Q: I’m writing about valedictions at the end of letters. Ask Oxford says “Yours faithfully” should be used if the addressee’s name is not known, and “Yours sincerely” if it is. What’s the logic behind this? What, in short, is the difference between the two valedictions?
A: I certainly can’t tell you the logic behind this usage. Maybe I’m dim, but I don’t detect any meaningful difference between the valedictions “Yours faithfully” and “Yours sincerely.”
Oxford University Press, on its Ask Oxford website, does indeed advise writers of business letters to use “Yours faithfully” when writing to an anonymous, unnamed recipient (a “Dear Sir or Madam”), but to use “Yours sincerely” when writing to someone who’s named.
The site appears to be quoting The Oxford Guide to Effective Writing and Speaking (2nd ed.), by John Seely. But Seely is not alone. The same advice is given for business-letter writing in Wikipedia and in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (3d. ed.), edited by R. W. Burchfield.
So, according to these usage gurus, we’re supposed to be “faithful” to those addressees who are faceless and genderless, but “sincere” to those whose names we’ve been able to obtain. H-m-m. Do I hear the sound of hairs being split?
As it turns out, not all usage guides make this distinction. Here’s Kenneth G. Wilson in The Columbia Guide to Standard American English:
“The complimentary close of a letter often uses sincerely in certain formulaic ways: sincerely yours, very sincerely yours, yours sincerely, and sincerely. Americans frequently use truly in place of sincerely in all but the single word closing formula. Some Britons, and a few Americans too, may also use faithfully in some of these formulas. The tone or style of these is mostly a matter of convention, but the single-word versions are probably the most informal, and the three-word models the most overtly formal.”
Could this “sincerely”-vs.-“faithfully” business be, as Wilson’s words perhaps suggest, a British thing?
For another viewpoint, here’s an interesting and amusing exchange of letters on the subject, though the parties are more concerned with whether a complimentary closing must include “yours.”