The phrase “dictated but not read” indicates that the text of a letter or other document, on which the phrase appears, was dictated to another person and not proofread. This is usually indicative of a document that was typed by a secretary or stenographer while taking dictation from the person sending the document. Once the typed letter or text has been completed, then the person who dictated the letter does not proofread it and instead simply sends out the letter. Use of the phrase can be seen as rude or tactless, as the implication is often made that the person who dictated the letter did not care enough to read it before sending it.
Sometimes abbreviated “DBNR,” the use of the phrase stems from business people and managers having a secretary type letters for them. The manager dictates aloud the contents of the letter, and the secretary or stenographer types or writes the letter out for the manager. Once complete, then the manager can proofread the contents of the letter, usually prior to signing it, and approve it for sending. When the phrase “dictated but not read” is used, it means that the person who dictated the letter did not proofread it.
The phrase is likely meant as an excuse for any mistakes or errors found in the letter or document on which it appears. If a letter was dictated but not read, then any mistakes in the letter are the result of the typist and not meant to reflect the person from whom the letter was sent. This could also potentially be used as a way to get out of any legal issues that may arise from documents that are incorrect in some way. Someone who has not signed the document and had it stamped with this phrase can always argue that some material in it was not approved by him or her.
While “dictated but not read” is inherently innocuous, it often has a fairly negative connotation associated with it. People commonly see that message and feel that it indicates that the sender did not wish to spend the time reading it prior to sending it, implying that the receiver is unimportant to the sender. The phrase may imply that someone is so important that he or she does not have time to read the document before sending it, but usually sounds somewhat pompous or impersonal. One noteworthy response to this phrase, by those offended by it, is to return the letter to the sender with the addition of the phrase “received but not read.”