Ever filled out one of those web forms and been asked to choose a title? If you’re a man, it’s pretty easy. Whether you’re 12 or 112, you’ll always be a Mr. But what about if you’re a woman? You have to choose between Miss, Mrs., or Ms.
Miss is pretty straightforward; we’ll look a little at that title. But what’s the difference between Ms. vs Mrs.? What is a “Ms.” anyway? Here’s when you should use each title, whether you’re addressing others or selecting a title for yourself.
Miss vs Ms.
Wait, aren’t Ms. and Miss the same thing? Well, that depends on how you’re using it.
In most countries, there’s little difference between Miss and Ms. Miss is generally used to address any unmarried woman. It is, in some countries, also used to refer to teachers.
- Miss Jane was my kindergarten teacher.
- We are pleased to present Miss Jill Spencer at this year’s debutante ball.
- Miss Thomas is 30, but she’s not ever been married.
All three sentences give examples of proper use of the title “Miss.” So when should Ms. be used? Usually, Ms. is used as a title of respect. In many cultures, it’s inappropriate to assume the marital status of a woman. So we use Ms. to address her without making that assumption.
For example, when applying for a job. Good afternoon, Ms. Henderson. Or when addressing a neighbor, particularly one who’s elderly. Hello, Ms. Cratchett!
It’s technically socially acceptable to refer to any woman as either Miss or Ms. However, Ms. carries a slightly more formal connotation. It’s become the default title for women in professional settings, and it’s okay to use Ms. to refer to any adult woman.
It’s important to note that the title “miss” is derived from a centuries-old form of address, Mistress. A long time ago, Mistress was an acceptable way to refer to a woman, whether married or unmarried. Please don’t refer to any woman as Mistress today. It means something quite different in today’s vocabulary, and you’d risk offending someone should you use it. The only exception to this is when you’re speaking to a headmistress of a school.
Mrs. vs Ms.
Mrs., in all cases, refers to a married, adult woman. But both Mrs. and Ms. refer to adult women, so it can be confusing. What if you don’t know whether she’s married?
There are some situations in which, frankly, the marital status of a woman is none of your business. This is especially true in the business world, but can also be true in some social settings. In these circumstances, you should opt to use Ms. to address an adult woman.
If you’re in a less formal setting, like a church supper or a gathering of friends, you’ll likely know the marital status of your company. In this case, feel free to call Mr. Jackson’s wife Mrs. Jackson. And if you know that Sally Smith has never been married, you can call her Miss Smith. Young girls should always be referred to as Miss.
Marital Status and Preference
Are you going to offend a woman by calling her Miss when she is, in fact, married? Probably not. Most women will simply smile, correct you, and go on about their day. But sometimes it can be difficult to tell which a woman would prefer. This is especially true if a woman is divorced or is widowed.
After divorce, some women may choose to keep their married names. This could be for any number of reasons. Perhaps she has kids, and wants to continue to share their last name. Maybe she’s known in her professional circles by her married name. Regardless of the reason, begin by calling her Ms.; if she corrects you, you’ll know her preference.
When a woman is widowed, she may choose to revert to her family surname. But many widowed women will choose to continue to be called by their married name. If you’re meeting a widowed woman for the first time, it’s best just to ask.
Younger women may have some preference as to how you address them, too. An unmarried woman, while she’s technically a Miss, may prefer to be addressed as Ms. This is entirely her choice, as either is correct. Again, she’ll correct you if you address her in a way which she doesn’t prefer.
Titles and Culture
As with most aspects of the English language, you’re going to find that cultural differences exist in how titles are used. Just in the United States, for example, you’ll find much variation from region to region. The American South is a good example of this. In the South, women are most commonly referred to as Miss, regardless of marital status. This honorific implies respect, and Southern women are rarely offended by this.
In other parts of the country, Ms. is used as the default title for all women. As an example, in most parts of New England the title Ms. is considered status neutral. It’s the female equivalent of Mister. In more rare cases, an individual may prefer to remain gender neutral. In these instances, Mx. may be used.
Ms. vs Mrs.: Which Should You Use?
In short, choosing to use Ms. or Mrs. doesn’t have to be complicated. In formal situations, it’s best to default to using Ms. to address an adult woman. In informal social settings, you can call her Mrs. if you know that she’s married. Using Miss should be reserved for women who are younger than marrying age.
Of course, there are other honorifics which eliminate the mystery entirely. Esquire, Doctor, Professor, Officer or Lieutenant are a few examples of these.
When choosing to use Ms. or Mrs., err on the side of respect. And when choosing a title to use for yourself, choose an appropriate form of address, but use what you prefer. If someone addresses you in a way that you don’t prefer, politely correct them.