Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Complimentary Close

A standard part of every letter and most e-mails is the complimentary close. That's the one or two word adverbial phrase that you put right above your signature or typed name. They are a rather strange form of utterance.

J.L. Austin followed Wittgenstein in arguing that we do more than express true or false propositions with words, that sometimes saying things is a form of doing things. The question here is what we do with the complimentary close.

There are three standard complimentary closes -- sincerely, respectfully, and love. "Sincerely" is so standard as to be a mere formality meaning nothing. Of course, it is kind of a weird thing to say, "I am sincere in all that I wrote above." No, I thought you were lying to me, but since you tell me you are sincere, there no way you could be lying. It is saying something that was assumed in the act of correspondence, so it makes sense that it has become the complimentary close that means nothing.

I always close a letter with "respectfully" if I want it to sound deferential. We don't have the formal in English, and "respectfully" strikes me as the closest we have. It is a verbal butt kissing. "I am not worthy to write to someone as important as you and am eternally grateful that you have gazed upon my inferior verbiage contained herein."

When I taught at the Naval Academy, I used to get a lot of messages signed "very respectfully." A bit over top. Although after a while, it leads you think to think that those who merely used "respectfully" simply weren't trying to kiss my ring hard enough. "Respectfully? Hmmm How respectfully? Is this written with sufficient respect? Should I note the degree of respect within the text of the message to determine whether it requires augmenting in the complimentary close?"

The one that strikes me as the most interesting is "love." It is not really saying "I love you," it's much weaker than that. It's not quite like using the familiar, but not far off. How close to someone do you have to be to use the complimentary close "love"?

While I don't use it, I've always liked "cheers." Sounds less like ending a letter than raising a toast. Frankly, I picture some of my friends who use this (some who comment here regularly) with mug in hand typing with the other when I finish reading their e-mails. It's a jaunty little closing, friendly, light, with a smooth finish. "Ciao" has the same playful flair, but is wine to the beer of "cheers."

"Peace" is a favorite with a number of folks, but it strikes me as trying to hard to be hippie. If your letter was good enough to bring about peace of mind, peace on Earth, or peace of any sort, surely you would just let it happen. Yeah, we both want peace, but we both probably want chocolate pudding too, wouldst that signing it could get it.

A friend of TheWife uses "warmly" and I've taken to it. It denotes affection and informality, without the mush or complications of "love." It says I like you and want you to know it. I'm not presuming anything in terms of our relationship should it be at any given stage or not, I'm merely saying this with warmth in my heart at the thought of you.

What do you use and why? What do you avoid using and why? What wierds you out when you get it and from whom?

Very respectfully,