Following on from my last post about English names, this week I want to remind readers of some of the basic differences between English and Chinese names, differences that affect the way you begin emails or letters.
Over my years in Hong Kong, I have had emails beginning in all the following ways:
Needless to say, not all of these are acceptable in standard English usage. In fact only two of these meet will be normally found in good English usage.
One of the reasons for this wide range of forms of address is because of the fact that English names behave differently from Chinese names. The first point to remember is that most English names are in 3 parts, in the following order:
*My* name is Simon James Alderson -- with Simon being my christian name, James (never used and seldom even written) my middle name, and Alderson my family name or surname.
When it comes to choosing the correct form of address when writing me an email, the following table pretty much sums up your options:
Option (1) ("Dear Simon") should only be chosen if you know me well and we have a close working relationship. It is the more informal option.
Option (2) is the default formal or business form of address, title + surname.
All other options are NOT standard English. In particular (with reference to the 9 options we started with),
2) 'Dear Dr Simon' -- we never pair a title with a Christian name
4) 'Dear Alderson' -- a surname should never appear without a title in front of it
6-8) We generally do not write out a person's full name and title when addressing them. Sometimes you will see these used in computer-generated letters, where the computer simply inserts the full name in the database into the letter. But as a human being, do not use this form of address
9) 'Dear Dr' -- NEVER use a title on its own like this.
One reason that Chinese users sometimes get mixed up about forms of address is that some English christian names and surnames are identical or very similar -- like the name 'Jerome K. Jerome' in the picture. So when a Hong Kong person sees a name such as 'Mr Lloyd Alexander', they may easily be confused about which of the two names is the surname. Isn't 'Alexander' a christian name? yes, it can be; but it can also be a surname. How do we tell which is which? The answer lies in the ordering of the names. The surname always comes at the END. The christian name always comes at the START. So in this case, we have two options for address:
Dear Lloyd, … (using the christian name, if you have a working relationship)
Dear Mr Alexander,… (using the surname, in standard formal usage)
Let's also say something about (5), 'Dear Ms Alderson'. This reminds us that some titles of address in English are gendered; i.e. you must know whether the addressee is male or female to use them correctly. The gender of the addressee can usually be worked out from the christian name. Most English names divide into two groups -- names for girls, and names for boys. If you are not sure whether your recipient's name is male or female, do some checking online. It is considered very poor practice to address a male as if he is female, and vice versa.
We saw in the last blog post that many Hong Kong users these days choose very untraditional and unusual names for themselves. If I had to write an email to 'Soilworm Lai' (a name highlighted in the last post), I would have no way of knowing whether 'Soilworm' was a man or a woman. In such a case, I would have two options:
1) Dear Soilworm, … (i.e. adopt the informal mode of address to avoid making a mistake of gender)
2) Dear Mr/Ms Lai, … (i.e. provide both male and female forms; this makes it clear to the recipient that I am unsure of their gender)
Finally, a brief mention of something to be careful about. I have already said that in normal usage, English speakers write their names in the following order: (1) first or christian name; (2) surname or family name. So if someone tells you "My name is Emily Sweet", this means her first name is Emily and her surname is Sweet.
However, some official forms require applicants to fill in surname first, followed by first name(s), as in this passport application form:
This is common in Hong Kong government forms too -- people are often required to write their surname first. So if you see a name like this:
Smith, John Henry
remember that this does NOT mean the person's christian name is Smith and his surname or family name is Henry. When a comma follows the first name to appear, this indicates that the name is in this order: (1) surname, (2) first name, (3) middle name. The usual rules about addressing a person apply (in other words, EITHER 'Dear John' OR 'Dear Mr Smith').
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About this blog
This blog arises from keeping an eye on English in Hong Kong. I often use signs, notices and advertisements that I see as starting points to write about English issues that commonly challenge Hong Kong writers.