Are the Rules Changing for Addressing Envelopes? Yes!

A Real Simple reader named Milea Joy posted this question on the magazine’s Facebook page:

What is the proper way to address a letter/envelope to a couple where the woman has her doctorate and the gentleman does not?


First, I love the fact that you are actually addressing an envelope, Milea. For readers who are unfamiliar with the practice, it’s something we used to do fairly often back in the Dark Ages before the Internet, involving things we called “paper” and “ink”— and requiring the use of penmanship skills we painstakingly acquired in elementary school.

Properly executed cursive letters all looked alike. A capital “D” finished with a special, jaunty loop that resembled a beret— and the standardized formality carried over into how you addressed people. All adults had titles. Your parents’ friends were “Mr. and Mrs. Larkin.” Or, if one of them was a dentist, “Dr. and Mrs. Nilles.”

Some things change. I can’t remember the last time I addressed an envelope, pressing down to feel the surface of the paper deflate a little, like a comfortable sofa cushion, as it absorbed the weight of a pen.

Other things don’t change. It’s kind to give people a shout-out for their accomplishments.  That’s why, if you are writing to a medical doctor and spouse, the medical doctor’s name goes first:

Dr. Ann and Mr. John Smith

Or, if they have different surnames:

Dr. Ann Jones and Mr. John Smith

In this case, Milea, the doctor in question is a doctor of philosophy rather than of medicine. In the old days, it wasn’t customary to write “Dr.” on an envelope addressed to someone who wasn’t an MD. But now? If Dr. Jones typically signs her name using her title, I would assume that she is proud of it.

If you’re not sure, err on the side of congratulating her for surviving all those years of graduate school and writing a dissertation, and write “Dr.” on the envelope.

(Of course, since second grade I’ve been a sucker for the flourish and whorls of a capital “D.” How often do you get to write one these days?)

Update: On Facebook, Real Simple reader Donna Muccilli posted a followup question, asking, “How do you address a formal envelope for same sex partners, marriages, etc. I always hesitate when doing so to the point that I send each of them a separate correspondence — but it seems odd. Can you help?”

Answer: Sure, Donna, this is an easy one. Address the envelope exactly as you would for a male-female couple. I have abandoned the old-fashioned  “Mr. and Mrs. Bill Miller” in favor of the more egalitarian “Mr. Bill and Mrs. Tina Miller.”  Following that style, if a same-sex couple has adopted a single last name, address the envelope to “Mr. John and Mr. Jim Smith ” or to “Ms. Alice and Ms. Mary Jones.” If their surnames differ, address them by their full names: “Mr. John Smith and Mr. Jim Wilson.”

Readers, how important is it  to honor old-fashioned conventions of formality when addressing an envelope? What would you do? (And when is the last time you wrote on an “envelope?”)

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