When to Use Miss, Mrs., or Ms.

Business Etiquette—How to Address Women by Gender Title

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The title mistress is technically the feminine form of mister, although it's taken on its own not-entirely-flattering connotation in recent history and is virtually never used these days. Mister has always been a term used to address males regardless of their marital status. It's a little more complicate, however, when you're addressing a woman in a formal or business setting.

From a Historical Perspective 

As is the case with mister, mistress was traditionally considered to be marital-status neutral.

It was used to refer to both married and unmarried women. Eventually, mistress was split into two separate contractions to distinguish the marital status of the woman in question: miss when referring to unmarried women, and Mrs., the abbreviation for missus, for married women. Women then moved back toward a less-identifying term once again, adopting "Ms. to include all adult women regardless of their marital status.

When to Use Mistress

Strike this term from your business vernacular. Never use the term mistress to identify or introduce a woman in the U.S. because it has a completely different meaning today, particularly in a business setting.  Mistress is now generally interpreted to mean a woman who is having an affair.

When to Use Miss

Address young girls as miss. You can also address unmarried women as miss, but many unmarried women prefer to be referred to as Ms. instead. Try to determine how the woman wants to be addressed before introducing her or greeting her if possible.

When to Use Ms.

You almost can't go wrong with Ms. Feminists first began promoting the term for women as the female counterpart to Mr. It can be used by any adult woman regardless of her marital status, but it refers to adult women, not girls. It's almost always better to err on the side of Ms. if you're unsure of the woman's preferred title or marital status.

When to Use Mrs.

The term Mrs. originated to refer specifically to a married woman, but some women prefer to keep the "Mrs. in their names even after divorce, and many women retain Mrs. when they're widowed. It's not safe to assume that all women using Mrs. as a title have a current or living spouse.

Always use the abbreviation and don't spell out missus, but use Mrs rather than Mrs. in the United Kingdom and in British English. Do not include the period. There is no standard for spelling for Mrs. in the English language, although both missus and missis appear in literature. 

A Word About Men's Titles

Men are easy. For the most part, there are only two ways to apply a gender title the male species—men or boys:

  • Master: This title is used to refer to and address boys. It's never used for adult men unless the title is part of a professional title, not just a gender title, as in "headmaster."
  • Mister or Mr.: This term is used to identify men who are too mature to be called "master." It can refer to any man regardless of his marital status. The correct spelling is mister, but the term should always be abbreviated when you're using it as a title.