"To whom it may concern" Lazy?

It peeves me whenever I see a letter that starts with “To whom it may concern”. It seems like the sender didn’t show any effort in finding who the letter should really be addressed to. What are reasons why someone might send out mail labeled with that salutation?

You don’t know the gender of the person you’re sending it to and don’t want to use “Dear Sir or Madam.” A customer service department, for example.

When I write letters like that, I prefer to begin with:
To whom it may constern:

Generic letter of recommendation for an intern. Prior to opening my own office, I worked for a non-profit that often had interns from a law school or paralegal program. The kids didn’t get paid, but did get course credit. Giving them something else to show to potential employers down the line was just a way to show some appreciation for their work.

What do you use when it’s impossible to find out who the letter will be read by? It’s not always being lazy - sometimes (like in Oakminster’s scenario), there’s absolutely no way to know.

It’s also useful when it genuinely doesn’t matter, like a form letter for some formal process that requires written notice. For example, I had a bank once that required a letter to close the account. I don’t care, they don’t care, as long as it gets filed.

It strikes me as slightly awkward and archaic-sounding, but so does “Dear Sir or Madam,” and there’s not many other options. Maybe “ACHTUNG!”

You’re reading too much into it.
It’s merely an impersonal greeting to an anonymous recipient(s).
Why would it peeve you? It’s a respectful opening for a letter that is intended for whomever, the matter discussed in the letter, may concern.
If you want to read anything into it, it’s implied that the recipient will either respond themselves or forward the letter to someone who will.
It’s commonly used in letters of recommendation, letters to government agencies, customer service complaints, information requests, etc…

IMHO I’d prefer to addressed in this way than by my name by someone I do not actually know personally.

I preferred this construction over “Dear Sir” when I was processing towing invoices at my last employer (insurance company). Not that it’s openly misogynist to say “Dear Sir,” but it’s something only older people seemed to do. It implicitly carries the assumption that the job was men’s work.

As others have said, sometimes you just don’t have any other choice (other than the equally generic “Dear Sir or Madam”). I always make at least a token effort to figure out to whom I should address my correspondence, but sometimes that information just is not to be had. And, for no particular reason, I prefer it to “Dear Sir or Madam”, which also makes me wonder if I shouldn’t use “Dear Madam or Sir” half the time in the spirit of gender equality.

To Whom it May Concern:
Will you read my book? It took me years to write, will you take a look?

Whenever I see it I am reminded of Pogo. IIRC Albert “Is to whom it one word or two?”

Last month, I got asked to write a letter of recommendation for a student. The address I was given started
Chairman, Search Committee for Position in XX
Department of YY
University of ZZ
I had written letters for him before (I was cosupervisor of his PhD thesis) and I took some pains to upgrade to make it specific for the university in question, but how was I going to find out who chaired this ad hoc committee. Chances are he/she hadn’t been chosen when the original ad appeared. So I started it, “To whom it may concern”. What would the OPer have done?

You could try something like
“Distinguished Chair and members of the Search Committee:”

I, too, have forever heard repeatedly that letters of query or recommendation should be as specific as possible. Ideally there should be a way of finding out online or by telephone the detail of to whom they should be addressed, but there’s just so much you can do.

It’s lazy if you want a response, like on a cover letter for a job application. It’s not lazy if no response is expected, or it’s not addressed to someone specific, like a letter to the editor.


How the heck are you supposed to find out who is going to be reading your cover letter? Most companies these days are very, very loath to give out any information about specific employees. I highly doubt most people would be successful trying to get the name of who will be reading your cover letter in most hiring situations nowadays.

Not to mention, most places rotate your resume and cover letter among a group of people responsible for hiring. If your cover letter will be read by 5+ people, how do you address it? Heck, at my current company, we often don’t know who will be doing the interviewing until the day of the interview, at which time the cover letter along with the resume is sent around to whoever happens to be free for the interview.

“To all whom thefe prefents fhall come, greetings:”

Call the company and ask for the name of the hiring manager. If you feel up to it, ask who the hiring manager is for the position to which you’re applying. If they don’t give a name, ask the receptionist for suggestions to whom you should address your cover letter.

A cover letter with a name relevant to the position gets an automatic bump on the “attention to detail” rating from me.

Yes, cover letters are read by multiple people. We take into account that the cover letter most likely won’t be addressed to us. The fact that the applicant took the time to do their research shows dedication to the application and interest in our company.

Depends on the company. Where I work (a company with nearly 10,000 employees), you’d be lucky to even figure out the relevant subdepartment, much less the hiring manager.

Ditto here. I circular-filed a couple of resumes whose accompanying cover letters were addressed to someone in the department who had no involvement with the hire, and would have no involvement with the person who was hired. Coupled with a lackluster resume a grossly mis-addressed cover letter gets you nowhere.