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Jane Smith marries John Doe and keeps her name, and doesn't adopt her husband's.

It seems a good conclusion of this question that it's simplest/best to refer to her as Ms. Smith.

I'm curious if it's improper to refer to her as Mrs. Smith.

My instinct is that "Mrs." implies something like "Smith's wife," but am unsure.

Of course, it'd be ideal to simply find out from her her preferred term of address, but I have in mind the context of addressing a stranger who I happen to know is married and kept her family name.

  • William Safire apparently thought so. I remembered this piece because Douglas Hofstadter wrote an article where he criticizes Safire's tone of dismay: "It breaks my heart to suggest this, but the time has come for Ms." – sumelic Apr 25 '16 at 15:36
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    In the US, unless I knew she preferred something else, I would address a married woman who kept her birth name as "Ms Smith". – Hot Licks Apr 25 '16 at 18:46
  • Just ask the lady what she wants to be called. – Alan Carmack Apr 25 '16 at 22:49
  • @AlanCarmack please read the whole question – MichaelChirico Apr 25 '16 at 22:50
  • @HotLicks indeed that's what I do/did. I'm just wondering whether it's wrong not to. – MichaelChirico Apr 25 '16 at 22:50
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It's culture dependent. In China, it's absolutely standard for women to keep their surnames during marriage but they also attach importance to their married status. In English, they'll frequently describe themselves as Mrs ~.

In the US and UK, it's become more idiosyncratic. You're right that you should default to Ms (no period) and you're right that many people will misunderstand Mrs, but you'll still be obnoxious if you try to correct a woman's decision regarding her own name if she tells you she's Mrs ~.

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    But also, be prepared for some women not to be very happy about being addressed as "Ms" by default, either. (My wife loathed the term before she was married, and still does now...) – calum_b Apr 25 '16 at 19:56
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In the US, it is totally the decision of the woman concerned. Jane Doe after marrying John Smith can be Ms Jane Doe, Mrs. Jane Doe, Ms Jane Smith, Mrs Jane Smith, Mrs John Smith. There is no need for a "social" form plus a "work" form, but it is not wrong to be Mrs. John Smith socially, and Ms (or Mrs) Jane Doe at work -- or vice versa. If you are unsure which form to use, just ask.

There may be even other variants. One or both Jane and John may prefer Mx. I'm not sure of that social scene, but the point remains: you address people as they want to be addressed. With electronic lists, it isn't even confusing.

As to the last sentence of the OP's question: One cannot err in anything but a very minor way in a business letter by addressing her as Ms Jane [her own family name] However, if being 100% correct with this woman is important to the OP, she probably has a secretary or PA, and the OP can call and ask.

  • @sumelic Thanks for pointing out my oversight. I 've edited my answer. – ab2 Apr 25 '16 at 17:33
  • You're missing the crucial part of the question, namely the last sentence. – MichaelChirico Apr 25 '16 at 18:57
  • @MichaelChirico I thought the question was "is it improper to call someone Mrs Jane [her own family name]. As I said, that is not improper. But what you seem to mean is: "Is it safe to call someone Mrs Jane [her own family name] It is safer to use Ms. I'll be happy to explain why, if you want. – ab2 Apr 25 '16 at 19:12

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