I need to send a case to the French Ministry of Justice for personal issues, so this is pretty much an official and important mail. I don't know who will read this mail so I can't begin the letter with something like,

Dear Mr./Mrs/Ms. Robinson,

or even

Dear Sir/Madam,

Anyways, I wouldn't know how to use the two expressions above should the addressee person be of a different gender.

To my knowledge, there's no established rule to handle this situation in French.

What's the etiquette for beginning a formal letter (in English) when you don't know who will read it? I don't want to offend the person who will read it should they be of a different gender than those addressed by the "Sir" and "Madam" words. I'm most interested in French etiquette but I'm aware there are not so many French-speaking people around so, I'm interested in any way to express it in English that I can translate later on.


4 Answers 4


I can't speak to French etiquette, but in English if you have a formal letter/email and you're not sure who it will actually be read by, you usually begin with:

To whom it may concern,

The OED defines this phrase as:

P1. whom it may concern and variants: a formula used to address or refer to an audience whose identity is unknown, esp. (in to whom it may concern) at the beginning of a letter, notice, or testimonial. Also in extended use.

Personally I prefer "To whom it may concern" over "Dear Sir/Madam" as the former makes it clear that this is intended to be read by any person (or people) the letter applies to. While the latter is strangely directed at one imaginary person--who may not even like being called Sir or Madam!

  • 1
    I would just like to add that a good translation for the English "To whom it may concern" is "À qui de droit".
    – Ael
    Nov 16, 2018 at 19:03

The french post office website has a section dedicated to this. You can find it here (french link).

Apparently, the preferred formulation should be :

Madame, Monsieur

Which is the rough equivalent of the English form :

Dear Sir/Madam

I encourage you to read the full page as it contains other useful tips.


Here is a link to Canada's translation bureau recommendations about how to use inclusive writing in official communications.

The recommendation is to use :


However, you should note that this formulation is less formal than the gender-biased one. It will be up to you to determine which formulation the recipient is likely to take the least offense to.


It is up to you to decide if this is a bit too cold, but you can hardly ever go wrong with

To Whom it may Concern

This has a very formal feel, if a bit impersonal. I find it very useful when you don't know exactly by whom the letter will be read.

If this is too impersonal, and you know more specifically who it will be sent to,

Dear Sir/Madam

is perfectly appropriate and respectful. Nobody reasonable would expect you to include the multiplicity of new pronouns (especially considering the situation in places like New York).

I find that when being politically correct turns a letter into a novella, it's best to take your chances.


If you don't know the name of the person you are writing to, standard etiquette in English is to use:

Dear Sir/Madam

Just like that, as shown, with both options.

When you sign off a letter begun this way, you should use "Yours faithfully". Do not use "yours sincerely", as this is reserved for when you have named the person you are writing to. (see here for confirmation)

I appreciate that you are concerned someone "may not identify" with "Dear Sir/Madam", but while times might be changing with regard to gender identification, at the time of writing there is no "new" etiquette for writing a formal letter. This is the correct way. The chance of you being unlucky enough to have your letter read by the one person in a million who takes offense at a long-established and widely-used formal address is far, far slimmer than your chance of having your letter looked down upon because it did not follow the correct formalities.

As this is an English language site and you posed your question in English, my answer is correct for use in English. You have included a tag to show you are in France. As it happens, my family all live in France and so I am also able to confirm that the equivalent formal address and sign-off in French would be:

Madame, Monsieur

Which means "Sir/madam", and

Je vous prie d’agréer Madame, Monsieur mes sincères salutations

which is a very long-winded "Yours sincerely".


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