What About “To Whom It May Concern”?

One of my readers asked yesterday if all of the words in "To Whom It May Concern" should be capitalized. My answer was twofold:

1. If you must use this salutation, all of the words should be capitalized. This is my opinion, and it is also the opinion of the Owl at Purdue, which is a good grammar reference. http://owl.english.purdue.edu Here is what their website says:

"If you don't know a reader's gender, use a nonsexist salutation, such as 'To Whom It May Concern.'"

2. The other part of my answer was that I NEVER use "To Whom It May Concern," and I do not recommend it in my workshops because it is an antiquated form and because I think the writer should make an effort to call or e-mail to find out the name of the person being addressed.

If this is not possible, the writer should create a title that fits the situation. This title (e.g., Dear Director of Human Resources OR Dear Publications Assistant) should be used in the salutation and also on the envelope. It says the writer took some time to prepare, and it also allows the mail room of a large company to figure out where to deliver the letter.

I like what Rachel Zupek said recently in an article titled "Is 'To whom it may concern' the kiss of death?" This appeared on the careerbuilder.com blog called the Work Buzz. http://www.theworkbuzz.com/career-advice/whom-it-may-concern-kiss-of-death/. Here was her comment:

Most job seekers know that, whenever possible, it's best to address your cover letter to the person who has the power to hire you–or at least the person who can bring you in for an interview.

But, all too often, if a name isn't listed on a job posting, the job seeker resorts to an old-fashioned salutation like, "To Whom It May Concern." What they don't know, is that this approach can sometimes be considered the kiss of death.

Impersonal salutations like "Dir (sic) Sir/Madam" or "To Whom It May Concern" show an employer two things: The first is that you lack the initiative to locate the appropriate contact; the second is that you show a disregard for any research needed to be done on your part. In short, employers will think you're lazy and your cover letter will end up in the trash.

I agree completely with this opinion, and I often say so in business writing workshops. I do have a few comments about the punctuation in this comment, and I will address those in my next blog entry.


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  22. Rachel Valentine says:

    You should delete all those spammy comments…  But thanks for the information, I have always been confused on what to capitalize!

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    I am glad you found the information useful. You are so right about the spammy comments. Most of those were dumped here before I started using the correct filter. I will try to find a block of time to go back and delete those!

  24. Lavern says:

    I am having my current supervisor who is getting ready to retire provide me with a letter of reference that I intend to use for more than one organization.  Would that be an exception to the "To Whom I May Concern" rule?

  25. admin says:

    This is a good question, and I would say you have a choice. You can view it as an exception and use “To Whom It May Concern,” which would be the more traditional style. However, many business writing references today would suggest that you simply leave out the greeting and begin with your first paragraph. This is what I now do if I am asked to provide a letter of recommendation. I use the date and my return address information and then begin with the first paragraph.

  26. Sean says:

    If writing "To Whom It May Concern" on your cover letter results in your application being removed from consideration, you don't want to work there.  I hire around 20 people every year and review hundreds of applications.  I do expect a certain level of writing skill from successful candidates, but I couldn't give a damn about the salutation.  I'm far more interested in the body of text below it.  Your time would be much better spent agonizing over how you can relate your skills and experiences to the requirements/qualifications of the position so that I don't have to dig through your materials to guess about whether you're qualified. 

  27. admin says:


    Thank you for your thoughtful comment about “To Whom It May Concern.” Although I probably wouldn’t label it “the kiss of death” for a cover letter as the other article suggested, I do continue to think it is a poor choice that suggests a lack of checking. However, if the employer sees good skills well explained, then certainly the salutation itself should not exclude the resume.

    Because I occasionally teach a workshop on this subject, I would be interested in hearing your suggestions for the best way an applicant can communicate skills and experience as they relation to job requirements and qualifications. I have always recommended short, direct bullet lists of experience and accomplishments. I am not fond of the ubiquitous “Statement of Objective” at the top that is usually a bunch of words that means very little.  Would you agree?

  28. Blair says:

    What is the best route to take if the job posting is on Craigslist and they do not list the company name nor any other name on the posting? In that case, To Whom It May Concern seems like the only option, correct?

  29. Kenton says:

    Thank you for the clarification.  Unfortunately, I am still contemplating using "To Whom It May Concern."  My reason is that I am a teacher and I am applying for positions in school districts.  It is a piece of cake to find out who is in charge of human resources and address the cover letter to them.  However, the director of human resources is only one person that may be reading your cover letter.  The letter may also be read by the superintendent, director of education, and, I would expect, the principal and vice-principal of the school which has the open position.  

    So what about using it when you want to address more than one person?

  30. admin says:

    You give a good example of when “To Whom It May Concern” could be appropriate, but many business style “experts” still think it sounds antiquated. Go ahead and use it in that scenario if you are comfortable with it. An alternative would be to just dispense with the greeting entirely, and that is what I now do.

  31. admin says:

    As I mentioned in another response, many business style “experts” see “To Whom It May Concern” as stilted and antiquated language. If you don’t feel that way and don’t think your recipient will, go ahead and use it. What is now recommended, and what I do, is to simply omit the greeting completely in that situation.

  32. brandon says:

    What if you are sending the same letter to multiple people? How would you reommend I address multiple recipients? 

  33. admin says:

    Sorry for the late reply. I have been away for several weeks. You have  a few choices, depending on your purpose. Do you want each person to know that the same letter went out to everyone else? If not, just duplicate the letter with a different inside address and greeting for each one. If you have one primary recipient, you can address the letter to that person and copy the letter to the others, showing cc: at the bottom and listing those who received copies. If it is a general information letter going out to prospective clients or members of an organization, you could leave the inside address out and simply use a greeting like “Dear Director of Sales:….Dear Valley Hills Resident:…Dear Finance Committee Member….

    Finally, if it is a letter going, perhaps, to six named individuals, and you want all of their names as part of the greeting, simply write Dear Mr. Adams, Ms. Smith, Dr. Allenby, Father Reynolds, Mr. Collins, and Ms. Carter: (Notice that a business letter greeting is usually followed by a colon.)

    If you wish to use full names, it would look something like this: Dear Mr. Paul Adams, Ms. Valerie Smith, and Father Joseph Reynolds:

    If the multiple recipients are not all at the same address, it is a good idea to omit the inside address so that you don’t take up the whole first page with that.

    Hope this is helpful.

  34. Mike says:

    While I can certainly agree that it's not the best salutation, it is often the only one possible. I teach very large courses in which I ask for volunteers to ask as note takers for ESL students or students who become very ill. At the end of the term I provide them with generic letters of reference attesting to their efforts. There is no way to address those letters without using this very vague salutation, as I have no idea to whom they may go or for what purpose.

  35. admin says:

    You make a good point about this type of letter situation, and I am sure the grammar police would not arrest you for using this salutation. An alternative suggestion appears in a number of contemporary business writing references–simply use no salutation at all. In the situation you describe, there would be no inside address or date either, so this makes sense.  In other words, just begin with your first paragraph, which might look something like this:

    …During the ?? term of my class in ??, Jane Jones served as a volunteer note taker for ESL students. (Then go on and comment on her skills and experience.)


  36. Dave says:

    Most job seekers know that, whenever possible, it's best to address your cover letter to the person who has the power to hire you–or at least the person who can bring you in for an interview.

    If you have to research who you should address, maybe you shouldn't apply in the first place.   Why apply to a company that doesn't make the name of the person, or group, you are addressing more obvious?  Using this same sort of logic it seems that these sorts of companys are lazy and have a lazy culture.  They don't take time time to look deep enough into your background to find a good person, so they decide on a few small tricks to toss people out without really thinking much.  If they don't include a name, they are trying to hide, or play games of sorts.  If they are doing this to test your core abilities with nonsense like this, why would you ever want to work there anyway, why would you even apply?  "To Whom It May Concern" is absolutely good enough for a company like that, keep it up, and you may avoid going to work for lazy people with a lazy out-of-date culture.  They are the ones who started you down the path to this question out of their own laziness.  Whoever you are, you aren't lazy if you are looking these things up, I would suggest you not be lazy and include the appropriate name, if there is one, when seeking candidates & proposals, otherwise your company will be missing out on good talent in the future.

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