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How should I address a female who is senior to me (in both age and rank) in an official letter?

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senior meaning older, or higher-ranking? Official letter like to a member of parliament asking for something, or to a work superior accepting a promotion, entering a protest, or what? – Kate Gregory Nov 4 '11 at 13:39
@KateGregory higher-ranking & older too. – Abhijeet Rastogi Nov 4 '11 at 13:47
up vote 8 down vote accepted

As an Australian English speaker working in a typical office environment (health/academic sector), if first name use is not appropriate ('Dear Janet') then I would use the person's preferred title depending on their position or qualifications:

Ms White

Dr Green

Professor Brown

This should be fine in most contexts irrespective of gender.

I think it would be most unusual to use 'Madam' or similar to refer to a fellow employee, no matter how senior. Perhaps if addressing the Governor General, a High Court Judge or such there may be 'protocols' that are meant to be adhered to. There are also potential cultural differences of course, with the respect accorded to high-ranking employees varying from country to country.

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As a British English speaker, I'd definitely agree. The use of "Dear Madam", except where special protocols apply as per Snubian's comments, if you know (or can easily discover) the name of the person to whom you are writing, would come across as rather rude to me. – Matt Nov 4 '11 at 8:53

As Snubian said, addressing her by her title, or by Ms is appropriate and respectful.

Please don't use Madam, since that has negative connotations attached. The "mam" honorific is a shortened for of Madam, and sounds rustic and casual.

If you are writing the letter to her, write in second person. If you are writing about her to another, use third. For example.

Dear Ms Jones:

I am writing to you let you know of my feelings on your decision on August 8, 2011.

Third Person

Dear Dr. Smith:

Dr. Smith, I wanted to let you know about a decision Ms. Jones made which may impact your department. She made this decision on August 8,2011.

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Thanks for the reply – Abhijeet Rastogi Nov 4 '11 at 13:49
I'd be careful with "Ms"; a lot of women I know hate being addressed as such. – scottishwildcat Nov 4 '11 at 20:03
@scottishwildcat: just curious, what do the non-Ms women prefer? – Snubian Nov 5 '11 at 0:47
@scottishwildcat: Interesting, thanks. I've always seen Ms as the equivalent to Mr, i.e. a title unrelated to marital status that could in theory be applied to any woman. Miss and Mrs on the other hand I would think were a bit old-fashioned, being determined as they are by the woman's relationship to a husband (or not) – Snubian Nov 5 '11 at 1:52
@scottishwildcat I am female. I am not fond of "Ms.", but it is usually the correct choice, particularly if one does not know the woman's marital status. Recall the etymology for "Ms." It was introduced in the early 1970's, as part of the Women's Rights movement e.g. "Ms. Magazine". This isn't intended as a feminism lecture! I am proud to have finally transitioned from "Miss" to "Mrs." and prefer that now, even though my husband passed away. The worst thing though, far worse than "Ms." is to be addressed by my first name only, while others are addressed as "Mr.", "Dr." etc. – Ellie Kesselman Oct 7 '12 at 12:31

I think Madam or Ma'am is appropriate and formal. Heck, it's how you refer to the queen after the first introduction :)

Ma'am as in ham, not Marm as in palm - The Kings Speech

Madam also lends itself well if you append her position. "Madam Chairman[woman]", "Madam President",etc...

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why the down vote? – Rikon Nov 4 '11 at 12:31
For anyone below the queen, this is just too formal. – Kate Gregory Nov 4 '11 at 13:40
@Kate I agree, the exception being certain ranks within the police and military. – Hugo Nov 4 '11 at 13:44
@Kate Gregory, I disagree... Madam chairman or madam president is completely appropriate... The author said senior, they didn't say how high ranking... I still don't understand why the downvotes... Because I quoted the King's Speech?? Had I not quoted the kings speech, no one would have made the queen association because fundamentally, madam is the correct and appropriate name for several titles that are not the queen... And Ma'am is just common courtesy. You should call your mother Ma'am. – Rikon Nov 7 '11 at 12:53
first, "madam chairman" is not the same as just "madam". Second, I call my mother Mum, as my children call me. It's highly inappropriate to tell someone what to call their parents, btw. Third, if any of my staff called me madam I would most certainly tell them not to. And I own the company, so no-one is more senior in it :-) – Kate Gregory Nov 7 '11 at 13:22

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