Date: Tue, 17 Aug 93 13:51:22 EDT
From: "John S. Batts, English, U of Ottawa, Canada" <[log in to unmask]>
The issue is clearly tricky, but I think the answer to the matter of
shifting convention probably lies within those handbooks of composition
which were once considered indispensable arbiters of such matters. I
happen to have on my shelves Richard Green Parker, *Aids to English
Composition, Prepared for Students of all Grades, etc.* (New York:
Harper & Brothers, 1846). It offers some (formal) advice in chapter
LXIV "Epistolary Correspondence, or Letter Writing," though
disappointingly it is geared to business and official matters, and much
favours "Dear Sir." Interestingly, the author feels letter-writing is
neglected: "It is generally allowed, that epistolary writing, if not
the highest, is one of the most difficult branches of composition"
(183n). Having noted that "No titles are formally recognised in this
country, except in Massachusetts ..." it spends two pages of directions
for precise forms to be used in addressing nobles, clergy, etc. The
closest the instruction gets to the precise listserv issue is: In the cards
of the young ladies of a family, the family name, with prefix of 'Miss,'
is proper to be used without the 'Christian name,' by the eldest of
single daughters. The Christian names of the younger daughters should
be inserted ..."(195-96). Among the example illustrations is a "Letter
of Condolence" which opens "Dear Friend, / I write this under the
utmost oppression of sorrow ..." (199). You note the fulsomeness!
By contrast, a century later W.G. Bebbington, *An English Handbook*
Huddersfield: Schofield & Sims, 1948, devotes its chapter 10 to
Letter-Writing and includes the most informal samples, written "to a
close personal relation or friend of about the same age as the writer.
It starts by calling the addressee by his or her Christian name or even
by some nichname: Dear Joe, Dear Betty, Dear Stinker (sometimes the
possessive adjective 'my' is put before the 'dear' to emphasize the
closeness of the relationship" (162).
This has run on rather, but my point is that such handbooks of
usage (with more scope than the two in my office!) probably chart
the change of habits and the nuances involved. I hope this points
in the right direction.
John S. Batts, English, U of Ottawa, Canada
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