How to say 'ahoy' in a correspondence 
In elementary school, there was a unit on letter writing. Personal letters, we were taught, should begin "Dear So and so," while business letters should begin "Dear So and so:" When there was no specific so and so, business letters were supposed to begin "Dear Sir:"

A BBC item highlights the obvious fact that this has all broken down. Some people in the article complain that 'dear' sounds too familiar, others that it is too formal. The fact that twenty-somethings don't just think of it as just right for starting a letter suggests that they didn't get the unit on correspondence that I got in third grade.

There are bigger problems, though. I very rarely write physical letters anymore, but the unit in third grade failed to cover e-mail. (How shortsighted!)

Since most e-mail is shorter than physical mail would be anyway, one get often get away with a casual "So and so," But how to close the missive?

Just "-P.D." is enough, but isn't obviously right when mailing undergrads. I am fine with them calling me P.D., but they may be uncomfortable with it. I have concluded that the better thing, for a short e-mail, is just not to begin with any address or end with any explicit sign off. Better just to write my sentence or two of content and let the program fill in my generic sig.

For letters of recommendation, the only physical correspondence that I really write anymore, it won't do to drop the niceties. But the "Dear sir" thing? It is sexist and so sounds entirely wrong on formal correspondence. Alas, I can't think of anything better. "To whom it may concern" sounds like a sales circular addressed to Resident.

And what are kids in third grade now being taught?

Kimberly  
For letters of recommendation, the person asking for the recommendation (er, me, in some cases) for a contact person's name, if available (e.g. for many searches, the chair's name is given as the contact). For a search, I think "Dear Search Committee," would be a better generic. For other letters, there might be equivalents. If not, not sure.

I'm old enough that it seems appropriate to me to start with "Dear . . " in a formal situation. With students, I give it a "Hi Name,

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