The many meanings of the word ‘dear’ can leave an English language learner in a lurch.* Here, LiveEnglish with Livemocha instructor, Miranda González, sheds some light on this four-letter foe.
Written by Miranda González
If I had to pick one word in the English language that I see repeatedly overused or misused, I would pick the word “dear”. I get called “dear” at least once a day by English learners, and while I know that my students are trying to show gratitude or affection, something about it just seems strange to me. That’s because the word “dear” is just not that commonly used any more. It is especially rare to hear a man call someone “dear”. So to clear things up, let me tell you about some situations where native speakers DO use the word “dear”:
This is a convention of business writing. It has nothing to do with your level of affection for a person.
Dear Mr. Smith,
I am interested in the position of Senior Accountant at your company…
Dear Hiring Committee,
I have attached my resume for your review…
Usually, the less we know someone, the more likely we are to use the word “dear” preceding their name. (I know; it sounds the opposite of what you would think!) However, “dear” also conveys a certain level of respect, so if I write a letter to my grandma, I say…
Dear Grandma Lucille,
When we write emails to friends or even co-workers, we usually just say, “Hi, Mary” or “Hey, Mary” or “Mary”. If we are really informal, we won’t use the person’s name at all – we’ll just jump right into the details – “Did you get a chance to see that memo I sent you?” Again, you may start out by writing “dear so-and-so” for your first encounter with someone, but the more contact you have with a person, the more likely it is that you will drop off the “dear”. For more specifics about this particular usage, see this amusing Wall Street Journal article.
Husbands and wives (or any pair of significant others) sometimes call each other “dear” as a way to show their love for each other. Example: “Can you take out the trash, dear?” However, this usage is becoming less and less common as people tend to favor other words such as “sweetheart”, “honey”, “babe”, etc. “Dear” sounds outdated to me, but I know a fair amount of people who still use it in this way.
3. Older people (mostly women) use “dear” as a way to address younger people.
Much like we would use “Sir” or “Ma’am” to address someone older than us, people that are older than us may use “dear” to address us, especially if they don’t know our names. Even if an older person does know us well, she may still choose to call us “dear” to show affection. For example, my grandma might say to me, “Thanks for the Christmas card, dear. It was beautiful.”
4. If you are not romantically involved with someone or significantly older than someone, “dear” by itself conveys sarcasm.
Let’s face it: Americans are a sarcastic bunch. We tend to use it to try to be funny, but unfortunately, sarcasm can also hurt people’s feelings. For example, if my friend is looking for a jar of peanut butter and it’s right in front of her face, I might say, “It’s right under your nose, dear.” If I say it with the right tone (and with a smile on my face), my friend might laugh at my joke. With a teasing tone, I’m calling my friend silly. However, if I’m not careful with the way I say it, my friend could be offended because she might think I am calling her stupid.
5. You can use “dear” in the interjection “Oh, dear!”
In this case, the word “dear” is not directed at anyone in specific. If you say, “Oh, dear!”, you’re expressing worry or dismay. Example: Oh, dear! Johnny has been skipping school again. Depending on your tone, “Oh, dear” can also express annoyance or sarcasm. Example: Oh, dear. Mike is going to sing again. (Meaning, you think Mike is a terrible singer.)
If you are using “dear” as an adjective, you’re probably in safe territory. You can use it before someone’s name in formal letters, or you can talk about a dear friend that you have. If you start using it in place of someone’s name, however, be careful. It has a lot of implications that you may not want to suggest!
Miranda is an English and Spanish teacher. Find her free English classes on Facebook every weekday at LiveEnglish with Livemocha. She currently lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, where she and her husband are raising two bilingual children.
*Definition of lurch.