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Grammar Repair Shop: Formality governs letter punctuation

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Problem: "When addressing a business letter, is it correct to put a comma or a colon after the addressee's name?" (From Lynne Nelson, Princeton, N.J.)

Use a colon with formal salutations, such as "Dear Mr. Smith." A comma is acceptable for salutations with only a first name, particularly if the letters fall into the category of "social/business correspondence."

Another style option: "open punctuation," in which you don't put any punctuation after the salutation or the closing. (Of course, people unfamiliar with this style may think you simply forgot the punctuation.)

Finally, the correct order of information in the address lines: Name, title, company. The order goes from most specific information to least.

Peeved by a common error? Puzzled by perplexing grammar rules? Send us an e-mail at with the subject "Grammar." Or call us at (703) 905-4850.

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