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"To Whom It May Concern" - What does it mean, when is it used?

What is the purpose of this phrase, or should I use "Dear Sir/Madam"?

+4

It's a formulaic way of starting a letter or notice.

Meaning: 'this is intended for anybody that it has importance for.'

If you are writing to a person whose name you know, but instead you begin in this way, it sounds very rude and very aggressive.

To whom it may concern:
If the rent arrears are not paid in full immediately, I will change the locks.
To whom it may concern:
The undersigned will not be responsible for any debts incurred in his wife's name.

Best wishes, Clive

+4

Hi guys,

I'd like to mention a point I offered some time ago. 'To whom it may concern' is so rarely used that I don't remember the last time I ever used it. Perhaps half a dozen times in my entire life. Other people have also noted that in this thread that it is not often, even rarely, used, but I feel that readers may be overlooking this advice.

There seems to be so much interest in this phrase that I am concerned that English learners are going to start large numbers of letters in a way that is totally inappropriate.

Best wishes, Clive

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+3

"To whom it may concern" should only be used when writing a letter and the identity of the person reading it is not yet known. A classic example is a reference when you leave a job that you can present to a prospective employer.

Many phrases are picked up and used in the wrong context because people do not quite understand them. It is usually harmless and amuses lawyers no end.

+3

You should use "Dear Sir or Madam" when writing to a specific person whose identity you do not know, for example the occupier of a particular property. You will use it in a letter you are likely to post.

Dear Sir or Madam,

We write to inform you that tree felling will be carried out in Acacia Avenue and Laurel Close on the 25th March.

"To whom it may concern" should be used when you do not know into whose hands the letter will come. You will use it in a letter that you are likely to give to someone who will show it to someone else.

To whom it may concern,

Freda Smith worked for us as a secretary for two years. She is an excellent typist and very reliable. We do not hesitate to recommend her.
+1

This is the phrase used at the beginning of a letter when you do not know the person who should receive the letter. We often use Dear Sir or Madam in this situation too, which is a bit more polite and personal.

"To whom it may concern" is very impersonal and means the letter is addressed "to who ever may be interested" in the information in the letter. Is that clear?

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+0

While I hate this phrase myself, I've frequently seen it being used when addressing an organisation of some sort, where you aren't actually addressing an individual (and therefore logically shouldn't use Dear Sir or Madam").

The person who actually reads the letter is usually a person who is paid to handle requests like yours - this could be when filing a formal complaint to the local telephone company or trying to retrieve some information from a government office.

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Hello Anon,

I not only have read a great many letters, but I have written a great many as well. In North America, you are far more likely to find a letter ending Sincerely, than anything else.

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I most certainly agree with this statement. In addition, if it is likely that multiple people will read the letter, and the letter is impersonal, I think that the phrase is perfectly legitimate. Dear Sir or Madam is just a bit too personal for certain letters.

That said, situations in which this phrase must be used are undoubtedly rare. Still, in some cases, "To Whom It May Concern" is the best alternative.

As for Yours faithfully, I might have seen this closing used once in my lifetime. The phrase Sincerely is much more common, at least in the U.S. (Or at least in Massachusetts.)

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I recently wrote a letter of explanation to a board of members who oversee the disbursement of financial aid to university students. Not knowing their names / gender / position / titles, I used the phrase, To whom it may concern.

I double-checked with the English department before sending my statement and I was told that it was perfectly fine to use this phrase.

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AnonymousI recently wrote a letter of explanation to a board of members who oversee the disbursement of financial aid to university students. Not knowing their names / gender / position / titles, I used the phrase, "To whom it may concern:". I double-checked with the English department before sending my statement and I was told that it was perfectly fine to use this phrase.

I do not think this use is quite correct. "To whom it may concern" should only be used where the person who is to read the letter is unknown. That is not the same as not knowing someone's name. In this case you knew who your letter was going to - the board.

I think you had two options:

1. To address the letter to the board and start: "Dear Sirs" or "Dear members of the Board".

2. To address it to the secretary to the board and start: "Dear Sir" or "Dear Madam" (if you know the sex of the secretary) or "Dear Sir or Madam" (if you do not).

Generally, the use of "To whom it may concern" should be restricted to references and other letters of recommendation or letters intended to give information that will influence a decision and which are going to be read by someone who has not solicited it from the person who is writing it e.g.

To whom it may concern

Anne Jones was employed by me for three years. She is an excellent secretary and thoroughly reliable. I would not hesitate to recommend her.
To whom it may concern

John Smith was my tenant for five years. The rent was always paid on time and at the end of the tenancy he left the premises in a clean and tidy condition.

It may also be used to start a letter addressed to no one in particular, but intended to convey some information of interest e.g.

To whom it may concern

The Buttercup Estate, Newtown

We act for Acme Builders Limited who are entitled to enforce certain restrictions imposed in respect of the above estate. The company no longer has any interest in the estate and has therefore confirmed that it will not seek to enforce any of the restrictions.
+0

Hi,

Since no-one seems to want to quote a "rule", let me offer the opinion that it's really just a matter of the style you like best. Personally, I wouldn't capitalize every word.

Let me draw your attention to the suggestions earlier in the thread that this form of salutation is rarely used, except for "open" letters of reference.

I've probably only written 'To whom it may concern' 3 or 4 times in the last 10 years, which is why I don't think about it in terms of "rules". Are you sure you are going to use it appropriately?

Best wishes, Clive

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Comments  
Hi Forbes,

I'd be reluctant to just say to English learners that it's for writing a letter to someone whose identity you don't know. With a definition that simple, I'd prefer to say that you should write 'Dear Sir or Madam'.

Best wishes, Clive
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 Forbes's reply was promoted to an answer.
It is normally used to introduce somebody to whoever requires certain credentials to be considered. Therefore, it means here Iam eventhough we haven't seen each other.
This is really very simple:
Use Dear Sir/Madam when you know (or can assume) the position of the person you are writing to but not their name or gender. Use To whom it may concern when you don't even know their position. If you use To whom it may concern end with Yours faithfully.

Endi
Hi,

I disagree. Emotion: smile

A few special cases were described earlier in which 'To whom it may concern' could be used. Other than those, my advice to English learners is to never use this phrase. I don't remember the last time that I used it myself.

In addition, I never see letters here in N. America with 'Yours faithfully'.

Best wishes, Clive
Hi

I would like to know, we can use this phrase or not "to whom this may concern" instead of "to whom it may concern"

if using it, that wrong or not?

thank you in advance

Honi
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