When to Use Miss, Mrs, or Ms

Business Etiquette - How to Address Women by Gender Title

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The title Mistress is feminine for the word mister.  Historically, mister was (and remains to this day) a term that was used to address males regardless of their marital status, women, however, are a little more complicated when it comes to addressing them in a formal setting.

As is the case with Mister, Mistress was marital status neutral and referred to both married and unmarried women. Eventually, Mistress was split into two separate contractions to distinguish the marital status of women: Miss is used when referring to unmarried women and Mrs. (the abbreviation for Missus)  for married women.

In subsequent years (or rather, centuries) women once again moved back towards a less identifying term, adopting 'Ms' to include all adult women, regardless of their marital status.

In the U.S., never use the term Mistress to identify or introduce a woman as it would have a completely different meaning today - especially in a business setting.  Mistress is now generally interpreted to mean a woman having an affair.

When to Use Miss

Address young girls as 'Miss.' You can also address unmarried women as 'Miss,' however, many unmarried women prefer to be referred to as 'Ms' instead.

When to Use Ms

In objection to the generic term 'Mr' that does not distinguish single men from married men, feminists began promoting the term 'Ms' for women to serve as the female counterpart to Mister. "Ms" can be used by any adult women regardless of her marital status, however, "Ms" refers to adult women, not to girls.

It is almost always better to err on the side of 'Ms' when referring to a woman if you are unsure of her preferred title or marital status.

When to Use Mrs

The term "Mrs" originated to refer to a married woman specifically. However, some women keep the "Mrs" in their name even after a divorce, and most women retain "Mrs" when they are widowed.

It is not safe to assume that all women using "Mrs." as a title have a current or living spouse.

In the UK and British English, no period is used. Use Mrs (without a period) instead of Mrs. (with a period).

Always use the abbreviation and do not spell out missus (use 'Mrs') instead. In the English language there is no standard for spelling for "Mrs" but "missus" or "missis" both appear in literature.

A Brief Mention 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 and never for adult men unless the title is part of a professional title (not just a gender title) as in "headmaster."
  • Mister (Mr): The term "mister" (abbreviated as Mr. is used to identify men too old to be called "master" and can refer to any man regardless of their marital status. The correct spelling is "mister" but when using the term as a title should always be abbreviated.

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