I was writing a letter to my grandparents and realized that the entire purpose of my letter was what I was planning to include in a postscript (a scotch whisky recommendation), and that the body of my letter was more-or-less just polite chatter. It made me wonder some things:

  1. Historically, were postscripts exclusively reserved for afterthoughts, or would letter-writers sometimes "disguise" their main motivation in the P.S. as I did?
  2. Similarly, are postscripts often written using a different writing instrument as was used in the letter proper?
  3. If it is seen that a postscript was written directly following the writing of the letter (or, even worse, before the letter was even written), is this considered rude, evasive, or otherwise unacceptable?
  4. If, on the other hand, the postscript was written so late after the letter was written that the letter had already been sent in the mail, would it be acceptable to post a postscript entirely separately, or would one need to write a whole other letter to get across what was originally planned to be in the postscript? If it needs to be written in a separate letter, would that letter be given a postscriptum, or a post-postscriptum?

Letters are about Style:

I frequently use postscripts in my stack exchange answers when I have added an element in editing to an existing answer. If, for example, I reread someone's answer and realize mine partly overlaps, I want to acknowledge the other person's answer. I also want to keep the original content as it was while adding some piece of information to the answer, and a postscript draws attention to the addition afterwards (especially if someone rereads my answer and sees a bullet-point addition at the end.

Today, writing letters is a very old-fashioned kind of thing to do. It's a statement of a well-thought-out and personal address to another person, and intended to be a little more enduring than a generic email. As such, a postscript is a charming element to a letter. You admitted that the whole point of the letter is really an excuse to add a clever postscript. I like to structure personal emails in a letter format, and postscripts are a good way to do this.

It's especially appropriate if the detail in the postscript is different from the rest of the letter. It can and often did draw attention to a small detail you wish to address, less informative and more intimate. It was, admittedly, originally intended to meet the need for appending a detail to a letter that was not editable. But the reasons for a postscript as a style choice are as diverse as readers and writers.

Hand-written letters are the most intimate kind of letter of all. It is again a style choice if you want to use a different writing tool (or font, if printed/emailed) and people are not going to know your motives in writing a postscript so I doubt it could be construed as rude or offensive. Indeed, due to the highly personal nature of a letter, you'd know better than anyone else if the intended recipient would take offense at it. If they do, then send them a text. I think it would seem a bit weird to send a postscript as a new letter, so I wouldn't recommend it. There are lots of media nowadays for communicating a small snippet of information.

So while postscripts are admittedly old-fashioned and technically outdated, I find them pleasant and charming in a format that often lacks character today. Feel free to do what feels right in a deeply personal format that's all about personal contact and style.

  • PS. I love a good bourbon, especially in a nice old fashion. Scotch just recycles bourbon barrels. ;)

Postscripts were "invented" when letters were written by hand and editing the body of the letter would have involved rewriting the whole letter (and wasting expensive paper and time). When you write in an editable medium such as on a computer, postscripts are usually considered unnecessary and bad style, especially in formal writing (like business communication or job applications). The convention today is to edit afterthoughts into the body of your letter or email.

But of course you are free to play with this obsolete historic form and use it to a certain effect, especially in informal communication.

That said, to answer your specific questions:

  1. Historically, the purpose was to not edit the letter. But of course everything imaginable has been done.

  2. No.

  3. That depends on how the individual recipient perceives the sender's intent.

  4. Writing afterthoughts in a follow-up letter is no longer a postscript. In formal communication the recipients expect you to think before you mail your message. Afterthoughts should be unnecessary and might make you look disorganized and unprofessional. But of course you can do whatever you like in informal communication.

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