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May 5th, 2004

Eats, Shoots & Leaves / business letters to Gentlemen

by Barbara Wallraff

Dan Dalton, of Lowell, Mass., writes: “I just received a copy of the bestseller ‘Eats Shoots and Leaves.’ The subtitle is ‘The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.’ First impressions count. Shouldn’t ‘zero tolerance’ be hyphenated?”

Dear Dan: Right you are. Even according to my British reference books, it should be hyphenated. (“Eats, Shoots and Leaves” was originally published in Great Britain, where punctuation conventions are different from ours.) What’s more, even according to the rules given in “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” itself, “zero tolerance” should be hyphenated in that subtitle.

In this case, first impressions are not deceiving: the mistakes continue inside. The first paragraph of the first chapter (not counting the introduction) contains four punctuation oddities or mistakes, including a truly shameful comma splice. Almost anywhere I looked in this book, I found mistakes in punctuation, grammar, or fact.

On the one hand, it’s wonderful that a book about punctuation has found a place on so many best-seller lists. If anyone needs proof that people care about language and getting it right, here it is. On the other hand, why is this book the one that everybody wants to read? At best, its message is Do as I say, not as I do. The author, Lynne Truss, repeatedly calls herself a “stickler.” But she reminds me of a person who tells you she’s a stickler for good manners and immediately insults you, thus making it clear she hasn’t any idea what good manners really are.

Hans von Bernthal, of Orchard Lake, Mich., writes, “With so many women in business, should letters still be addressed ‘Gentlemen’? If not, what?”

I must say, letters that come to Word Court addressed “Gentlemen”—or “Dear Sirs”—annoy the heck out of me. Anyone who is paying attention knows that I’m neither male nor plural. But as you suggest, even when you have no idea who will be reading your letter, it isn’t safe to assume the person will be male. Actually, it hasn’t been safe to assume that for the better part of a century. Women have grown increasingly touchy, however, about being referred to with masculine words. Fair’s fair: men have always been touchy about being referred to with feminine words. (Men, how would you like it if you received a letter addressed “Ladies”?)

“Ladies and Gentlemen” isn’t an appropriate greeting unless you expect members of both sexes to read your letter. But the expressions that people now prefer aren’t like that anyway. Rather, they’re gender-neutral—often even when they’re referring to women or men alone. For instance, more and more women who act are choosing not to be called “actresses”; they’re “actors,” they say. And the term “policemen,” unless it’s referring to specific male members of a police force, has given way to “police officers,” “firemen” to “firefighters,” and “businessmen” to “businesspeople.”

“Dear Sir or Madam” is one solution to the problem you raise, but it’s increasingly old-fashioned. “Dear Customer-Service Representative” or something similar would also work, but elegant it is not. And a third possibility, which I like, though it may be more informal than you care for, is a simple “Hello.” Readers, do you know others?

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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