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MM: Email–a Memo or a Letter?

MM: Email–a Memo or a Letter?


In the comments to last week’s Mangled Monday about the structure of a letter, Melissa asked: “What do you think about emails that don’t have a salutation? I always try to start mine with a greeting unless I get into a really fast-paced conversation with short emails flying back and forth at a rapid rate. Then it’s more like an IM discussion. I notice many people forgo salutations on emails, especially after the first pass.”

So, let’s explore that.

As I mentioned last week, letters have dates, addresses, salutations, bodies, and closings.

Memos, on the other hand, are much simpler, and laid out in a very different format. They have:

…followed by the text of the memo.

Call me crazy, but that pretty much looks like every email I’ve ever sent. Different programs have different options, of course, but there’s almost always a field to put your To address, and one for a Subject, and there’s always a Date and a From (which may or may not be determined by the person sending the email).

That said, emails seems to be right at the cusp between “letter” and “memo.” There’s no defined, formal format to them (that I’m aware of), and so people kind of feel their way. I have sent and received emails that have salutations and signatures and that basically felt like a letter, but I’ve also gotten emails that were exactly like a memo–short, direct, to the point.

So, let’s open this one up to discussion. What do you folks think? Do you put a salutation at the top of your emails? Do you sign them? Always? Never? Some of the time? Do you treat personal emails differently than business emails?

10 thoughts on “MM: Email–a Memo or a Letter?

  1. Julie

    I’m a fan of using the “letter” format for an email — especially for the initial email. If it turns into more of a conversation then I drop the formality.

    My pet peeve is when people email me and don’t include their name. If their email address is cryptic, I may have no idea with whom I am speaking. That makes me crazy.

    Julie’s last blog post..Pulitzer (oops, I mean Nobel) Prize Winners (take 2)

  2. --Deb

    I find I mostly do a half-and-half kind of thing. As in, half my emails I treat more like letters, and half like memos. On an initial email I usually will sign my name, and often do start with a salutation, but on the exchange of responses that usually follow? I mostly don’t bother.

    If I’m dropping a note to a person I email regularly, I’ll usually just let the header speak for itself–that person knows me, I’m just reminding them that I’ll see them at 9:00, what more information do they need?

    Really, no consistency whatsoever! (And, that’s so unlike me….) (grin)

    –Deb’s last blog post..MM: Email–a Memo or a Letter?

  3. Gillian

    Since I e-mail semi-strangers, I try to be careful with them, and always include my name, formally the first time and more casually after that. I am careless about the salutation in general. This should make me more attentive.

  4. Lillie Ammann

    No consistency for me, either. It depends on the recipient and purpose of the e-mail. If it’s a first contact with a prospective client, I treat it more like a letter. But if it’s one of dozens of messages exchanged daily with my major client, it’s often just a single word.

    Lillie Ammann’s last blog post..Thank You for Your Comments

  5. Melissa Donovan

    When I saw “Melissa,” I was all “is that me?” Heheh. Thanks for the link!

    I am professional in all business communications but some clients are super laid back. Recently, one emailed me “Hey Darlin!” She always says sweet and funny things, so our emails are different than what I’m accustomed to when it comes to business writing. I will say this – casual communications are a lot more comfortable and enjoyable.

    Anyway, for me, it definitely depends on who I’m emailing and what the subject matter involves. That’s what I love about email. It’s so flexible!

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..When it All Comes Crashing Down

  6. J

    I’m pretty much with you. I tend to use salutations and signatures, though casual, for a first run (unless it’s business, then not so casual), and if a conversation comes from it, not so much.

    J’s last blog post..Banyan Tree

  7. Jamie Harrop

    Hey Deb,

    This is something I’ve recently been thinking about a lot.

    I have always started my emails with a salutation, and I always sign my name. It doesn’t matter whether I’m in conversation with my best friend or a potential client, or whether the conversation is one email per day or one email per minute. I always start with a salutation and end with my name.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I felt out of place. Most of the people I have been in conversation with do not start with a salutation, nor do they end with their name.

    To me, it just feels like the right thing to do. But as you touched on, there is a wide range of diversity in email etiquette.


    (I even finish my comments with my name! :-))

    Jamie Harrop’s last blog post..Working to Visualise Your Life Goal

  8. --Deb Post author


    There’s nothing wrong with being polite! Just so long as you know that there are options.


  9. Lori

    I’m almost always following formality in business emails. You don’t know how the recipient, who could be in a position to hand you work and pay you for it, will feel about an email that just launches into the topic without a proper greeting. Even if I’m writing to a group, I use the standard, “Hello, everyone:” or something similar.

    If I’m in an email conversation with a client, I follow their lead. In most cases, we can shoot them back and forth without “Hi” at the top of every single email. But if they choose that route, I mimic them. In that case, they dictate the rules (hey, they’re paying!).

    I’m with you totally on the idea that these are memos. But they’ve morphed into this odd integration between letters and memos, so perhaps they have their own style points nowadays.

    Lori’s last blog post..The Sexy Side of Technical Writing