whereas in the United Kingdom such a practice is quite unheard of and might be construed as really quite rude.

The use of "Very truly yours" is simply old-fashioned. It is seldom used in the contemporary era; but where it is used, it tends to be a mark both of finality ("this concludes the communications between us") and as a mark of respect, and in this respect Irene Adler may have been conveying both finality and respect both to Mr Holmes and to the King.

Here are some other peculiarities about how people go about opening and closing formal correspondence. Many of these have transferred over to the use of email, but seldom to the use of instant messages (the other predominant form of electronic communication in the modern age). In the contemporary era, the use of email has come to be associated with formality and hence emails often now represent letters in their layout and style; whereas instant messages are more associated with informality. Nevertheless, the courts have been quick to adapt to the rise of instant messaging and have easily concluded in a number of cases that instant messages can create legally binding commitments where that is the parties' habitual method of interacting or doing business.

The following stylistic observations are common to letters (where people write them anymore, which is now really quite rare) and much contemporary email:

  • Whereas Americans almost always conclude an opening salutation, whether in formal or informal circumstances, with a colon (":"), in British English salutations either take a comma or no punctuation at all. It is considered more friendly to use a comma, and friends are likely to use commas; whereas for there to be no punctuation at the end of an opening salutation is an index of formality, and might be typical of a letter from a lawyer or a bank.

  • Interestingly, Russians use an exclamation mark to conclude an opening salutation, and they have imported this curious habit into English when they write in English. Hence it is common to receive emails from Russians that begin "Dear Desmond!". This can be rather alarming the first few times you see it, but nothing in particular is meant by it. The intention is not to make you nervous. Also interestingly, it is this author's experience that Ukrainians do not adopt the exclamation mark in opening salutations, even when writing in Russian. Instead they are liable to use the comma. We have no idea why this is.

  • There is a long-standing convention in British English that where a letter is addressed to someone without mentioning either their first or last name in the opening salutation, the letter is finished with the concluding phrase "Yours faithfully". This applies even if you know the person's name and irrespective of how close the relationship may be. The British tend to use titles quite frequently. So a letter or email that begins "Dear Sir", "Dear Sir / Madam" (the lawyer's contemporary standard, that until recently always used to be "Dear Sirs" but this was thought to be sexist), "Your Excellency", "Your Worship", "Your Majesty", etcetera is always signed off with the phrase "Yours faithfully".

  • However exactly the same letter, to the same person and with the same contents, is signed off with "Yours sincerely", if either the first or the last name of the addressee is used in the opening salutation. Hence "Dear King Charles" is signed "Yours sincerely", as is "Dear Ambassador Jones" or "Dear Mr Smith". Few people recall these conventions except those whose job it is habitually to write letters, such as diplomats and lawyers.

  • In the United States there is no equivalent of this rule, and reasonably formal correspondence is typically signed "Sincerely yours", often centred where the correspondence is a letter whereas the British English phrases "Yours sincerely" and "Yours faithfully" are more likely to be left-aligned.

  • In diplomacy and politics, two curiously divergent traditions have emerged between the United States and the United Kingdom where the correspondents know one-another reasonably well or even have close relations but are under an obligation for whatever reason to write formal correspondence to one-another. In the United Kingdom, the convention that has emerged is for the author to write "Dear [ ]" and the closing salutation using ink in blank spaces left for that purpose in an otherwise typed letter. In the United States by contrast, it is common that in such correspondence the opening and closing salutations are printed but then struck through with a pen and rewritten in ink. The United States is the only country we know of that adopts this convention, and we would welcome information on any other country that does this.

  • In the United States, in formal correspondence, where the parties know one-another well it is more common that they use first names than in England. However using first names in the United States where one does not know one's counterpart well is considered rude. This convention stands in stark contrast to the convention in the United Kingdom, in which in formal situations people who know one-another well may still use formal titles (e.g. "Dear Prime Minister, I hereby tender my resignation as Minister of Trade") whereas as a way of putting people at their ease, a lot of formal correspondence between people who do not know one-another very well has now moved in the United Kingdom to the use of first names. Hence it is not unusual to receive a letter from one's bank saying "Dear Sally". In the United States this would not happen; it is more common that one might receive a letter that says something such as "Dear Sally Jackson:", something which is rare in the United Kingdom.

  • The rules on when a person may use the title "Dr" (or, in the United States, "Dr.") also vary. In the United Kingdom this is a title appropriate for a person with a doctoral degree, as is also the case in Germany and a number of other European countries that do not use Romance languages. However in France, French-speaking Switzerland and the United States, this title is usually reserved for actual medical doctors. (German-speaking Switzerland follows the German rule. Therefore confusingly, in Switzerland, if a lawyer is German-speaking (s)he generally goes by the title "Dr", because the greater majority of lawyers have doctoral degrees; whereas in French-speaking Switzerland a lawyer goes by the title "Me", which is short for Maître or "Master"). In the United States the possession of a doctoral degree is generally indicated by letters coming after one's name; in England the use of post-nominals, as they are called, is really extremely formal and they are seldom used save in the most rarefied of professional situations. (e.g. "Mr Smith, KC appeared for the Crown Prosecution Service.")

  • One way both British and American people ameliorate necessary formality is by adding phrases like "With kind regards", "With all kind regards", "With all the very kindest of regards", "With all very best wishes" and the like in advance of the formal sign-off. This may be a disguised way of saying that the communication is not really that formal or threatening, notwithstanding its appearing to be so on its face; or it may be a disguised way of indicating friendship, good will or even intimacy (where people in intimate relations, for example, also have professional relations with one-another).

  • However this has degraded into a method of showing dismissiveness or contempt in some internal corporate email correspondence, as people write "KR" as their sign-offs as an abbreviated version of "Kind regards". This gives the impression that the author cannot even be bothered to take the time to type out the words "Kind regards", and it can offend people. We should take every effort not to offend people, in all our endeavours. Offensive communications simply make the business of communicating less pleasant, and it costs us all more time in the end as we have to sort out confusions and misunderstandings engendered by people taking offence. We may live in a fast-moving world, and there is often a need to respond to communications very quickly. However there is never a need to be rude or discourteous, and we should all do everything we can to avoid it at all times.

Why do we summarise all these unusual rules and conventions? Part of the reason is that we are in our hearts traditionalists, and we like to maintain the old-fashioned conventions when they do not cause any harm. Secondly we set out these rules as a way of avoiding confusion or misunderstanding, because the differences, particularly as between different professions and as between different cultures, can be a source of misunderstanding and therefore unnecessary aggravation.

Finally, the smallest details in a formal piece of correspondence may indicate some hidden meaning that the author cannot say openly but the gist of which he or she wishes to convey. That is why details such as how letters and emails are opened and signed off are so extremely important.


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