To Madam, With Sincerely

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Dear Miss Manners:

I am a patent attorney and when we submit our material to the Patent Office, we frequently write "Sir:" and then continue with the documentation.

However, clearly a problem arises in responding to the female patent examiners. Obviously I do not know the marital status of the patent examiners, so my question is how do I address the unnamed patent examiner, especially when I can gauge by experience level that they are likely older?

I believe that "Miss" seems far too informal for what is a very formal document and inappropriate for the fact that a number of the female examiners with experience are older women. "Ma'am" sounds too old-fashioned and doesn't look appropriate for formal communication. I believe "Madam" really should only be used if I am certain as to marital status. Any help with this situation would be appreciated.

Congratulations on inventing your own dictionary of definitions. Only you are unlikely to be successful by forcing your own beliefs on ones that already have conventional definitions in general circulation.

"Madam" is simply the female equivalent of "Sir." The contraction "Ma'am" is for use in spoken address only, as is "Miss," which is only used to get the attention of someone who isn't looking, such as a waitress or a pedestrian about to walk into traffic.

Dear Miss Manners:

How quickly should one respond to personal e-mail?

I seem to remember a snail-mail rule that one was supposed to have a reply ready for the next post. Does a similar guideline exist in netiquette?

I'm asking because I have a list of several dozen far-flung friends to whom I send a group e-mail every week or so. I do this not only to let them know what my wife and I are up to but also to stimulate some sort of reply so I can keep up with them. Alas, relatively few respond. In fact, the biggest response came when I was sick recently and could barely lift my head, let alone dash off a witty communique. The brief absence of e-mail prompted several folks to write in, saying they missed my missives.

I suppose it's nice to be missed, but I'd rather receive the e-mail. I should hasten to point out that I respond swiftly to personal and work-related e-mails.

Charming as it is to compare your correspondence with the old custom of friends' regularly exchanging letters, Miss Manners is unconvinced.

What you are doing is sending out a mass newsletter to people who have not shown interest in entering into a regular exchange.

They seem pleased enough to receive it, and Miss Manners does not mean to discourage you from continuing. But its being a hobby of yours does not require them to make it a hobby of theirs. You might try sending individualized letters that don't just report your activities but show interest in the particular life and interests of each potential correspondent separately to see if you can get a true exchange going. But not a weekly one. Invitations require immediate answers and duty letters must be timely, but it was never the case that chatty letters had to be answered by the very next post.

Dear Miss Manners:

I have a friend who constantly refers to herself in the third person, i.e., "Jenny never eats red meat," or "Jenny loves to go to the movies!" What is the best way to deal with this wholly annoying habit?

How would Miss Manners know?

Feeling incorrect? E-mail your etiquette questions to Miss Manners (who is distraught that she cannot reply personally) atMissManners@unitedmedia.comor mail to United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

2006Judith Martin


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