Just the Facts, Ma’am: Using Personal Titles in English

Those who were thoroughly confused by last week’s post on greetings will be glad to know that this week’s topic, use of personal titles, is slightly less vexing — if only because there are fewer variations to choose from.

We use four basic titles frequently: Ms., Miss, Mrs., and Mr. Two more are used somewhat less often: Ma’am and Sir. ESL students are often perplexed as to how and when to use all of these. It can be especially tricky for Spanish speakers, because use of honorifics in English and Spanish is just similar enough to be misleading. Students learn that Mrs. = Señora and Miss = Señorita and then try to translate directly, coming up with expressions such as Good morning, Mrs. This sounds very awkward even though Buenos días, Señora is perfectly correct in Spanish. The problem here is that Señora can be used by itself, without a name attached to it, while Mrs. cannot.

Four basic variables determine which personal title to use:

  • The gender of the person you’re addressing
  • Marital status, if the person is female
  • Whether you know the person’s name
  • How polite and formal you want to be

The first variable, gender, seldom causes English learners any difficulty. They readily grasp that Mr. and Sir are for men and Miss, Ms., Mrs., and Ma’am are for women.

She's Mrs. Somebody now, but if she's a modern woman, she probably prefers "Ms." Photo by A D Photography, http://www.alexdurasow.co.uk.

As far as marital status, the Miss/Mrs. distinction is clear (and similar to Spanish). However, the concept of Ms. usually takes some explaining, and its pronunciation (“miz”) must be practiced to distinguish it from Miss. We stress that Ms. is appropriate for any woman, married or not, and therefore it is preferable to the more old-fashioned Miss and Mrs., which require you to know whether a woman is married — something that, after all, should not be your concern. I tell students to stick with Ms. in most situations as both easier to use and more up to date. Miss and Ma’am also make a marital distinction, or at least a loose distinction between a woman who looks younger versus one who looks older.

How to address her, if you don’t know her name? “Ma’am” or “Miss” can sound too formal, and besides, you don’t know whether she’s married. Fortunately, it's perfectly okay in English to omit the title entirely and just say “Hello, how are you?”

The third variable is the one that trips up many students, and teachers, too, because we seldom think about the rules that govern our usage of personal titles. Ms., Mrs., and Mr. can only be used in combination with a last name: Hello, Ms. Smith. So you must know the person’s name in order to use these titles; they cannot be used alone. Ma’am and Sir, on the other hand, are only used alone, without a name: Excuse me, Ma’am. Miss can go either way — it can be used in combination with a last name or it can stand alone.

But even this is too simple, because there are regional variations. In the South, for example, it’s common to combine Miss with a first name when you want to show courtesy and respect, yet also familiarity or affection. It took me years of living in DC to get used to hearing this. I grew up in New England, and nobody there would ever have said Miss Cathy. Yet here in DC, some of my daughter’s schoolmates, particularly African American children, did call me that, having been instructed by their parents in how to politely address adult friends. This usage is comparable to Spanish, in which you can simultaneously show respect and familiarity by using Don or Doña with a first name: Don Pablo, Doña María.

Sometimes only "Yes, Sir" will do.

The final variable is politeness, and this also causes some uncertainty for Spanish speakers. In Spanish, it’s polite and respectful to add an honorific, usually Señor, Señora, or Señorita, when wishing someone good morning or good afternoon, saying please or thank you, and so forth. You don’t need to know the person’s name. Omitting the honorific is not exactly rude, but it’s a little less courteous. For this reason, some of our older and more traditional students tend to use Miss (or Teacher) when they speak to us in the classroom.

English is less fussy about this. If you don’t know someone’s name, it’s perfectly all right to simply say Hello or Good morning or Thank you and leave it at that. If you’re in a situation that calls for a high level of politeness, respect, or deference, then you can add Sir or Ma’am. But these increase the formality, sometimes to the point of sounding stiff or stilted, so they aren’t always appropriate. You wouldn’t usually use them with someone you know well, for example. This is also subject to some regional variation, with Sir and Ma’am more often added in the courtesy-conscious South.

This leads to a basic dilemma in English. Because the Mr./Mrs./Ms. titles can only be used with a last name, you can’t use them to address someone whose name you don’t know. In such situations you have only two choices: either minimum politeness (Thank you), or else a high level of formality and deference (Thank you, Sir).

So, how to present all this to students? It may help to think in terms of a ladder of formality, ranging from least to most formal/polite:

Male or female Married or single Level of politeness Example
No name or title either either polite Hello. How are you?
First name either either polite but familiar Hi, Pat. What’s new?
Ms. + last name female either more polite Good to see you again, Ms. Hill.
Miss + last name female single more polite Miss Clark, please make six copies of this report.
Mrs. + last name female married more polite We’ll call you tomorrow, Mrs. Smith.
Mr. + last name male either more polite Goodbye, Mr. Grady.
Miss female single very polite and formal The fare is $6.50, Miss.
Ma’am female married very polite and formal Can I help you, Ma’am?
Sir male either very polite and formal Yes, Sir, here’s my license and registration…

If someone begins “Hey, lady!” you probably don’t want to hear the rest.

Finally, if all these forms of address are more or less polite, what’s not polite? Well, plenty of things. The following are all some degree of impolite:

  • Lady: Hey, lady, wouldja move yer car?
  • Mister (without a name): Excuse me, Mister, which way is the bus stop?
  • Buddy: Buddy, can you help me out?
  • Buster: Mind your own business, Buster.
  • You: Hey you!
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One Response to Just the Facts, Ma’am: Using Personal Titles in English

  1. Ashley Lipps says:

    Interesting post, Cathy! When I think of using “mister” without a name following it, it seems like something a child would do. For example, this clip from TV show Full House: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nHlZml7h7g

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