A San Diego woman is bothered by the convention of addressing envelopes to Mr. and Mrs. John Smith. Shouldn’t we also include the woman’s first name?

For her, it’s more than just a theoretical question: she spends a lot of time sending thank-you letters for nonprofit fundraising. So she’s wondering, what’s the best way to address them so as not to offend potential donors? Her question provokes a lively exchange about grammar, etiquette, and feminism.

Listen to the minicast:

Download the MP3 here (4.5MB).

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6 Responses

  1. Andrea Montrose says:

    I just discovered your wonderful podcast and have been listening to some of the older episodes.

    Regarding the 6/16/08 podcast concerning the proper way to address an envelope.

    I object to the “Mr. and Mrs. John Doe ” format. I think my blood pressure goes up every time I receive mail addressed in that fashion. I (reluctantly) changed my last name when I got married. I did NOT remove or change my first name. I usually hand those envelopes to my spouse.

    My favorite formats are “John and Mary Doe” or “Mary and John Doe”. If, for some reason, an honorific seems to be needed I use “Mr. and Mrs. (or Ms) Doe” when I address my envelopes to a married couple. These three options imply equality without resorting to the “Mr. John and Mrs Mary Doe” or “Mr. and Mrs. John and Mary Doe” awkwardness.

    My workplace has included a line in its registration form where registrants can indicate any preference for how their mail should be addressed.

    I am thoroughly enjoying your podcasts. Keep up the good work!

    Andrea Montrose

  2. Andrea, thanks for joining us here, and for your kind words about the show.

    I like this solution of yours a lot:

    My favorite formats are “John and Mary Doe” or “Mary and John Doe”. If, for some reason, an honorific seems to be needed I use “Mr. and Mrs. (or Ms) Doe” when I address my envelopes to a married couple. These three options imply equality without resorting to the “Mr. John and Mrs Mary Doe” or “Mr. and Mrs. John and Mary Doe” awkwardness.

    And I’d like to see more workplaces adopt the policy that yours has.

    Hope you’ll keep tuning in, and by the way, I encourage you to sign up for the “A Way with Words” weekly newsletter. You can do so right here:

    http://www.waywordradio.org/newsletter/

  3. Cassiopeia says:

    I just listened to this podcast this evening but felt a need to add my two cents. I grew up in the 60’s and spent college days burning bras while classmates burned their draft cards. I’ve spent the last 30 years working in a professional environment. I have never taken any offense at being addressed as “Mr. and Mrs.” as long as it referred to my own spouse and was spelled right! It does not make me feel invisible or diminished. It is just an envelope and a formal convention of address.

    I think the “Mr. and Mrs. John and Mary” format is klunky and agree with Grant that separating the title from the name just sounds wrong. The only times I use separate names with titles is when the woman’s title can only refer to her, such as “Mr. John and Dr. Mary”, or “Mr. John Smith and Mary Smith, Esq.” (since “Esq.” is not used with any other title). Many of the clients I work with are over 50, and I think it is better to err on the side of formal convention (such as Mr. and Mrs. John) than to approach them too informally or casually (such as John and Mary with no titles), especially if you are asking for hefty fees or big donations!

  4. Cassiopoeia (love that name!), I agree that “Mr. and Mrs. John and Mary” sounds a bit klunky. And this:

    I think it is better to err on the side of formal convention (such as Mr. and Mrs. John) than to approach them too informally or casually (such as John and Mary with no titles), especially if you are asking for hefty fees or big donations!

    Makes me wonder if we should just dispense with honorifics altogether. Are honorifics really necessary? And if so, what is the formality threshold beyond which one should always use them? (I don’t have any good answers. I’m just posing the question.)

  5. Oh, and I forgot to mention (re “bra burning”), that a friend of mine may be responsible for that term catching fire, as it were. To hear Lindsy tell it, it had to do with a newspaper story she wrote that had unintended consequences. While covering a protest at the Miss America pageant back then, she made a joking reference likening bras to draft cards, and the idea got picked up and spread around, even though no one burned a bra that day. More about all this at Snopes.com.

  6. mulliner says:

    The caller was right to worry about irritating people. I daresay this varies from couple to couple, but in our household, I’m the one that plans and does the charitable contributions. When I pick a charity, sign the check and mail it off, it particularly irked me if the Thank You came only to “Mr. John Smith”, so at least they are avoiding that. I don’t run into this much any more, since I now do all our contributions online. The web form captures the name (and preferred title) of the person doing the donation, and replies to that name.

    I do dislike being addressed as “Mrs. John Smith” or “Mr. & Mrs. John Smith”. I prefer the envelope to be “John and Mary Smith”, or have two lines:
    Mr. John Smith
    Ms. Mary Smith

    For donations that arrive on a joint check with an illegible signature, the two-line address is the charity’s most robust solution. It handles women who keep their own last name after marrying a man, and also works for same-sex couples.

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