The Business Letter In Detail. Part 2
It is an old problem, this of the exact degree in which to break away from custom. Why should we wear linen collars? or black our shoes? Why should we say "Good morning, Mr. Smith!" You might, by the way, begin a letter in that manner, if you wanted to be strictly conversational. "Good morning, Mr. Smith, have you used Larkin's soap!" That is highly conversational. But it is too original, too distinguished. It is so original (with Pear's) that it is already hackneyed. Pear's soap has made it impossible for other firms to use that most "ordinary," "conversational," "real," "warm" salutation. We hark back to the tyrant custom, glad to be protected by him from imitation, eccentricity, and anarchy. Good conventions are bound up with the very roots of courtesy. And many a man would rather tell an original and distinguished lie than walk down the church-aisle with an original and distinguished hat on his head.
But Mr. Wiers spoke of "a lot of senseless preliminaries," and there really are such things in letter-writing. They are the stock phrases referred to in the previous chapter, and enumerated by Mr. Wiers in his booklet. A few are: We would say, We would state, We beg to say, We beg to inform you, Allow us to explain, Permit us to advise you, etc., etc. "We beg to acknowledge receipt" is hardly so tautologous, however, as Mr. Wiers regards it. He says that "We acknowledge" [your letter] is sufficient. But what is it to acknowledge a letter! May it not mean acknowledge the argument of the letter! "Your favor has been received and its contents have been carefully noted" is polite, and was perhaps originally designed to help the writer to be sure that he had done the careful noting. But it is enough to show by the letter that you have been careful.
There are forty ways of acknowledging the receipt of a letter. Only one thing is essential, namely to give the date of the letter received. Here are some of Mr. Wiers's suggestions: You tell us in your letter of the 12th; We are glad to learn from your favor of March 16th; It seems to be plain from your letter of March 16th; The impression that we get from your letter of the 9th; From your letter of October 20th; Your frank letter of the 26th, which we were much pleased to receive; We like the fine spirit of your letter of the 30th; You advised us under date of April 14th. Note that in these phrases you hear nothing of instants, ultimos, and proximos; they are gone for good.
In another recent book on business letters, I find most of the sales-letters beginning with Dear Mr. Smith, Dear Mrs. Benson, etc. That may be well enough to a customer of long standing. But the man of the world would hardly presume to write thus to a stranger. A fresh style is a good thing if it be not raw. You want to capture attention, but you don't want a back-fire of irritation. The letter wants go, but back-firing brings the crank-handle against your wrist and hurts.
§116. As for leave-taking, or complimentary close, that too should show some variety and some humanness. "Yours respectfully" is a trifle too respectful, and "Yours cordially" a trifle too cordial. I think we might well leave "Yours cordially" for the use of our hostesses, should they be gracious enough to use it in social notes. As a business term it has (for me at least) dim associations with goldbricks. Yours truly, Yours very truly, Very truly yours - these good old standbys are as useful and wholesome as bread. No capitals, by the way, except for the first word. Some writers object to Very truly yours, insisting that Yours very truly is the right form. But the objection won't stand fire. Either expression is excellent.
Those participial endings - Trusting, Hoping, etc. - have seen their best days. But if a man likes to go out with a slight flourish recalling less hurried times than ours, no one need object. At all events, it is not wise to be too original in the effort to vary these polite waves of the hand. One professional correspondent closes with, "Hoping it will be my pleasure to serve you further." Does he hope it will be a pleasure to him? Is he doubtful on that point?
"Thanking you in advance" is very, very common. Others may do as they see fit, but for my single self I will either write to the man and thank him after he has done me the favor, or I will not thank him at all. It takes an extra postage stamp, to be sure. And economy is the mother of riches. And a penny saved is a penny got. Yes, yes, and we're here today and gone tomorrow, and what do I care so long as I get what I want, and what's the use anyhow? I know a man (not in business) who has patiently answered inquiries from strangers for the past twenty years; he has given a great deal of time and pains to convey the desired information; he has occasionally received a postage stamp in advance, and he has received hundreds of thanks in advance, but he rarely gets a letter of thanks for what he has done. "Thanking you in advance" is the trademark of the man of nerve, not of the man of the world.
By a common convention, we sign "I remain" only when previous letters have been exchanged. That seems sensible. "I am" is a fine bold phrase, and as a piece of information conveyed to a stranger it precedes "Yours very truly" well enough. Sometimes however it comes in so majestically as to suggest Exodus 3:14.
The signature should be uniform. You use only one form of signature at your bank. The same should be true of your letters.
As to feminine signatures, a mere man must not be dogmatic. Let us see what the women themselves say. I suppose there is no better authority on feminine etiquette in correspondence than Miss Jean Wilde Clark's "Desk Book on the Etiquette of Social Stationery." It has a section on business letters. Miss Clark says:
Many married women use their title incorrectly. A woman does not use initials, or the superscription Mrs. in social correspondence; she signs herself: