Thank Goodness We Don’t Have To Write Letters Anymore, Right Millenials?

Clippy-letterI hesitate to write this, because I am wary of coming firmly on the side of No More Letters. What a shame, right? For a long time in my life I very much romanticized writing letters. I had a wax seal with my initials on it, for gods sake, and for one year in high school decided I’d write all my best friends heartfelt letters for their birthdays instead of getting themselves gifts (I’m so sorry, friends). Even recently I’ve found it comforting to write letters to faraway friends instead of texting or emailing, and I covet my personalized stationery.

However, the last time I picked up a pen and tried to write an extended thought on a piece of paper I think my hand cramped up. I have the handwriting of a 7-year-old on a hay ride, and between trying to make sure anything I write down is actually legible, or being like “Yes Word paperclip I am trying to write a letter, YOU’RE SUCH A GENIUS,” or making sure that after all is said and done the damn paper actually gets to where it’s going (quite a few of our wedding invitations mysteriously never made it to their destinations), the art of letter writing is losing its allure, and I think I might be done. I don’t want to give a definitive answer, but some days I really appreciate Gmail.

But, obviously, writing letters has been a huge part of how people communicated. The Polite Letter Writer, 1860, states, “Had letters been known at the beginning of the world, epistolary writing would have been as old as love and friendship, for as soon as they began to flourish, the verbal messenger was dropped, the language of the heart was committed to characters that faithfully preserved it, secrecy was maintained, and social intercourse rendered more free and pleasant.” Nice, right?

The Polite Letter Writer has a whole guide for many types of letters, but there are some basic rules. First, make sure you spell everything correctly, a rule that gives me heart palpitations because I rely heavily on those squiggly red lines to let me know what I do wrong. Also, “vulgarism in language” suggests you’d be bad company, and “Proverbial expressions and trite sayings are the flowers of the rhetoric of a low-bred man.” So, you know, say what you mean. She then goes on for about ten pages about how to craft your natural writing style, which I’m sure is a lovely skill to have, but it’s all about studying the works of eminent poets but not actually imitating them, and I’d rather just send a Futurama .gif. (Hahah some Baby Boomer just read that and had a heart attack. Sorry guys, sorry for keeping it real.)

Most of the letter writing guides I’ve found follow the same format, and it’s EXHAUSTING. I mean, just look at the Table of Contents for Martine’s Perfect Letter Writer:

letter contents

You don’t even get to ‘How to begin a Letter” until 20 pages in, and that tip is literally start writing two-inches down from the top of the paper. It’s madness. Here are some other outdated tips for writing all day long.

  • If you’re writing a letter to someone you don’t know well, end with “Your obedient Servant.” As you get friendlier you can move up to “Yours faithfully” and even to “Yours very sincerely.”
  • “Honored sir” is terribly antiquated.
  • “Never sent a note to  person who is your superior.”
  • “Postscripts are generally indicative of thoughtlessness, and should be avoided.”
  • “Never write ‘I saw 5 birds’.”

Of course, there’s no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater (was that too much the rhetoric of a low-bred man?). These books still have good advice, and I’d like to leave you with something that applies whether you’re communicating via written letter or Gchat:

And finally remember that whatever you write is written evidence either of your good sense or your folly, your industry or carelessness, your self control or impatience. What you have once put into the letter box may cost you lasting regret, or be equally important to your whole future welfare. And, for such grave reasons, think before you write and think while you are writing.

How To Address Just About Anyone

Obama approves of using Ms. [Flickr user QueenofSpainErin]

Forms of address are complicated and fraught with peril because incorrect use can be seen as disrespectful. It’s a good thing that we have evolved from just Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Smith, but without one standard form, it gets a bit tricky. Women are insisting on not being defined by their marital status. Men are taking women’s names. There are same-sex couples to think about. Utter madness. Won’t someone please think of the great-grandmas stuck in their ways?

The rule of thumb is that if you know what someone prefers to be called, then call them that! (Shortcut: If they sent you a letter, see how they put their name on the return address. Boom. Easy.)  If you don’t know, then you can follow the basics:

A single person:

  • Professional titles like Dr. trump any of these (noble titles too, but c’mon you don’t know Sir Paul McCartney or Prince Harry anyway)

  • Mr. Horace Banks

  • Miss Flora Norwood (only for the VERY young- under 18)

  • Ms. Maude Fredericks (married or unmarried)

  • Mrs. Myrtle Hotchkiss (only if you are pretty sure they prefer Mrs.)

  • Mrs. Clarence Jacobs (only if you are CERTAIN they prefer it or if they are very old)

Interestingly in the case of a divorce, a woman shouldn’t use Mrs. Clarence Jacobs at all, though she can still use Mrs. Patricia Jacobs if she retains her married name. If she returns to her maiden name, then she shouldn’t use Mrs. Patricia Rogers, she should go back to Ms. Patricia Rogers. A widow is traditionally addressed with the same title she used when she was married, unless you know she prefers something else.

Juniors, Seconds, and Thirds:

If a man is named after his father, he uses the suffix junior, which is written out as: Edmund Jones, Jr. Ansel Whittleby II is a man that is named after an uncle or a grandfather. Thirds and fourths come after that. FUN FACT: the nicknames Trip and Trey are traditionally used for someone who is a third and Skip is used for someone named after a grandfather because the name “skips” a generation.

Couples and Groups:

A lot of this comes down to formality and preference. The more formal your correspondence, the more formal you should go. Note that in a heterosexual couple, the male title and name traditionally comes first, but either way is correct.

  • Mr. and Mrs. Seamus Finnegan (the most formal address for a heterosexual married couple. Many modern women object to the use of just the man’s name and so this is best used if you are sure that it is the preference. You should not use Ms. with this form- Mr. and Ms. Seamus Finnegan because the old fashioned use of the man’s name doesn’t really jive with the more modern Ms.)

  • Mr. and Mrs. Blanc (an alternate with no first names)

  • Mr. Taran Edwards and Ms. Beatrice Edwards (this is used if you wish to use both first names. Many people will write Mr. Taran and Ms. Beatrice Edwards, but this is less preferable because then it looks like you are addressing the first person as just Mr. Taran, which just looks a bit weird)

  • Mr. Patrick O’Malley and Ms. Bridget Sullivan/ Ms. Jennifer Cooper and Ms. Becky James (for an unmarried couple, a married couple where the woman kept her own name, gay/lesbian couples, roommates, etc. You should try to get both names on the same line, but it’s okay if it doesn’t fit and you have to put them on separate lines. For more formal events, roommates should get separate invitations, though most people aren’t too put off by being included together.)

  • Dr. Camilla Banks and Mr. Peter Partridge (a title like Dr. always outranks the Mr./Ms./Mrs. and the names should be separate, though if you are using the very old fashioned form: Dr. and Mrs. Peter Partridge is correct but Mr. and Dr. Peter Partridge isn’t. Two doctors with the same last name are addressed as The Doctors Partridge.)

  • Henry and Henrietta Henderson/ Jasmine Sultan and Rebecca Bainbridge (the same as above but more casual)

  • The Jones/The Jones Family (this is pretty casual but still useful if you don’t know the preferred title or want to invite the whole family)

Things We Don’t Have To Do Anymore:

Unwed mothers having to go by Mrs. Maidenname to avoid scrutiny. Because heavens to Betsy, what would the neighbors think?