Other Ways To Say “To Whom It May Concern”

Orange background with yellow text crossed out, that says: to whom it may concern

It’s frustrating to hit a stumbling block right at the beginning. And yet, every time we start to write a letter, we’re faced with a tricky question at the very start—how do we address the recipient?

Is it someone we know well (Mom will do just fine for you-know-who)? Is it someone we know professionally? Or—cue the horror music!—is it some unidentified person who’ll be reviewing our application, request, or materials?

We know you’re tensing up just thinking about it. One classic choice (as we no doubt know) is To Whom It May Concern. But are you using this phrase correctly? It sounds so outdated—is it still in use? And are there any alternatives?

Where does the phrase come from?

To Whom It May Concern is used in formal letters, when the name of the person you are addressing is not known. It can also be found as the salutation at the start of open letters, or a letter meant to be read by a wide variety of people.

It is thought To Whom It May Concern entered common usage in the late 1800s. There are examples in letters from this period by both Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth.

The correct way to use To Whom It May Concern

Each word in the phrase To Whom It May Concern should be capitalized. Since it’s a formal greeting, it should be followed by a colon in a letter.

For example:

To Whom It May Concern:

I wholeheartedly recommend Jo March, who has been working as a paralegal at our company, for employment.

In case you’re wondering, if you’re writing an open letter of reference for someone (and it will be distributed to multiple interviewers), you would use To Whom It May Concern. 

“Who” vs. “whom”?

We’ve all come across pedants who love to correct people when they use who and whom. So what is the correct choice?

Who is used as the subject of a sentence, while whom is used as the object in a sentence. This means that if someone is performing actions in a sentence, who is the correct choice.

  • Who ate my cookie?
  • I don’t know who hid it.

To check, see if the sentence still makes sense when you replace who with he or she (you might need to reword it slightly).

Whom is used for someone being acted on. See if you can replace it in your sentence (with a little jiggling) with her or him.

  • Whom did you wave at?
  • Her husband, whom she wrote to every day, missed her terribly.

So it is correct to say to whom it may concern because it concerns her, not she.

WATCH: How To Use "Who" vs. "Whom"

Is To Whom It May Concern outdated?

We are living in the age of information, and generally job-hunting experts do not recommend using To Whom It May Concern if you’re addressing a single person. It shows a lack of effort on behalf of the applicant. 

Between the company’s website and all the social networking platforms available, it shouldn’t be hard to track down the name of the person or department that you need.

So, what are the alternatives?

Dear

Dear, followed by the recipient’s full name, is another standard greeting for formal letters. If you don’t know a recipient’s name, you can use a combination of dear and a department or team, or one person’s specific title. For example, if you don’t know have any details about who would be your boss in an application letter, you might consider addressing the entire team (marketing department, sales team, accounting and finance, etc.) or the recruiting manager.

As a word meaning “beloved,” dear dates back to the year 900. It is derived from the Old English dēore. One of the first written examples of its use can be found in 1450 in a note from Queen Margaret of Anjou, wife of King Henry VI. During the 1600s, people began using it in formal correspondence and not just letters addressed to the beloved.

Hello

In all likelihood, these days you’re more likely to be sending an email rather than a letter, even for a job application. Depending on the company, you could consider using hello instead of dear. If they have a relaxed workplace culture or you already have a relationship with the addressee, this might be appropriate. You can pair hello with the recipient’s name or use it on its own. Hello all may also work in some contexts.

Hello as a greeting is a relatively new word. It comes from hallo, which in turn is from the Middle French hola (which is equivalent to ho “ahoy” and la “there”). Hallo was used to attract attention or to spur on hunting dogs. Hello was used in the UK as an exclamation of surprise and intrigue as in “hello, what’s this?”

When the telephone was invented, Alexander Graham Bell wanted people to use the word ahoy as a greeting. Supposedly his rival Thomas Edison suggested hello, while Bell stubbornly stuck to ahoy, and well—you know which one stuck around.

Greetings

The word greetings dates back to before 900 and stems from the Old English word gretinge. This is a recommended salutation for processional emails. It’s gender neutral, and it’s a bit more formal than a plain hello.

What’s up?

Perhaps best reserved for the most casual of letters, what’s up does work to open a written message without having to use someone’s name. 

Asking people what was “up” began earlier than you think. Before becoming popular slang (and even before Bugs Bunny used it in the 1940s), it appears in texts from the 1800s. Despite its historical lineage, it would be unwise to use this phrase in a job application. (Unless perhaps you’re looking for a role at a certain beer brand.)

Signing off

After agonizing over the opening, the hard work is done … except for the entirety of the rest of the letter. If the content is strong enough, the recipient will forgive you if the salutation you chose wasn’t perfect. 

And at least you have one last chance to impress with your sign off.

 

A common factor in greetings, sign offs, and everything in between is the comma! Learn how to correctly use it in your letters, so you don’t have to opt for “To Whom It May Concern:” be default.

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