It’s not difficult to address a formal letter or email when you know who will read it. If you’re emailing your boss, it’s Dear Mr. Chen. If you’re emailing that guy who stole your sandwich from the break room, it’s Dear Ted. But what do you say if you’re emailing a company and you don’t know who will read it (or you’re not sure that Ted was the one who stole your sandwich)? That’s where To Whom It May Concern comes in handy — although it may not be your only option.
To Whom It May Concern is a formal, generic email salutation used for a broad audience. It essentially means “To anyone who reads this” or “To the person who should be reading this.”
Historically, people have used To Whom It May Concern on cover letters for job applications, complaints or inquiries to a company, or passive-aggressive public callouts in the workplace. (Just bring your own sandwich, Ted.)
Every word in To Whom It May Concern is capitalized, followed by a colon. It should look like this:
To Whom It May Concern:
I’m writing to inquire about the open position in your sales department. I believe I’d be an excellent fit for the position based on my background and experience …
While capitalizing each word isn’t grammatically necessary, as To Whom It May Concern isn’t a title or proper noun, it’s standard practice (mostly because another salutation that includes a name would also be capitalized). Plus, it looks more formal than To whom it may concern, which helps you set the tone of your message right away.
Those who’ve grappled with who vs. whom may cringe at the whom in To Whom It May Concern, but there’s a reason it’s not To Who It May Concern.
The salutation is a dependent clause with whom functioning as the object and it as the subject (since may concern is the verb phrase).
However, if you rephrased it slightly, you could use the subject who instead of whom. For example:
- To Whom It May Concern (Correct)
- To The Person Whom Played Loud Music All Night (Incorrect)
- To The Person Who Played Loud Music All Night (Correct)
Grammar talk aside, it’s time to get real: Most employers and business professionals don’t like to see To Whom It May Concern anymore, especially on job inquiries and cover letters. Not only can it seem overly stiff and old-fashioned, it can make the opposite impression that you’re going for.
To Whom It May Concern used to be the standard way to address a message with an unknown recipient because finding said recipient used to be much more difficult. But with today’s modern technology, it’s easy enough to find some information on the recipient on a company’s website.
Using To Whom It May Concern may tell a potential employer that:
- You are too lazy to look up the specific person who would receive such a message.
- You don’t know how to look up said message recipient.
- You are applying to a lot of different places and didn’t bother to change the salutation.
Any of these would be reason enough for someone to pass over your application or ignore your inquiry.
A similar, less stuffy version of To Whom It May Concern is Dear Sir or Madam, and it’s tempting to reach for this salutation instead. But Dear Sir or Madam is also old-fashioned — and unlike To Whom It May Concern, can be considered gender exclusive. Additionally, it doesn’t solve the “this person didn’t look up my name, so why should I read their email?” problem.
If you can find any of this information online, you should use it in place of To Whom It May Concern:
- the name of the person who is receiving your message (Dear Ms. Petri:)
- the name of the department who is receiving your message (Dear Hiring Department:)
- the job title of the person who is receiving your message (Dear Hiring Manager at Company:)
- another generic, formal salutation (such as “Greetings” or “Hello” — though you’d need to use a comma instead of a colon here)
There are some instances where To Whom It May Concern may not rankle your reader. For example, if you’re writing a letter that you’re going to copy and give to different people in different positions (such as a letter of recommendation), it’s understandable to use To Whom It May Concern.
However, if your correspondence is only going to one place, try to find the specific person or position you’re writing to, and address your letter or email accordingly.
Wait — the perfect alternative to To Whom It May Concern may have been in front of you all along. Can’t you just turn it into the initialism TWIMC, just like pretty much everything else in our modern conversation?
The resounding answer is: Nope, don't use it. And if you don’t want to take Chicago Manual of Style's word for it, just imagine a high-powered executive from another generation trying to figure out what TWIMC means before they even start reading your email. There’s a (small) chance they’d be impressed with your youthful creativity, but it’s probably not worth the risk.