The answer to how to use titles for men and women effectively lies at the junction between business etiquette, social graces, and personal preferences. A man always goes by "Mr." or "Mister" regardless of his marital status, whereas how you refer to a woman can offend some, so it’s best to ask if you’re unsure.
Let’s look at the official definition for using each title. Then we’ll look at ways you can stumble and how to avoid them.
How to refer to men and boys
Since this is the most straightforward category without means of offending anyone, let’s start here.
Always use "Mr." when referring to a man, regardless if he’s married or not. Historically and today, men need not worry about marriage changing the way they’re addressed.
Some refer to young boys as "Master," but it’s never used for adult men. So if you’re addressing an invitation for a birthday party to an 8-year-old boy, it’s okay to address it to: "Master [First Name] [Last Name]."
Otherwise, address adult men as "Mister" or "Mr." Always use the abbreviation "Mr" (British) or "Mr." (US) when you’re using it as a title.
How to refer to women and girls
First, a historical perspective might shed light on how far we’ve come with titles for women.
Historically, you referred to men as "Mister" and used the feminine form "Mistress" for women, which didn’t reveal if a woman was married or not. We don't use that term today, and it's evolved into several contractions to distinguish marital status.
In fact, in the United States, "mistress" today describes a woman having an affair with a married man, so be careful!
Today, we use "Miss" for young girls or unmarried women. "Mrs." is the abbreviation of "missus" and refers to married women.
"Ms." came about in the 1950s as women sought to differentiate themselves from being known by their marital status, and it gained in stature in the 1970s. Today, it’s more common to refer to a woman as "Ms." regardless of her marital status.
When to use Miss
We refer to young girls as "Miss." It’s sometimes safe to call women in their 20s "Miss," but always try to determine their preference for titles before using them in correspondence or in introductions.
When to use Ms.
You can rarely go wrong with addressing a woman as "Ms." Since women today need not be distinguished by their marital status, addressing a grown woman as "Ms." is safer than "Miss" or "Mrs." However, it’s in your best interests to ask a woman about her preferred title, especially if you’re unsure of her marital status.
When to use Mrs.
As well as being used for married women, some widowed or divorced women still refer to themselves as "Mrs." You can’t assume that someone using the title "Mrs." has a spouse; they just might want to still be referred to as "Mrs." Especially for older, widowed women, it might offend them if you addressed them as "Ms."
Always ask women if you’re unsure
The above are guidelines that can help give you a starting point regarding how a particular female might want addressed. But it eventually falls on personal preference, which you can only know if you ask.
Understanding when to use "Miss," "Ms." and "Mrs." can help you avoid misunderstandings and offending some women. How women identify themselves reveals how they think about their identity and sense of self. Since there is no hard and fast rule to help you figure this out, proper etiquette requires you to ask.
British and American titles differ in one singular way:
- British titles do not include a period after: Mr, Mrs, Ms
- American titles include periods after: Mr., Mrs., Ms.
If you don’t want to offend anyone, take the time to understand the differences between titles and how to use them. Above all, make sure you ask women their preferences in titles before you introduce them or address them in correspondence, and defer to these preferences.