Tuesday, January 26, 2010

How to address an envelope

A good friend called me up the other day and she said: "Thank you for your Christmas card. I was so pleased because you're the only person I know who knows how to address envelopes properly. I'm always trying to explain and no one understands." I was thrilled, of course – always good to know that Posh Bird's reputation remains intact – but also surprised as this friend is not at all posh. But she is, however, another generation. Born before 1950, this perhaps explains her knowledge of envelope addressing. Although why her generation chose not to tell their children how to do it is another story. (Largely, I suspect, because throughout the 1960s and 1970s they thought that things like titles, or 'handles', would cease to exist, so why should anyone know how to use them properly?)

In fact, I didn't know how to address an envelope correctly until I was 19 years old. I knew the basics but wouldn't have written to a duchess with confidence. It was only when my grandfather called me up one day, shouting "I am NOT an American!" that the error of my ways was rectified. He resented being addressed as 'Mr', feeling that years of good breeding and Britishness entitled him to be an 'Esq.'. So I was tutored in the ways of envelope etiquette and once learned, it can never be forgotten or relaxed.

For those who want to know - these are the basic rules.

1. To a man, you write: Rupert Fotherington-Smythe, Esq.
(Strictly speaking, you write this to all men except Americans and tradesmen, whom you address as 'Mr' but I don't make that distinction.)
2. To a single woman you write: Miss Arabella Toffington-Love
3. To a married (and widowed) woman, you write: Mrs Rupert Fotherington-Smythe.
4. To a divorced woman, you write: Mrs Arabella Fotherington-Smythe.
5. To a Baronet or knight, you write: Sir Giles Poppy.
6. To an Earl, you write: Lord Poppy.
7. To the wife of a knight, baronet or earl, you write: Lady Poppy.
8. To the daughter of an earl or duke, you write: Lady Celestria Poppy.
9. To the married daughter of an earl or duke, you write: Lady Celestria Fowler.
10. That's it for now. There are further complicated permutations (the daughter of a daughter of an earl or duke is The Hon. An MP is The Rt. Hon. Plus all the Royal stuff) but I'll save those for a rainy day.

The only other thing to note is that even when writing to a couple (eg, Christmas card, invitation or thank you note), the envelope is addressed to the wife only. This is because traditionally the wife organised the husband's diary, and if you stayed with a couple for the weekend she is the one who would have done all the work. As to the question of whether one should stick with the format although the tradition has changed: the answer is yes. After all, I still say please to the bus conductor when asking for my ticket, even though he has long dropped the tradition of saying thank you.

The only problem I find is with rule no.3 as so many women now prefer not to take their husbands names on marriage. Does this mean that they have to be addressed as 'Miss' - when that is ridiculous, surely? And to write Mrs Arabella Fotherington-Smythe makes them look divorced. The only solution, I think, is to drop the prefixes of Miss or Mrs altogether. Although, of course, doing that makes Posh Bird start hyperventilating and there isn't always a brown paper bag handy when doing one's Christmas cards.


  1. You make a cogent argument. I have long advocated conferring an honorary PhD upon the entire British population just to circumvent the kind of faux pas which awaits those addressing others whose background is unknown. This solution of endowing everyone with a doctorate yields a further, pleasing bonus which is that gender of the addressee becomes irrelevant.

    Is this not the panacea to your hellish conundrum?

  2. Perhaps this is an Americanism, but I thought the only people who merited Esq. after their names were attorneys.

  3. Rory Fellowes (relation)January 28, 2010 at 11:52 AM

    I loved the crack about bus drivers!! Not to mention all too many of our erstwhile public servants whom these days seem to forget who they work for, and are at best brusque, and often surly. Quakers simply do not use titles and every one is addressed simply as Anoushka or Freddy Fitztitely-Dahling and one could get used to that, I suppose. Just carry a paper bag at all times. [PS yes, that is an Americanism]

  4. Is "Ms" not considered proper? I would rather Ms to Miss or Mrs any day!

  5. Pretentious cunt.

  6. wash your mouth out with soap, anonymous.