Sincerely yours?

An advisor of mine recently told me a funny story about a student who was attempting to edit a draft of his personal statement for a fellowship application. He had been an economics major in college, and was evidently struggling to express himself clearly in a way that met with the advisor’s satisfaction. Apparently there were several words and phrases that were technically correct but rhetorically unpersuasive, and the advisor was doing her best to convince him of the necessity of a few changes.

Finally, this former economics major threw up his hands in disgust. “Well,” he said, “aren’t all words essentially fungible anyway?”

Interestingly, “fungible” is an adjective used most often in a legal (not an economic) context. It comes from contract theory; an item promised in a contract is said to be fungible if it is able to be replaced by another identical item. Money, for example, is almost perfectly fungible: if I have a dollar bill and you have a dollar bill, I can replace mine with yours without materially altering our positions. What this student meant by his remark was that any word can replace any other word without it making much of a difference.

Really, though, nothing could be further from the truth. One of my favorite simple sayings is, “Words mean things.” That is, whenever possible, words should be chosen extremely carefully because even the slightest variation is capable of connoting a differently nuanced meaning.

In a recent conversation with a friend, this argument came up with regard to the closing remark of a letter or e-mail. If you open your inbox right now and look at the last ten e-mails that were actually signed by a person (as opposed to an organization, listserv, etc.), you’ll no doubt find a smattering of different closings: “sincerely,” “best,” “take care,” “thanks,” and so on.

If you look even more closely, I’ll bet you can tell a lot about whomever it was that wrote to you (and their relationship to you) just by reading the signature. If you’ve ever agonized over how to sign a letter or e-mail yourself, you already know just what I mean.

You may disagree with my characterization of the following closings—and you may even think that I’m overanalyzing this to an absurd degree—but I do believe that such things matter more than we may think. Here’s my take:

Regards/Cordially/Warm regards: To me, “Regards” alone almost always comes off as a brush-off. It says, “I really have no connection to you that would require anything remotely warm in a closing, but I have to put at least one word before my name… so, regards.” Functionally, “Cordially” is about the same. “Warm regards” is friendlier, but still more formal than some truly friendly possibilities. If you really cared, you’d have more than regards.

Best/All best/All the best/All my best: At first glance, each of these closings seem to mean something similar. The signer is wishing you his or her best, right? Wrong. While “All my best” is intimate and friendly, “All the best” is formal and detached. “Best” is slightly better, since it’s short enough to be more casual and therefore more intimate, but “All best” is probably the worst of the bunch: it’s neither short enough to be friendly nor long enough to be formal; the signer is just in a hurry and doesn’t know how to close. It’s a sign-off that manages to be both brusque and superior.

Thanks/Thank you/Thanks much: Context is important here. On the one hand, the signer may actually be thanking you; consider a long note of appreciation that closes with “Thank you.” On the other hand, the signer may be asking (or telling) you to get something done with “Thanks,” and “Thanks much” is similar to “All best”: it seems clipped, and indicates that the signer is probably in a rush.

Take care/Be well: I think “Take care” is a very nice way to close. The signer is probably close enough to you to be concerned for your well-being, and also sees you casually enough to close with this fairly informal wish. “Be well” takes us back into formal-land, perhaps because it sounds vaguely old-fashioned or perhaps because it sounds like more of a command.

Cheers: There are two possibilities here: either the signer is British or he wishes he were. If the former is the case, lucky you; you’re corresponding with someone who hono(u)rs the Queen’s English! If the latter, I can’t say that I blame him, but I wouldn’t follow suit. At best you may raise a few eyebrows, and at worst you may come across as pretentious. (Don’t worry; we know you’re not.)

Sincerely: Surprisingly, this one doesn’t appear as much as it used to, and these days I usually appreciate it when I see it. Originally, I remember being taught that this was the appropriate closing for a business letter, and I still usually sign my cover letters this way. But lately it seems to be regarded as more warm than formal, and I see it slipping into more personal correspondence—i.e., that which is actually sincere.

Warmly/Fondly/Affectionately: These are the “feeling” words, and are usually seen in correspondence that is already somewhat complimentary, effusive, or intimate. You would probably never see any of these closings from a business contact, but they do seem particularly suited for correspondence to a group. This is because while it may be uncomfortable for a single recipient to be the sole target of a writer’s warmth, fondness, or affection, seeing that the letter is addressed to a group makes each reader feel like part of a team.

Yours/Yours truly: Here, we have finally crossed over into personal intimacy; closings like this mean that the signer is somehow devoted to you, whether as a close friend or perhaps something more. Moreover, the signer wants you to know s/he feels that way about you.

Luv/Love/With love/All my love: Cue the violins and Cupids… for all but the first one. While any closing involving the word “love” denotes a very singular affection for the recipient (and probably romance, with the obvious exception of family members and extremely close friends), “luv” is a perversion of the word specifically designed for the spineless. One who signs “luv” thinks “love” but is just too chicken to say it; s/he makes the mistake of thinking that by signing with an alternate spelling, s/he will come across as casual, diffuse the emotion behind the word, and render the sentiment less threatening in the process.

By this point, I suppose I’ve either persuaded you that even little words mean things or convinced you that I’m a few fries short of a Happy Meal. If you think I’ve got it all wrong, I’d welcome your comments.

But if you write in, please at least have the decency not to sign with “luv.”

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Sincerely yours?

  1. Andrea

    I sometimes ponder over what to write as my closing. Usually it is “Thanks” or “Best”. Sometimes it is a “Have a great day,” “Have a good weekend” or “See you next week”… etc. I tend to like those better. For more formal letters or to people I don’t know, I tend to use “Thank you” or “Thank you in advance”… And I will say the few times I have received “Regards” I feel rather put-off, whether or not that is the intent.

  2. LER

    Not sure I agree with some of the interpretations, but interesting to read. And I definitely agree that words are NOT fungible.

  3. Well, I suppose I should have included a disclaimer stating that the above interpretations are solely the opinion of the author and do not reflect genuinely authoritative statements on correspondence etiquette…

    I think, too, that various generations may perceive identical closings in different ways. “Cordially” is a good example of that; while in former years, it may actually have been quite a warm closing, it could be (mis)interpreted as colder by people my age (as perhaps I’ve done here).

    In the end, the important bit is to think about and know why you’re choosing what you’re choosing, while remaining aware that words have meaning.

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