Yours sincerely – The Story of Valedictions

Like myself, you might not have been sure what exactly a Valediction is but you probably use them almost every day.   Valedictions are those sign-offs that we use at the bottom of emails and even letters, should anyone remember what one of those are and whilst they may appear innocuous enough, they actually have a long history and strict rules as to their usage which are sadly ignored or unknown by many of us.

The word Valediction is an Old English translation of the Latin phrase ‘Vale Dicere‘ which means to say farewell.  Originally a Valediction was the name given to the final prayers or thoughts at the graveside during a funeral.

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Most people these days use Valedictions without really knowing the true meanings behind what they are writing and many may be unaware of the unwritten rules as to which form of Valediction is appropriate in each given situation.  Most include the word “Yours” which harks back to the time when such messages were written my servants of those they were writing to; this could be a literal servant as well as a person in junior standing to their superior in the Army or government.

Not many of us would sign off our emails with:

 “I am, Sir, your most humble and obedient servant,   Stephen”

or

“I beg to remain, Sir, your most humble and obedient servant,  Stephen”

or

“I remain, Sir, your faithful and obedient servant,   Stephen”

or even the modern formal Valediction of

“Sincerely, I am,  Stephen”

These days we are more likely to use the term “Yours sincerely” which is short for “I am yours sincerely”.  Those of us who were taught such things learned that we should only use the term “Yours Sincerely” when the letter begins with a name i.e. Dear Stephen.   Usually we only put the name of the person at the beginning of the correspondence if we in some ways are familiar with them.

If we don’t know the individual we are writing to then the letter should be started with the traditional “Dear Sir/Madam” introduction and end with “Yours faithfully” which is short for the older “I remain, Sir, your faithful and obedient servant”.   If you have heard of the person you are writing to but do no know them then traditionally it is thought to be more prudent to use the “Yours faithfully” to avoid causing offence.

It is surprising just how many people don’t seem to know the basics of writing a letter or email.  Having been involved in the hiring of staff in previous roles, I can safely say that anyone who couldn’t write their letter or email of application correctly was sadly not even close to being considered.     The reasons being obvious for those of us who have ever received a letter or email from someone working for a company and it has been so bad that it has put one off ever having anything to do not just with that individual but the company who employs them.

Though I wouldn’t use the term “Yours truly”, for many it is acceptable to sign off letters this way when writing correspondence to someone by name but signing off on behalf of an organisation i.e.   Dear Fred,   yours truly Ye Olde England Tours.   This method of Valediction is more common in American English than British English and ‘Yours truly’ or the grander sounding ‘Yours very truly’ is again a shortened form of the old term “I am very truly yours” with “yours” again denoting being a servant and used when addressing someone of higher social standing.

For those like myself who pay attention to old-fashioned manners, “Sincerely yours” was regarded as appropriate only for social correspondence, and not business correspondence, while such closings as “Cordially” or “Best regards”  are always inappropriate for business letters to strangers, and their use may be considered silly and uninformed by the recipient.

These days it is becoming increasingly common in business usage to forgo the old Valedictions in favour of semi-formal sign-offs on the pretence of appearing friendly if only to improve business relations.   A common error is to say “Best regards” or “Kind regards” in formal letters which perhaps shows a misunderstanding of the term. In informal usage, “Best regards” and “Kind regards” are often abbreviated to “BR” or “KR”. The use of “Kind regards” is most likely derived from the more formal, “Kindest regards,” which is itself a phrase derived from the even more formal combination of “Kindest regards, I remain,” “yours” or “truly yours” or any one of a number of valedictions in common usage.  A less common variation is “Warm regards” which is often used to purposely avoid the aforementioned more common valedictions whereas “Respectfully yours” is hardly ever used, perhaps a sign of the times.

“Regards,” is often used as a semi-formal valediction in emails. “Kind regards” and especially “Best regards” is meant as a way of addressing close friends or loved ones or a close working relationship.

Valedictions have become more informal in other languages than English.  In French whilst once you might have received a letter ending with

“Veuillez agréer, Madame, Monsieur, l’expression de mes sentiments distingués.”

These days it is much more likely to receive the decidedly less grand sounding “Cordialement”.

Germans have seen a similar fall from grace with the old fashioned “Hochachtungsvoll” (Highly Respectfully) of letters now largely replaced by “Mit freundlichen Grüßen” (With Friendly Greetingswhich though longer to write sounds much more informal.

Of course these days most of us spend a large amount of time writing to our loved ones and most of us put a number of X’s under our name.  X came to prominence as it is the opening letter of the Greek word for Christ “ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ” . Whilst these days a ‘X’ is an expression of a kiss, it does again have its origins in Medieval Christianity when a X was placed on envelopes or the bottom of documents  to demonstrate their faith, honesty and sincerity.  The writer would then kiss the cross as a display of their oath.

These days we may not sign off our emails and text messages with a declaration of following in Christ but the idea of putting a ‘X’ to illustrate our love and sincerity remains.

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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7 Responses to Yours sincerely – The Story of Valedictions

  1. wilsoi00 says:

    Time to move with the times Stephen. Language changes very quickly, meanings are forgotten and replaced with new and often completely different ones. You can’t stop it or even slow it down. It will happen around you and leave you chastising those who have sailed past you in the night of your blindness. Inflate your emergency raft and paddle like hell to catch up before you become the latest Victor Meldrew… (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Meldrew)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Francis says:

    Strange when I worked for the civil service it was always yours sincerely.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. sarij says:

    Dear Stephen,
    I would like to express my appreciation for the brief history lesson. I’ve long wondered why historically letters ended with “your faithful servant” etc. . This expression of submission has always bothered me, as the sentiment is not always warranted. Thankfully we have moved away from these humbling endings and have moved towards informal, yet more appropriate and deserving cordialements.
    Have said that, I agree whole hardheartedly that the basic skill of letter writing is fast becoming a lost art form. And while I agree times are changing, manners and professionalism should dictate how we communicate in the work place. One of my biggest pet-peeves is the lack of e-mail structure found in today’s business world. It is rare to see a salutation, never mind a valediction. What’s next, emojicons instead of actual words? I applaud your effort to enlighten us on writing etiquette.
    Not so humbly yours,
    Sari

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dear Sari, I very much enjoyed your comment. You’re quite correct, last night I happened to see some work emails copied in to someone I know and the writers were reduced to starting their messages with just the first letter of the name of the person they were writing to. If it had come to me I would have just deleted it, if someone can’t be bothered to write out a name properly then why should I be bothered to read their email?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Alex says:

    Regarding the german Hochachtungsvoll, this did not completely fall from grace. It is used especially in official letters, dunning letters and any kind of correspondence where one wants to draw the attention of the partner that he is close to crossing a line (or did it already). The usual german valediction is, as you mentioned, “With friendly greetings” and “Hochachtungsvoll” is a way to close a letter without expressing any kind of friendliness and/or greetings. Even if the general tone of the letter is subdued and apparently friendly, the ending with Hoch… should warn you that bad things are coming your way.

    With friendly greetings from Germany,

    Alex

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