The use of the term sir as a form of address for men, especially those of higher rank or status, is discussed in several prior questions including this one. They all indicate that the term is reserved to males, and that there are a number of related terms for females, such as ma'am.

A review of the first dozen online dictionaries at onelook.com confirms that sir is strictly reserved for male addressees. For example ODO defines it as

used as a polite or respectful way of addressing a man, especially one in a position of authority: excuse me, sir

On several recent television shows in the US, the term sir has been used by a police officer to address his or her supervisor who was female. In the context, the use was sincere and was not objected to by the superior.

Has the use of sir when addressing a superior female in a military or quasi-military setting become acceptable, or is this merely literary license?

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    Interesting parenthetical note in Wikipedia: When addressing a male superior (e.g. Officer or Warrant Officer, but not usually a non-commissioned officer, in the military), "sir" is used as a short form of address. (Despite its use in many fictional works, this is not a term used for female superiors, who are addressed as "ma'am").
    – J.R.
    Aug 6, 2013 at 20:52
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    Having had some experience with the U.S. Navy, I can assure you that calling a female superior officer "sir" would pretty quickly get you your a** handed to you. "Ma'am" is correct, I assure you. Aug 6, 2013 at 21:02
  • Can you give specific citations of some of these recent TV shows, so we can see the context for ourselves? Aug 6, 2013 at 22:58
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    This is not a question about English, but about military (or paramilitary) protocols or etiquette. The answer will vary from organization to organization.
    – MetaEd
    Aug 7, 2013 at 1:04
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    @JanusBahsJacquet, that reminds me of the Geordie dialect (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE England), in which you would address a man as "man" as in "gan canny, man" (meaning "take care") and a woman as "pet". However the "man" has become such an ingrained way of ending a sentence that it's not uncommon to hear "gan canny, pet, man", "gan canny, man, pet" or even "gan canny, man, pet, man". Feb 19, 2014 at 14:31

4 Answers 4


The U.S. Army Field Manual FM 7-21.13 Section 4.18 states:

4-18. A soldier addressing a higher ranking officer uses the word sir or ma’am in the same manner as a polite civilian speaking with a person to whom he wishes to show respect. In the military service, the matter of who says sir or ma’am to whom is clearly defined; in civilian life it is largely a matter of discretion. In the case of NCOs and soldiers, we address them by their rank because they’ve earned that rank.

Therefore, the military protocol follows the civilian protocol of respectful addresses, with the additional requirement that the greeting is mandatory when addressing superior officers.

Since in normal day English one does not generally refer to females as "sir", the same would apply in a military context.


As commented by @MετάEd, this seems a question of military etiquette. So allow to me offer this answer based on what I have observed.

I am not a member of the military myself, but I spend a lot of time working at a U.S. military base in a building that houses many male and female members of the military, members of every service (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard), as well as members of the Canadian and Mexican military.

In every case that I have witnessed (where the speakers are using English), women are addressed as "ma'am." Additionally, half of the people answer their phones with a phrase similar to, "Hello this is Private John Doe; how may I help you sir or ma'am?"

As a side note, I wish that my French and Spanish were better so that I could comment on how the users of those languages address each other.


Sir is for men. Most women would be offended if you called them sir (with the possible exception of some supreme feminists). Like John M. Landsberg commented, "Ma'am" is what you want to use unless you're asking for trouble.

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    I don't know any feminists who would advocate a “sir” default. Jan 9, 2014 at 20:54
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    Yeah, @Bobo, I think you have profoundly misunderstand extremist feminism. May 28, 2014 at 4:01
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    How so, @Codeswitcher? Feminists are people who believe women and men have equal rights, yes? Then some of these people might also believe that they should also have equal titles.
    – Bobo
    May 28, 2014 at 17:18
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    @Bobo First, there definitely are feminists who want to be addressed as "sir". For instance, the male ones. Secondly you're assuming that the women under discussion would want to achieve "equal" titles by adopting the male one. And more specifically, you're talking about the very subset which spells their sex "womyn" so as not to have "man" in the word: I don't think demanding to be called by a male honorific is likely to be high on their agenda for equality. Why don't you look into it and report back. May 28, 2014 at 20:27
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    1. I was obviously talking about women feminists (since I said earlier in the sentence, "most women"). 2. You are generalizing feminists yourself. Not all of them want to be called "womyn". And I am talking very small cases of people here, so just because you've never met one doesn't mean they don't exist. And 3. I actually have met a woman who thought being called "ma'am" was derogatory and preferred being called sir. Not sure anyone actually did, but that was her preference. (Also, why are you bothering a year-old post?)
    – Bobo
    May 28, 2014 at 21:03

Starting in Season 4, episode 1, on January 10, 2011, in the show "Castle", Penny Johnson Jerald, as the new captain, Victoria "Iron" Gates, insists upon the use of "sir".

The first time I heard it used on TV was in 1992, Star Trek The Next Generation, the episode "The First Duty" when the trial president, a female, was addressed as "sir" by all others.

In NCIS, did Jenny, as Director, tell her subordinate she was to be addressed as "sir or director" ? I think so.

I never have heard it used in real life, but wish there was a female equivalent. Female terms tend to assume new, negative, meanings. From Dictionary.com:

Madam: 1. ( often initial capital letter ) a polite term of address to a woman, originally used only to a woman of rank or authority: Madam President; May I help you, madam? 2. the woman in charge of a household: Is the madam at home? 3. the woman in charge of a house of prostitution.

The derivative of madam, ma'am, has not changed so much, but it is not a term often used other than to royalty or by a subservient ... not a typical word in US English.

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    What bearing would TV space operas have on this discussion? Do you suppose that all manufactured usages in speculative fiction should in some way govern English usage?
    – Robusto
    Jun 21, 2014 at 10:35
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    "Ma'am" not typical in US English? "Ma'am" is certainly used in formal settings throughout the USA. Examples: In court, I may address a woman judge as "Your Honor" or "Ma'am", I may address a woman opposing lawyer as "Counsel", or "Ma'am". "Ma'am" is still commonly used in the southern states as an address for any adult woman, especially one who is older than the speaker.
    – Theresa
    Oct 3, 2014 at 19:06
  • I highly doubt we can make a worse answer... TV shows references... And saying that Ma'am is not US En... HAHAHA Hat off for making me laugh!
    – Kalzem
    Oct 26, 2015 at 13:04
  • Not only have you answered the question wrong, but also you have bravely chosen to answer a different question wrong also. Sir, Ma'am are in common use in LARGE parts of the USA.
    – sas08
    Apr 25, 2019 at 15:48

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