Ms. vs Mrs.
What’s the difference between Ms. vs Mrs., and how do I remember which one to use?
Both are honorifics (that imply politeness or respect) and feminine titles (prefixes used to address women).
Mrs. is used when a woman is married or has ever been married (such as widowed or divorced). And is typically pronounced “mis-iz” or “mis-is”.
Ms. is neutral and does not imply a marital status (the female equivalent to Mr.). And is typically pronounced “miz”.
The main difference is that Mrs. is only used when a woman is (or has been) married and Ms. can be used regardless of whether a woman has been married.
If you’re not sure which to use, ask which they prefer. If you can’t or don’t want to ask, Ms. is probably the best option.
One way to remember the difference is to keep in mind that Mrs. contains an r, and so does the word marriage.
Of course, there is much more to it than that so let’s delve into them a little bit deeper.
Ms. vs Mrs. Origins and Evolution
Originally, there was only one way to address a woman: Mistress.
This was the feminine version of the word Mister and was neutral (did not refer to a woman’s marital status). Nowadays, this term has a much different connotation, and if you went around calling women mistresses you would likely be slapped!
Then the word evolved into two different titles: Miss and Mrs.
Miss was used to denote unmarried women (typically young women), and Mrs. was used to denote married women (it was spelled out as missus). These titles still retain their same meanings even today.
Ms. came last and was meant to be more marital status neutral (such as its counterpart Mr.). This title became especially popular in the 60s and 70s during the women’s movement (also known as the feminist movement), because many women felt that a woman’s title should not be denoted by their relationship to a man.
Ms. vs Mrs. Uses and Examples
Some people assume that the titles can be used interchangeably and that they have the same connotation. This is not true!
If used incorrectly, they can even offend some women. One of the best ways to prevent this is to simply ask. Often women do not mind this (as it can be viewed as being polite and respectful) and then the problem is solved.
If a 90-year-old married woman wants to be called Ms. instead of Mrs., then do so!
Let’s look at some examples of how to correctly use these two titles.
Ms. can technically be used for any woman in any situation, so it is often preferred in professional or business situations. True, a married woman might be offended by not being addressed as Mrs., but it is less likely in a professional setting.
Ms. is typically used with a woman’s surname (last name) and is considered respectful for any age group or profession. (Unlike Miss or ma’am which we will go over later).
My favorite teacher is Ms. Williams.
Ms. Smith is our newest employee.
At the store, I ran into Ms. Jones.
Ms. is often used when you do not know a woman’s marital status, but it can also be used when a woman wishes to purposefully not disclose their marital status. Many women feel that their marital status can affect the amount of respect they receive in their workplace or they just do not want people to inquire about their personal lives.
For example, a young, unmarried female teacher may receive less respect from her students (or coworkers) than an older, married female teacher (who is considered more of an authority/mother figure). So, she might prefer to use Ms. instead of Miss. Many women feel that using Ms. gives them more authority in their workplace.
Or a woman may prefer Ms. instead of Miss because they want to discourage any unwanted advances. This could be from either coworkers or non-coworkers (customers, clients, patients, etc.). Many women choose to go by Ms. to defer any unwanted interest while in their workplace.
Also, some women feel that if people know they are married, then they will be less likely to be considered for job advancement (the assumption being that a married woman would put her marriage and home life before her career). Therefore, they may prefer Ms. over Mrs. Many women feel that Ms. gives them a bit more anonymity in their workplace.
As sad as it is, even in this day and age, women are still often judged by their age, marital status, and even their looks. Since men only use the title Mr. there are typically no assumptions made about their personal lives based on their title. Many women feel that Ms. put them on “equal status” with men.
Ms. is a good default in professional or business settings because it is more generic and all-encompassing.
Now let’s look at when Mrs. would be the more appropriate choice.
Mrs. can be used for any woman who is married or has ever been married (such as widowed or divorced).
Always remember not to assume that any woman who goes by Mrs. has a living spouse.
Mrs. is typically used in three ways: with a given name (first name), a surname (last name), or with their husband’s name.
My favorite babysitter is Mrs. Patricia.
Mrs. Wilson was recently widowed, so let’s send her some beautiful flowers.
My best friend just got married, and now she is Mrs. John Thomas.
When used with a first name (Mrs. Patricia) it implies a close relationship while still being respectful. Some examples would be a family friend, babysitter, or neighbor.
Used with a surname (Mrs. Wilson) is probably the most common usage. It denotes politeness and respect and can be used in almost any situation without being offensive or too familiar.
Mrs. is typically used with the husband’s name (Mrs. John Thomas) when addressing letters or correspondence. Some examples of this would be wedding invitations, postcards, or letters (especially if using both of their names would be excessively long).
Mrs. in conjunction with the husband’s last name can also be used if you are addressing someone’s spouse and you don’t know their first name. Or if you are just meeting someone (and you know them by way of their husband), then this can be an acceptable way to refer to her.
There are many women that prefer Mrs. over Ms. (especially older women who have been raised in a generation where this title is considered more respectful). To not use this title can sometimes be viewed as not acknowledging (or disrespecting) their marriage.
Some scenarios that may be an exception to this would be if a woman is separated or divorced, then she may prefer Ms. as her title. Mrs. might be an unwelcome reminder of her marriage.
Plus, even though Mrs. can be used if someone has ever been married, many people assume that it means they are currently married. Again, your best bet is just to ask!
If you know that a woman is married, then Mrs. can be a very respectful way to address her.
Ms. vs Mrs. vs Other Titles
Ms. and Mrs. are not the only titles for addressing women. There are so many options that it can be confusing remembering which one applies to which situation. Do you use Miss, Ms., Mrs., or ma’am?
Remember that these titles are not always interchangeable and can offend someone if used incorrectly.
Let’s compare some of the main feminine title options:
Miss refers to an unmarried woman (who is typically young or at least younger than you). It is normally used with a given name if you know the person. Miss is also commonly used for female service workers (like waitresses and hostesses).
Miss Jennifer, you dropped your wallet.
Excuse me, Miss, can I get a refill?
Ms. can refer to a married or unmarried woman and is neutral. It can be used regardless of age and is typically used with a surname.
Ms. Morrison is coming over around 7 for dinner.
My teacher, Ms. Sanders, wants to talk with my parents.
Mrs. refers to a woman who has been married (or is widowed or divorced). It can be used with a given name, a surname, or their husband’s name.
Mrs. Johnson and her husband are coming over on Saturday around 9.
I addressed the wedding invitation to Mr. & Mrs. Neil Crawford.
Ma’am can refer to either a married or unmarried woman. It is more commonly used in the Southern US than the Northern US. It is typically used by itself and not with a name. Ma’am is also not capitalized unless at the beginning of a sentence (so it is written as ma’am).
Normally, it is used when a woman is older than you (or in a higher position than you) or if you don’t know the person’s name but still want to convey politeness. Unlike the others, ma’am is used almost exclusively in spoken conversation instead of written conversations.
Yes, ma’am, I will get that for you.
Ma’am, do you need anything else?
There are also professional titles to take into consideration as well (like Dr., Headmistress, Judge, Sgt.). Whenever you know a woman’s professional title, it should always be used (unless you are a close friend or colleague).
Dr. Lawrence says I can come off my medication soon.
Headmistress Peterson wants to speak with my parents.
When in doubt, think of how you would address the male counterpart in that profession. Would you refer to only your male professors as Professor So-and-so? Of course not!
Any profession where someone has earned a title, it is always polite and respectful to use it.
Ms. vs Mrs. Geographical and Regional Differences
There are also some geographical and regional differences between the two, such as punctuation and pronunciation.
One notable geographical difference is whether to use a period after the titles.
In American English, we use a period after both titles, but in British English, there is no period.
Ms. Montgomery will be arriving in New York tonight at 6.
Ms Livingston will be arriving in London at tonight at 9.
Also, in British English, Mrs is sometimes spelled out (missus) when used in print, but in American English, Mrs. is always abbreviated when used in print.
Even within the US, there are regional differences between the two such as pronunciation.
Ms. is typically pronounced “miz” no matter where you are in the US.
Mrs. is where we start to see differences.
In the Northern US, it is typically pronounced “mis-iz” or “mis-is,” and in the Southern US it is typically pronounced “miz-iz” or “miz.”
This can be very confusing because this means that Ms. and Mrs. can often sound the same in the Southern US. This might be why some people think the words are interchangeable (and just two different spelling variations).
This might also be why ma’am is much more common in the Southern US. It is a distinctive way to politely refer to a woman that is not as confusing when pronounced.
A woman may take offense to being addressed as what she hears as the word Mrs. (implying married when she is not), or the reverse. But generic politeness is generally well taken.
It should be noted that some women are still offended by the term ma’am because it can imply that they are older. No woman likes to be thought of as old!
Also, in the Northern US, it can be viewed as colloquial or offensive as well. As usual, when in doubt, just ask!
Final Thoughts on Ms. vs Mrs.
While initially, it can be confusing, try to remember that Ms. is a neutral (non-marital status) title and that Mrs. is a title for a woman who is (or has ever been) married.
You can also keep in mind that Mrs. has an r in it, and so does the word marriage.
There are many titles that you can use when addressing women (such as Miss, Ms. Mrs., or ma’am), but you should always try to use the most appropriate one for whichever setting you are in. If a woman has a professional title (Dr. or Headmistress) then always use it to be respectful.
Ms. is more commonly used in business or professional settings when you do not know a woman’s marital status, or she does not want it known. It is also typically used with a surname (last name) and is considered the female equivalent of Mr.
Mrs. is more commonly used in personal settings when you are sure that a woman is married, widowed, or divorced. It can be used with a given name (first name), surname (last name), or with the husband’s name.
There are some geographical and regional differences between the two such as punctuation and pronunciation.
In American English, we use a period after both titles, but in British English, there is no period. In the Southern US, both titles can sometimes be pronounced the same, which can be confusing.
Even though Ms. is a more generic and all-encompassing way to address a woman, either title can sometimes offend a woman.
It cannot be reiterated enough: the best way to know how to address a woman (whether professionally or personally) is to just politely ask their preference.
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