1. ma'am /ˈmæm/ noun
  2. man /ˈmæn/ interjection

When you said to a lady next to you, "Shall I bring your bag, ma'am?", a guy behind you said "Thanks, man!"

Have you ever had such a experience?

No confusion?

I know the last sound of each of them is different but I, a non-native speaker, don't think that I can definitely distinguish these two sounds in fast talking.

Can you, native speakers, distinguish them however fast they are spoken?

  • You might confuse them over the phone, but in person it's usually pretty clear who the person is talking to. In any case, there is more likely to be a diphthong in "ma'am" that would distinguish it from "man."
    – Robusto
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 13:47
  • @Robusto Thank you. Diphthong. This is tough for me. There is no sound of diphthong in my first language. But I try harder. Thanks.
    – Dee M
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 14:16
  • @Robusto: I have to say that for me, there is no diphthong in "ma'am". For its pronunciation, see this question. Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 14:18
  • @PeterShor I've thought "schoolma'am" was written as "schoolmom"... How poor my English is... Thanks.
    – Dee M
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 14:34
  • @PeterShor: I didn't say there would be a diphthong, only that it is more likely that there would be one. In other words, there might be one. I often hear people say "Mayum" there. I have never heard your pronunciation, of course.
    – Robusto
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 14:53

5 Answers 5


Calling someone "man" is extremely informal, while referring to a lady as "ma'am" is an overtly polite usage - so, one would take the clue from the proceeding word/words:

"Hey, Man" - "Good evening, Ma'am"

"S'up, Man?" - "Can I help you, Ma'am?"

"Yo, Man, that what you pushin' these days?" - "Excuse me, Ma'am, is this your car?"

  • 2
    +1 for pointing out the single most important factor: context. If you can find a context where either works, they'd probably be quite easily confused. Example: a phone conversation on a bad line. “I'm sorry, but… excuse me… [ma’am/man]… I'm sorry, but I can't hear you, could you speak more slowly please?” – Here, ma’am would be an address, while man would be an exclamation of annoyance at the bad line, injected in between the ‘actual’ sentences. Such examples are very contrived, though. Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 13:51
  • @Oldbag Thank you. I did not know "man" is extremely informal. For example, calling your co-worker for more than a year with whom you've been to bar twice or three times "man" is extremely informal? Polite or impolite usage of words in English is very difficult for me. And, I don't know what is "Yo, Man, that what you pushin' these days?" meaning.
    – Dee M
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 14:03
  • 1
    Man is informal, but not extremely informal. It is fine to call a (male) coworker that you're friendly with man. Greeting him with a “Hey man, how's it going?” is very unlikely to cause any offence. Ma’am, on the other hand is the female counterpart to Sir, and you'd never use it when greeting someone you were on friendly terms with. “Good morning, ma’am” would be how you'd address a (female) boss that you only know professionally and wish to be fairly formal with. Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 14:15
  • 1
    @DeeM - "Yo, Man, that what you pushin' these days?" means, "Is that your car?" It's kind of a joke, meaning: it probably doesn't run very well, so you end up pushing it from place to place.
    – Oldbag
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 22:54
  • 1
    @Oldbag - "one would take the clue from the proceeding word/words" or sometimes from the succeeding words: "Ma'am, I'll have to ask you to step aside", "Man, that was harsh". Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 23:33

The key word is context.

If you just say either of these two words, without context, many people may be confused as to which of the two you mean.

However, in context, this will rarely happen, because man is highly informal, both as a form of address, and certainly as an interjection, whereas ma'am quite formal.

For example, the interjection man would never be used together as ma'am like this:

Man, it's hot! Can I offer you a cold drink, ma'am?

When you use man to address someone, it's also informal:

You wanna cold beer, man?
* You wanna cold drink, ma'am?
Could I offer you a refreshment, ma'am?
* Could I offer you a refreshment, man?

The second and fourth variants are unlikely to be spoken by native speakers, because they mix different levels of formality. So in practice, the context will make the listener understand which of the two is meant.

As such, your confusion between the m and n sound is logical, the two do sound very similar, even to native speakers, which can sometimes lead to confusion, for instance when saying, or even spelling a name over the phone. Em and en are so close that it often gets clarified when spelling out a word or name (M as in Mary, N as in Never, or the NATO-alphabet, Mike versus November).

Whenever words are used in context, confusion doesn't happen that often, though. For instance, the d and the b can sound very similar, but nobody will think that

The dog barked in the dark night.

actually is supposed to be

The bog darked in the bark night.

Even though bog and bark are existing words!

  • Thank you for detailed explanation. It is very easy to understand. "Levels of formality" is good word for me. I misunderstood the situation where I use these two words, like "ma'am" for a lady I first met and "man" for a guy who is friendly to me and even I first met.
    – Dee M
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 14:30

I suspect that the reason that this is difficult for the Original Poster, is that as in many other languages, there is no syllable final contrast between /m/ and /n/ in Japanese. Notionally, the nasal consonant at the end of Japanese syllables in thought of as an 'N'. In fact in everyday speech the /n/ at the end of Japanesse syllables will merely be realised by a nasalised vowel.

This is also true, for example, of many Spanish speakers. There are no Spanish words that end with the letter 'M'. The only nasal consonant that we see in the orthography is 'N'. In spoken Spanish, therefore, many words will be pronounced with either an /n/, an /m/, or with /ŋ/ (the sound represented by 'NG') at the end of the syllable. This does not matter in Spanish, because there are no pairs of words that can be confused with each other because of a difference between /n, m,/ or /ŋ/.

Because of this, Spanish speakers will often produce the wrong nasal at the end of an English word. So, we might hear /taɪn/ for the word time. They also sometimes find it difficult to distinguish /n, m, ŋ/ at the ends of words too. Japanese speakers often also mispronounce words ending in /n/ either by missing the actual /n/ out altogether and replacing it with a nasalised vowel, or by replacing it with /m/ or /ŋ/. They can also have problems hearing which nasal is being used at the end of a word, although it's easier if there's a following vowel.

For these reasons it is often difficult for speakers of other languages to distinguish the nasal consonants at the end of a spoken word, particularly if not followed by a vowel.

To make things even worse, it's also a fact that /n/ is very unstable in English - though /m/ and /ŋ/ aren't. What this means is that /n/ tends to undergo a process of assimilation when appearing before another consonant. So before bilabial consonants (those using the lips), it tends to become bilabial too, changing to /m/. In front of velar consonants (made at the back of the roof of the mouth) it becomes velar too, changing to /ŋ/. Before dental consonants (made with the tongue and the teeth) it also becomes dental, although in this case it is still recognised as an /n/.

What this means is that if the Original Poster heard the following:

  • Shall I take your bags man, before they get wet?

This may well actually have been pronounced:

  • Shall I take your bags mam, before they get wet?

In oother words the /n/ in man will tend to change to /m/ before a following bilabial /b/.

  • 2
    Thank you. Your interpretation about our difficulties with pronunciation suppose to be correct. "Shall I take your bags man, before they get wet?" I definitely could not pronounce it correctly, especially "man, before". I feel that it is so busy to move my lips that I hardly make right lip-moves. I need much more practice. Thanks.
    – Dee M
    Commented Mar 21, 2015 at 14:50

I'm sure that many words that are not normally confused for each other could be confused if the speaker says the word quickly, if the surrounding environment is noisy, etc. So I wouldn't say that native English speakers NEVER confuse "ma'am" with "man", but it is certainly not a common problem.

  • I mean really I appreciate you.
    – Dee M
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 14:14

Native speakers of British English pronounce ma’am as /mʌm/ and use it only to address the Queen. So there is no danger of confusing it with man /mæn/ on this side of the Atlantic.

  • 1
    Native speakers of British English pronounce ma’am in several different ways, depending on whom they are addressing (cf. the question that Peter linked to in his comment above). The word only ever rhymes with man when addressing the Queen, though, that's true—and if you're wondering if someone just addressed QEII as man, then you're probably overthinking things. :-) Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 14:38
  • @JanusBahsJacquet. ma'am does not ever rhyme with man. To begin with, the final consonant is different.
    – fdb
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 14:51
  • Well, yes. I meant ‘rhyme’ apart from the n/m distinction, which is what the question is all about, referring only to the quality of the vowel. Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 14:52
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Thanks :) BTW, yesterday I watched UK TV show on YouTube. In that show, a girl was talking "Your singing was beautiful, man" to another woman. I am sure what she said because subtitles was provided by the show. Do girls often say "man" as well? The show was "VOICE UK" :)
    – Dee M
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 14:54
  • 1
    @fdb I usually pronounce mum as /mʌm/ . I've never heard another British English speaker use /mʌm/ for ma'am. I can't find that pronunciation in any dictionaries or pronouncing dictionaries either. Are you sure about that? Commented Mar 21, 2015 at 1:51

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