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In Spanish there is señora and señorita; in French there is madame and mademoiselle; and in English there is Mrs and Miss.

My question is whether in English we also have to call women Madam or Ma’am as a similar title. I was wondering whether the English madam can only be used for a married women and whether there was another form of the word that we should use for different types of women, like married and unmarried.

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  • I would say it goes by perceived seniority/status. A younger woman might be called Miss. Commented Nov 11, 2015 at 23:52
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    In US English the meanings of "madam" and "ma'am" are reasonably interchangeable and may be used for a married or single woman. However, "madam" is considerably more formal and "stiff" (and can be taken as an insult if used inappropriately), and both are falling into disuse.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 11, 2015 at 23:57
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    Are you asking about current or historical usage? Recent research has shown that Miss, Mrs, and Ms did not primarily reflect marital status until the nineteenth century.
    – choster
    Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 0:01
  • @HotLicks I think you should expand upon ma'am. I think it really answers the question (at least for AmE)
    – bib
    Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 0:32
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    Apart from any other context if I heard “unmarried madam” I’d think the owner of a house ill-repute had enough men without needing one at home too.
    – Jim
    Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 3:33

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In US English, when, say, a store clerk addresses the next person at the counter, he might say "May I help you, ma'am?" That is, "ma'am" is the female equivalent of "sir" and serves as a stand-in for a person's name when the name is not known. A more formal term, especially if the woman is noticeably older or of higher status than the speaker, is "madam" (though the term carries other connotations and could be taken as an insult if perceived to be used sarcastically). Neither term carries an implication as to marital status.

If the female person is much younger than the speaker, and especially if less than about 18 years old, the term "miss" may be used instead of "ma'am". However, note that it carries a weak implication of being unmarried.

I suspect that both terms (and "sir") are slowly falling into disuse.

Of course, if addressed by one's last name, Miss/Mrs./Ms. would be used, much as it is in written address form: "John, this is Ms. Smith. I told her you could help her with her tax problems."

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    But whether such terms are 'falling into disuse' or not, one is still faced with what to call someone whose name you don't know - and I for one would always use sir and madam. In France I would use monsieur, madame, and (for a young woman) mademoiselle. But I would not use miss in English.
    – WS2
    Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 7:47
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    @WS2 - The use of madam is quite rare in the US.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Nov 12, 2015 at 9:23

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