Starting letters used to be easy - you'd use "Dear" followed by the recipient's name if you knew it, or "sir/madam" if you didn't.
Then email came along and things got more complicated. Knowing exactly how to start an email can be confusing and, if the email relates to something important such as a job application or a business deal, even worrying.
In this guide we'll look a range of ways to start an email, and when you should use a particular opening.
How to start an email 1: Hi [Person's name]
This is probably now the most common way to start an email. It's friendly, not too informal and is suitable for almost every situation.
How to start an email 2: Hello [Person's name]
There are some who feel "hi" to be a bit too informal. If that's you (or you think you might be emailing someone who feels this way) then swapping "Hi" for "hello" will work just as well.
How to start an email 3: Dear [Person's name]
This may sound a bit too formal and stuffy for an email opening, but there are times when it works well - if you're sending off a CV and covering letter, for example. Or if you're communicating with a client in a sector that tends to use formal language as standard (such as law).
It's usually best to go with the person's title and surname, especially if it's the first time you're contacting them. So "Dear Mr Smith", or "Dear Ms Smith".
If you don't know the person's gender, you can always use their full name instead. So "Dear Jean Smith".
How to start an email 4: Hi there
It should go without saying that you should never start an email with "hi there" if you know the person's name. But sometimes you'll have to contact people and you'll have no idea who you're getting in touch with - for example if you're contacting a general customer service email address.
That said, you should never use "Hi there" in situations when you could reasonably be expected to find out someone's name before emailing them. This includes the person you're emailing a job application to, and someone you're attempting to bring on board as a client (to name just two).
How to start an email 5: Hi all
This works perfectly if you're contacting a group of people, all (or at least most of whom) are already known to you. (So friends or work colleagues).
If you're contacting a group of people you don't know, you might want to start with "Hi there" before explaining who you are and why you emailing. Or, if there's a group name you can use, use that - for example "Hi parents of Year 10 pupils".
General tips on how to start an email
The five openings we've looked at above should cover almost every situation in which you need to email someone, but here are some more general rules to help you get things right.
Pay attention to how they open their email
If they start with "Hi [Name] then it's going to seem pretty strange if you start your reply with "Dear [Name]" (and vice versa). So look at their email opening and use that to help you to decide which opening you use.
Pay attention to how they close their email
Is their sign off very formal? Are they using their full name? If so, this is an indication that you should start your emails to them in a formal manner. On the other hand, if they're signing off with something like "Cheers, Johnny" then you're probably safe to use an informal opening to your email.
If in doubt, err on the side of formal
The previous two tips are useful if someone has already been in touch with you, but what if you're sending the first email?
Well, people are rarely annoyed by someone being too formal. In fact, they're much more likely to be annoyed by someone who is too informal.
So if you're not sure how to start an email, go with a formal opening. It shows that you put thought into the way you address people.
Then, when you get a reply you can see if there are any clues which suggest you can take a less formal approach in future emails.
Use a professional email address
People will start to get a feel for who you are before they've even read the opening line of your email, because they'll be able to see the address you've sent it from.
Having a professional email address is crucial if you're sending emails in a business capacity. (A free email address such as one from Hotmail really won't cut it.)
It can also be important if you're applying for a job, especially in sectors such as web design or IT.
Once you've got those, you'll be able to send emails from an address such as "email@example.com".
Email openings to avoid
There are email openings that you should never use. Here are some of them.
Hi [Incorrectly spelled (or just incorrect) name]
Nothing annoys people more than someone getting their name wrong. If you make this mistake you can expect your email to drop right to the bottom of the recipient's to do list.
To whom it may concern
This opening has its uses in the realm of physical letters, but none of those uses cross over into the world of email. Just don't use it.
It makes you sound like an eccentric scientist, so avoid it. (Unless you're an eccentric scientist.)
Or even just "Hey,". It's even more informal than "Hi [Name]". Save this one for friends and colleagues you have a close working relationship with.
Openings like "Happy Humpday!" or "TGI Friday!" work if you're an office coordinator letting people know about that day's events, but should be avoided in all other circumstances.