Plenty of English and non-English speaking civilizations use titles when addressing other people as a sign of respect. For the most part, we don’t notice when we call someone a Sir or Mr., suffix a PhD at the end of someone’s name when writing their academic accomplishments, or address a person by their profession because it’s such a common practice in courtesy that we don’t even think about it.
In the United States, for example, we use the term “President” when speaking about whoever is in charge of running the country. But in Japan, it is the Prime Minister who rules, and they use the term “Shushō” as a sign of respect when talking about or addressing them.
The most common titles used in the English language, though, are Mr., Mrs., and Ms. For non-native English speakers and other people just learning the language, it can be confusing to understand which titles to use, especially for the feminine titles. Here’s how to use these titles properly in all types of situations.
What Are Titles?
Titles are additions to someone’s name. In most cases, they’re used as a sign of respect, but with a lot of titles, it can serve a different purpose such as listing one’s credentials. In American and British English, the titles “Mr.”, “Mrs.,” and “Ms.” are just three of many other titles used.
These titles are placed before a person’s name. So, if we were to address your elderly neighbor, we could call him Mr. Smith, since it’s common to use a person’s last name before the title. It is still possible to use a first name after the title, but this is less formal and is only often used by students when instructed by teachers to call them by their first name.
When Do You Use Titles?
Title usage can vary depending on situations and the context behind it. Usually, these titles are used as a sign of respect for people who aren’t in a casual or informal relationship. In schools, students call their teachers Mr. Jones or Mrs. Andrews because to call them simply Jones or Andrews is disrespectful in most situations because a teacher is seen as the superior of a student.
On the other hand, it’s OK for a teacher to call their students simply by their last name because teachers are superior to their students. However, most schools nowadays try to instill that everyone, regardless of age or position, is worthy of respect, so most teachers also call their students with a Mr. or Miss. In higher levels of education, though, some students call their teachers different titles as a sign of respect towards their credentials in the academe. That’s why some college teachers go by Mr. or Ms., Professor, Doctor, or even Attorney.
In a commercial setting, it is impolite to call a customer by their first name because the customer is there for business. Calling someone by their first name is a sign of familiarity between two people in most English-speaking communities, so it is rude for service people and other workers to act too familiar when most of their customers are strangers just looking for impersonal service.
In a workplace setting, colleagues of the same level address each other by first or last names, depending on their relationship with each other and the person’s preference. Whether it’s speaking in person or on an email, it’s alright to use first names because it is established that all of you are working and are at the same level. In traditional settings, people call their work supervisors or anyone with a higher job title than them Mr. or Ms. However, while it does show respect in their place in the company hierarchy, it sets a distance between employer and employee since it is more formal. That’s why some high-ranking executives prefer lower-ranking employees to simply drop the title because they don’t want to be too formal and distant with the rest of their employees.
In a family or friend setting, no one uses titles because they are all familiar with themselves. Regardless of age, job, or position in their relationship, titles are too formal to use in a familiar setting. It can be used as a joke or in some instances when a parent gets mad a child (“You’re grounded. Go to your room this moment, Mister!”), but in most conversations, people very familiar with each other don’t use titles.
Mr.: Used for Married and Unmarried Men
The term Mr. is fairly easy enough to understand once you grasp when to use titles as I mentioned earlier. It is an abbreviation of the word “Mister,” and is used to address a man whether or not he is married.
The usage of this term dates back to the 15th century. Prior to this time, the word “mister” most likely variated from the word “master,” which was a sign of respect to men who were seen as the superior of other men and women. The term master as a title is still used in British English (hence the reason why the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s son goes by Master Archie when they opted not to give him the title of Earl), but outside the Royal Family, the term “mister” is more commonly used.
Mrs.: Used for Married Women
The title of Mrs. is used for married women. It is an abbreviation of the word “Missus,” which dates back to the 16th century based on historical texts and usage.
Before this, married women who were married to highly-respected men or were married and highly respected in their own right were called “Mistress,” which is where missus most likely became a variant of. It was most likely discontinued when the word “mistress” started to become a word referring to the female lover of a married man. Prior to the 17th century, the term used to call an illicit lover was a “leman.” But when the 17th and 18th century saw the rise of lemans of monarchs wielding their own power and influence, the term “mistress” was no longer associated with respected married women but the respected (and influential) lovers. Eventually, married women were simply called “missus.”
Ms.: Used for Married and Unmarried Women
The title “Ms.” can be used for women who are both married and unmarried. This started back in the 1950s as a middle ground for the Mrs. used for married women and the Miss used for young unmarried women. It wasn’t very popular when it started as it was simply a choice between Mrs. or Miss, but in the 1970s, it became a more popular title when Ms., a women’s magazine, circulated.
Ms. Vs. Miss
“Ms.” and Miss are two separate titles, contrary to what most people believe. “Ms.” is pronounced “miz” and is used to address both married and single women. Miss, on the other hand, is used exclusively for single women, especially young children and teenagers.
What If I Don’t Know If the Woman Is Married or Not?
In some circumstances, you may be talking to a woman whom you personally do not know. It is inappropriate to ask a woman whether or not she is married because it would imply you are romantically interested in pursuing her. So, you may not be sure if you should call her a Mrs. or a Ms.
In such cases, address her with the title of Ms. Most married women may not mind the title, but some may correct you and ask them to address them as Mrs. However, if the context doesn’t have a lot to do with a woman’s marital status, it wouldn’t really matter.
Other Titles: Ms. Or Doctor?
In some cases, you might encounter instances where you don’t know which title to use. What if you learn that the woman you’re talking to is actually a doctor? In some English-speaking cultures, people with titles like Doctor, Engineer, or Attorney expect to be called by these titles as a sign of respect and praise for their academic and professional accomplishments.
However, in most situations, it is a case to case basis. If you are having a check-up in a clinic and the person attending to you is a female, you have to address her as “Doctor” as a sign of respect while she does her job. In another situation, if you are in a casual party and you strike a conversation with a woman who just happens to be a doctor, it is acceptable to address her as Ms. or Miss, since her profession has no place in this context.
Now that you have an understanding of appropriate titles, you can avoid awkward situations where you may seem disrespectful and impolite. When in doubt, just remember: Mr. for all men, Ms. for all women.