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There has been some disagreement in my other online searches, and in my own education.

Assuming that I do not know if the individual addressed is married, when should I use Miss Brown, and when should I use Ms. Brown?

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Am I the only one that misses Mrs.? –  Armstrongest Sep 8 '10 at 15:31
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@Atømix - I guess not, but I sure dislike it. Note that to use it "properly", you have to follow "Mrs." with the Husband's name, not the woman's. –  T.E.D. May 31 '12 at 18:43

6 Answers 6

up vote 29 down vote accepted

According to The American Heritage Book of English Usage,

Using Ms. obviates the need for the guesswork involved in figuring out whether to address someone as Mrs. or Miss: you can’t go wrong with Ms. Whether the woman you are addressing is married or unmarried, has changed her name or not, Ms. is always correct. And the beauty of Ms. is that this information becomes irrelevant, as it should be — and as it has always been for men.

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But having this kind of pet peeve is itself a pet peeve of others, so react as you deem appropriate :) –  Kosmonaut Sep 10 '10 at 13:22
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+1 for "... this information becomes irrelevant, as it should be — and as it has always been for men." –  Tragicomic Feb 16 '11 at 16:08
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"this information becomes irrelevant...it has always been for men." Another approach would be to not discard information, but rather increase it, by having a indicator as to whether or not a man was married or not. If marriage matters (and apparently to many still believe it does), this is a useful thing to know about persons. Especially if you are meeting them for the first time and are looking for a mate. –  mickeyf Jan 4 '12 at 14:42
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I thought Master/Mister used to be the designators for unmarried and married men. That's why Alfred always called Batman "Master Bruce" –  Kevin Jan 4 '12 at 15:07
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Ah, but the catch to it lies in your closing phrase, "this information becomes irrelevant, AS IT SHOULD BE". That's a statement filled with implications about gender roles and how society is and ought to be. Many don't agree that that's how it ought to be. And so if you use the title "Ms" it carries the connotation that you are advocating a whole set of ideas. It's like calling someone "comrade". The dictionary may define it simply as "friend", but it implies that you think he's a communist, which may be positive or negative depending on your viewpoint. –  Jay Apr 26 '12 at 15:47

Assuming that I do not know if the individual addressed is married, when should I use Miss Brown, and when should I use Ms. Brown?

You might use "Miss" to address a female child under the age of thirteen. Otherwise, if you don't know if they are married, then Ms. is a convenient get-out.

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Any self-respecting child, particularly a tween girl, would chafe at being given an "immature" title instead of the general-purpose title. –  In the Booley House Sep 8 '10 at 16:01
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I think the only appropriate situation to address children with formal titles (Miss/Master) is probably on wedding invitations or the like. In nearly all other contexts you should address them by their first name, their first and last name, or “young man/lady”. At least, this is the case in American social conventions. –  nohat Sep 8 '10 at 17:00
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I actually hear both "Mr." and "Miss" used when scolding younger children sometimes. They're used interchangeably with "young man/ lady" in that context. I only point it out because I'm an American. :) –  kitukwfyer Sep 8 '10 at 18:43
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In England, well, once upon a time at least, 'master' was the term used for a young boy. –  gbjbaanb Nov 23 '10 at 21:55
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In America too if you go far enough back (several members of my Grandparents generation used to use it). –  dmckee Jan 2 '11 at 1:11

A rather strange point was raised in the accepted answer to this question. Personally, I wish this information were relevant for both men and women, but the fact is, it is a feature of our language that men are always styled 'Mr' unless they have some other title or style, and women have the privilege of being styled 'Miss' or 'Mrs'. Some women will be seriously offended if you don't address them by their preferred title. In business correspondence, 'Ms' is almost always appropriate, but in social correspondence, one would do well to try to find out what the lady in question prefers.

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Note that, unlike "Miss" and "Ms.", the proper way to use the "Mrs." title is with the husband's name. I haven't personally met a woman who claimed to prefer this method of address, but I suppose they could exist. –  T.E.D. May 31 '12 at 18:49
    
@T.E.D. You are correct, and you make an important point. Think of it like bidding in a bridge game. When one wants to indicate having been married, but that one's husband is deceased, it is distinctly different: Mrs. woman's-first-name husband's-last-name. I agree that to be Mrs. husband's first name husband's last name does rather diminish one's sense of personal identity ;o) but that is the proper way to use the Mrs. title with a living spouse. –  Ellie Kesselman Dec 17 '12 at 18:01
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I'm not sure what you mean by "the proper way". We've had discussions here before about what most people actually say in practice versus rules somebody wrote in a book 100 years ago. In the US, anyway, most married women refer to themselves as "Mrs. Mary Smith". "Mrs. Fred Smith" is not unheard of but very, very rare. A couple together may be referred to as "Mr. & Mrs. Fred Smith", I don't think that's too uncommon, especially on invitations to a formal event. –  Jay Jan 13 at 16:26

RegDwight has given a correct modern answer. The traditional approach would be different. Adopting this approach will sound like you're living in the 1950s or earlier, so you shouldn't actually do this, but I thought it would be useful to document what the modern system is reacting against.

  1. You should always know whether a woman is married or unmarried; a woman will sign a letter as either Rachel Jones [unmarried] or Rachel Smith (Mrs.) [married].
  2. Other than in correspondence, you would have been introduced, or there would be a calling card.
  3. If you write to a married or widowed women (divorced women are excluded from polite company) then you address her in writing as Mrs. Stephen Smith, using her husband's first name, not her own. For this reason you can write to "Mr. and Mrs. S. Smith".
  4. Mrs. and Miss are titles of respect; you only use them in relation to ladies; the lower classes are addressed by their first names, or by a bare surname.

This was the usual approach before 1960 or so (after the separation of Mrs. and Miss from the original Mistress in the seventeenth century). The use of Ms. (at all) was controversial from its proposal by Sheila Michaels in 1961 until some point in the 1980s - William Safire's use of it for Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 is often seen as the pivotal moment for acceptance by its former opponents.

If you're writing historical fiction, or you want a character to sound very old-fashioned, then using the traditional forms would be appropriate; even if not, it's useful to know what they were.

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Umm, conservatives did not call Geraldine Ferraro "Ms" as a sign of acceptance of the title, but rather as a way of labelling her as a liberal. Somewhat like -- to take an admittedly more extreme example -- some liberals called President Bush "Fuhrer Bush", not as an indication that they were reconcilzed with Nazism, but as a sarcastic criticism. –  Jay Apr 26 '12 at 15:51
    
@Jay Many conservatives, until 1984 had refused to use Ms. for anyone. Geraldine Ferraro made it impossible to avoid. Even using it to label liberals as such was controversial (like referring to trans* people as their current gender is controversial among conservatives today). But yes, "acceptance" is probably the wrong word. "Reluctant acquiescence" is probably closer. –  Richard Gadsden Apr 26 '12 at 16:11

(This question has been referenced from another marked as a duplicate, so I'm adding an answer here even though this question is old.)

The catch is that this is all politically/socially charged.

The title "Ms" was invented in the 70s (or at least that's when it became widely known) by feminists who objected to being "identified based purely on their relationship with men", to use a phrase that was commonly repeated at the time. Their intent was that Miss and Mrs should be abolished and replaced with this new "non-sexist" term. But because the term was advanced as part of a specific philosophy or social agenda, women who did not support that agenda objected to having the term applied to them. So what we really ended up with was that feminist women identified themselves as "Ms", unmarried non-feminist women identified themselves as "Miss", and married non-feminist women identified themselves as "Mrs".

What could under other circumstances have simplified titles, reducing 2 to 1, resulted instead in complicating them, increasing 2 to 3.

I don't think there's as much heat attached to it today as there was back then. But you can't just say, "Oh, it's easier to use Ms for all women because then I don't have to know whether or not they're married." Many non-feminist women don't like the title and object to having it applied to them, just as many feminist women object to the titles Miss and Mrs.

The only "easy answer" is to call a woman by the title she prefers. If she refers to herself as "Mrs Mary Smith", then that's what you should call her. If you don't have anything from her giving a title, ask her.

Well, I suppose if you want to make a social point, for or against feminism, you could use the title you prefer whether she likes it or not.

Personally, I just avoid using any title at all when I can. I just refer to her as "Mary Smith" without any Miss, Mrs, or Ms.

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No title at all is fine with friends and colleagues but would you avoid saying "Mr" for an acquaintance in a very formal setting? Would you present someone as "John Smith has written bla, bla and has been invited to talk about bla, bla? Saying "Ms. Mary Smith" shows courtesy and implies a certain distance in your relationship, which "Mary Smith" lacks. –  Mari-Lou A Oct 2 at 6:31
    
Actually I rarely call anyone "Mr". I pretty much only use that when I don't know his first name. I've introduced people to speak at conferences and I never say "Mr Fred Smith", I always just say "Fred smith". But if I didn't know his first name, I'd say "Mr Smith" as opposed to just "Smith". More to the point, I've never heard a man object to being called "Mr". While using no title at all for a woman might seem disrespectful, using a title she objects to would, I think, be more disrespectful still. Bringing me back to, you have to listen to what she calls herself, or ask her. –  Jay Oct 2 at 13:25

I find being referred to as Ms quite insulting as it is not my title. I am Miss as currently I am unwed. When I get married next month, I will be Mrs even though I'm keeping my maiden name.

If I fill in standard forms and they don't have an option for Miss, I contact them and let them know, or use the "other" box and specify "Miss".

Where I work, unless specified, we address correspondence without a title. There are plenty of people who go by Dr, Rev, Prof etc. You can't just assume Mr for a man or Ms for a woman.

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Isn't being called "Mrs + maiden name" ambiguous? How would your interlocutor know that your "title" is not your husband's name? –  Mari-Lou A Oct 2 at 6:39

protected by Jasper Loy Jun 14 '12 at 18:20

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