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According to Wiktionary:

Noun

sir or Sir (plural sirs)

  • A man of a higher rank or position.
  • An address to a military superior.
    Yes sir.
  • An address to any male, especially if his name or proper address is unknown.
    Excuse me, sir, could you tell me where the nearest bookstore is?

I assume you'd not use this for young boys for example, and certainly not for girls or women. In what circumstances are sir the right one to use, and are there alternatives when it's not?

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I find it very uncomfortable when a clearly older person calls me 'sir' because it's their job to do so. It has the direct opposite effect of that intended. –  boehj Jun 3 '11 at 0:26
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You really can use Sir however you like, and it doesn't matter whether the addressee is older or younger. –  Jimi Oke Jun 3 '11 at 5:32
    
@boehj - Yeah, it can cause social discomfort in situations where it seems inappropriately forced. My advice (which you could probably guess from my answer) is to level the field a bit by using it back at them. –  T.E.D. Jun 3 '11 at 13:54

7 Answers 7

In the USA where I live, "Sir" (and the female equivalent, "Ma'am") are just general titles of respect. They do however tend to imply that the speaker is younger than the recipient (I guess since we don't have official social classes). This isn't a hard rule though.

I noticed my father regularly using "sir" and "ma'am" for pretty much every adult he encountered. Once I got old enough, I started doing the same. In my book it is a small sign of respect, which is particularly important in dealing with strangers. People can get unsavory ideas about how you probably feel about them when you are taller, maler, or (in the USA) lighter-complexioned than they are, or in some other position of social power over them (eg: customer over clerk). This helps defuse that a wee bit.

You are right that there are some times it is inappropriate. For example, I had to be very careful with "ma'am" when I was younger. Some women would get very offended at the implication that I felt they were far older than myself. I understand that "sir" is also a no-no for addressing an enlisted man (only officers are supposed to get that title). I do some military contracting, and have to watch out for that.

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My experience is that in the US, if you want to call the attention of a stranger, "Sir!" or "Miss!" is common, whereas this use is now rare in the UK: people call "Excuse me!" or "Hi!" but avoid using a term of address. –  Colin Fine Jun 3 '11 at 14:35
    
@Colin Fine - That is definitely a regonalisim. In the Northeast (USA), that would be "Yo!". Outside of that area, "Yo!" would be ignored (because people have no clue what that means) and "Hey!" is often used. However in the South, yelling "Hey!" is considered rather rude. I think in the UK "Oi!"(sp?) is used for this. At least it used to be. –  T.E.D. Jun 3 '11 at 18:09
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the spelling of "oi" is correct, but it often carries connotations of being offended or suspecting that the addressed party is doing something they shouldn't. If you're wanting to catch someone's attention because they dropped their wallet, "Excuse me" avoids those connotations. –  Peter Taylor Jun 3 '11 at 22:23
    
@Peter Taylor - Thanks. I'd say the same can go for "Yo" and "Hey" though, so they seem pretty well equivalent to "Oi". –  T.E.D. Jun 6 '11 at 13:37
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You don't need classes to have a gradient of authority. Employer/employee, teacher/student, landlord/renter relationships are all contexts where politeness may suggest "respectful" forms of address in a someone one sided manner. Me, I use polite form with everyone unless I intend to insult. –  dmckee Jun 6 '11 at 17:56

When speaking to boys, where sir is inappropriate, use the title "master", and for girls, it is Miss, and for women, it is just "ma'am"

"Sir" is only appropriate for addressing a superior(i.e. teacher, boss), or an equal in a formal setting(i.e. Business colleague).

Wikipedia notes two extra uses:

Sir is an honorific used as a title (see Knight), or as a courtesy title to address a man without using his given or family name in some English speaking cultures. It is often used in formal correspondence (Dear Sir, Right Reverend Sir).

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The use of sir to address someone is pretty archaic in Britain now. It might be used in letter writing, where it would usually appear in the form "Dear Sir/Madam", where the identity of the recipient is unknown. It may be used by staff in shops and restaurants, but again this would be quite formal (and mostly employed when politely refusing to do something the customer wants).

Knights of the realm, those knighted by the Queen, have their names prefixed by Sir thus, "Sir Terry" for Terry Pratchett, for example. (Someone with more leet etiquette skills than me will need to confirm whether Bill Gates can be addressed as "Sir William". I expect not, as the knighthood in his case is honorary - a genuine knighthood can only be bestowed on British subjects.)

The corresponding archaic/formal terms of address would be

Sir - for an adult man 
Madam - for a married woman or older woman (1)
Miss - for a girl or unmarried or young woman 
Master - for a boy

Note that using these forms of address outside of the contexts listed above will get you funny looks. They aren't really used except in those specific contexts. In particular "Master" would only ever appear on very formal correspondence, such as if the Queen was inviting a young boy to a garden party, and would be unlikely to appear on its own ("Master Robert"). You'd probably have to go back to the early to mid 20th Century for them to be in common use.

(1) 30 seems to be about the time I started to get referred to as "Madam" rather than "Miss", although often people simply stop using these forms of address, as some women can be a bit touchy about the "wrong" one being used.

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+1, but I'd like to make it doubly clear that the above answer is good (I'm assuming) for Britain, but emphatically not the USA. The only time in my entire life I've ever heard anyone in the USA refer to someone else as "Master" was when they were trying to be funny or sarcastic. I suspect it is avoided like the plague here because this was the title slaves gave their male owners. "Miss" is considered very condescending, so "Ms." is safer. "Madam" is the word we use for a woman who runs a whorehouse, so it is generally avoided too... –  T.E.D. Jun 3 '11 at 14:19
    
In the UK too, "Master" is in my experience now used only on formal invitations and the like. It is never used in direct address. –  Colin Fine Jun 3 '11 at 14:33
    
Perhaps I should have made it clearer that the terms are by and large obsolete. Thanks for pointing this out. –  Christi Jun 3 '11 at 15:28
    
+1, @Christi. @ColinFine Reading "Tom Jones a foundling", set in 18th century's England, you will find "Master" quite frequently. –  Alain Pannetier Φ Jun 3 '11 at 20:56
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"Sir" and "Miss" were widely used by pupils to address teachers when I was at school a mere decade-and-a-bit ago. "Miss" was used even with married teachers in their 60s, except those who managed to prevail upon us to use the full "Mrs Smith" (adjust surname as appropriate). –  Peter Taylor Jun 3 '11 at 22:25

In AmE, the use of 'Sir' (or 'Ma'am') in speech is deprecated, even in formal situations. Though a fifty year old 'Amy Vanderbilt' (etiquette guide) might still be followed for addressing mail, it is just not used in speech.

Except in Southern English where it is usually used for someone older or in uniform (a judge or police officer). I feel like there is a tendency for those from the military to use it more often in civilian life, but I'm not sure about that or their internal rules.

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I wouldn't say "deprecated", as much as verging on archaic. –  T.E.D. Jun 3 '11 at 13:57
    
@T.E.D.: sure. My questionable use was motivated by 1) the reaction to using the word 'sir' is something like 'Please, no need to be so formal and 2) it was an opportunity to use a fancy word. –  Mitch Jun 3 '11 at 15:15
    
I certainly love me some fancy words too (as we'd put it where I grew up). Still, do take care that you understand the implications when you use a word. "deprecated" means not that something isn't used, but that it actively shouldn't be used anymore (mostly regardless of how much it is used). You could make a case for that, and that's what I thought you were probably doing. –  T.E.D. Jun 3 '11 at 16:32
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I work in the service industry, and I frequently use sir and ma'am. –  Mahnax Aug 17 '12 at 3:49
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@Mitch I currently reside in Alberta, Canada, if that helps. –  Mahnax Aug 17 '12 at 4:10

The forms of address, "sir" and "ma'am," are still very much alive and well in American English usage. "Miss" is the correct substitute for women who are younger and/or likely to be unmarried. There is nothing archaic about them. As noted above, they are used when situations require a bit more formality: addressing strangers; customers in a retail environment; police officers; and social and workplace superiors in more formal settings, though not for long after acquaintance is established. Especially in southern parts of the US, and in rural parts of the East and Midwest, I am certain from long experience that they are very much in common use.

It should not be used to address boys or girls. "Miss," is very proper for girls in these situations, though for boys, "master" is certainly archaic. Boys might be addressed as "sir," once they are old enough to wish to be thought of as men. I wouldn't hesitate to address in that way, say, a nineteen year old. Younger boys might be addressed less formerly as a matter of course, "kid," (paradoxically) "man," "dude," and so on. It should also be noted that in the US, the term "boy" has a racial history and should not be used as a form of address except with intimates, such as one's son or nephew - certainly not with strangers and never with members of racial minorities by Caucasians.

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I'm in my thirties and live in the northeast US, and most people in my area use "sir", "ma'am", and "miss", especially with strangers. No one seems to think it's odd at all. Most people just seem to acknowledge it as politeness. –  KitFox Jun 3 '11 at 17:47
    
+1 - Just about dead on right. I avoid "Miss" for reasons I discussed in my answer, and the address I tend to use for boys too young to remotely use "Sir" on is "Big guy" (I think I picked that one up in the Philadelphia area). It is kind of aspirational for them, but I don't think its that common of a term. –  T.E.D. Jun 3 '11 at 18:06
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In the south "son" is still used fairly often as a title for a male child, though not everyone approves of it. –  dmckee Jun 6 '11 at 17:58

I think one difficulty in characterizing the use of language in the USA is simply the size and diversity of the nation. Customs and manners range to some extent in different parts of the country. The western half of the country is notably more relaxed in manners than the eastern seaboard, for instance. The interior of the country is more socially and politically conservative than the coasts, but not necessarily more restrained in etiquette. The southern and eastern regions place perhaps the highest premium on manners and mores, but what those manners and mores are vary from place to place.

In the area of Washington, D.C., both in the city and in the surround countryside, I can assure you that there is nothing awkward about "sir," "ma'am," and (for women and girls unlikely to be married) "miss." I do concur that "madam" can come across with unintentional effects if not used judiciously. Aside from the connotation of a brothel-keeper, it can sound overly formal and stilted, and thus perhaps hostile. I would not be surprised to read that in California, "sir" or "ma'am" came across with something of the same effect.

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The use of "Sir" and "Miss" is most certainly not "very much alive and well in American English usage."

It should be clear to everyone that such a reference is archaic, offensive to women and should never be used.

When addressing men and women, it is not anyone's business to know if the woman is married. When addressing a woman, why would you need to know of her marital status? Do you ask a man his marital status? Whether a woman you are addressing is married should never be considered when addressing a woman. That usage comes from an obsolete practice of indicating the marital status of a woman to allow the reader to discern what importance should be given to her words, and also to allow men to know if a woman is married — for their personal purposes.

The correct manner in which to reference men and women is "Mr." and "Ms."

One never, ever, uses the word "Miss." Again, that word is offensive, obsolete and a reflection of the intelligence of the one who uses it.

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This is not a response to the question, which was solely about "sir", but a comment on certain responses. –  StoneyB Sep 22 '12 at 13:32
    
This answer can be improved by citing facts and references to support the claims made. It has a prescriptive tone which seems to reflect the author's opinions, rather than descriptive of actual patterns of usage by English speakers. –  MετάEd Sep 25 '12 at 19:05

protected by RegDwigнt Sep 21 '12 at 22:41

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