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In India we routinely refer to all women as ladies, not only in Indian English but also using the English loanword 'lady/ladies' in Indian languages.

These seats are reserved for ladies.

The old lady running the roadside lunch house brought him rice and curry.

The new District Collector is a lady.

Calling somebody a 'woman' is usually perceived as rude here, with the notable exceptions of news journalism, law, bureaucratese and scientific literature:

Bangalore woman wins Maths Olympiad.

Fifty women were studied for symptoms of clinical depression related to work pressure and marital stress.

My client is a woman who has suffered extreme mental torture from her husband and in-laws, and I submit this is another strong reason for demanding a substantial compensatory divorce settlement.

Rule 3a: Employees shall not avail more than 3 days paid sick leave per month. THIS RULE APPLIES to both men and women.

However the word 'woman' may be seen used admiringly of somebody (and especially in social media) in statements such as

'Mrs. Sharma was a great woman'

'(my mother is) a woman of substance, a woman full of grace'

'You are one determined woman!'

Also, many modern women frankly refer to themselves as women, as in

"I am a simple, fun-loving and practical woman." (somebody's self-introduction, as for a profile page on ELU.)

I think this is the influence of modern British/ American English, but 'woman' and 'lady' have always been fundamentally interchangeable as used in India, with 'lady' being by far the accepted polite usage. However I came to know that, unlike in Indian English, these 2 words used to be distinctly different expressions in Britain and the USA, both in formal and colloquial use.

So how do native English speakers in Britain/ America/ the World use lady/woman nowadays? What connotations does each word carry? Are the words distinct or interchangeable in contemporary usage?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Jul 9 '17 at 17:14
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In the U.S. and U.K., it used to be more polite in many formal settings to address adult females as "ladies", but over the past decades this has come to seem in a number of instances as old-fashioned or even patronizing.

In certain professional settings, one would now not usually speak of "ladies". "Women" is often considered a more neutral term, freer of old associations of feminine refinement that aren't supposed to be the focus in many professional or impersonal settings like business, academia, or dry journalism. A news article writer would definitely not write "three ladies were stopped for questioning" nor "one lady injured at the scene was taken to the hospital as a precaution". Likewise, you should not write in a medical business's annual report "We're pleased to announce an expansion of our lab services for expectant ladies."

In some settings, "ladies" is still treated as more appropriate:

  • A fine restaurant's host might ask "If you ladies and gentlemen would pease follow me?"
  • I'd still instruct a kid, "Thank the nice lady, Bobby, for catching your ball before it rolled into the street."

"Woman" often sounds more serious, and is preferred in no-nonsense settings. At festive occasions ("I'd like to propose a toast to Margie and Amanda, the incredible ladies who organized this!") or from workers working in service settings that are meant to evoke certain old-fashioned elegance or respect, such as fine restaurants, doormen addressing guests, etc., you will often still hear "ladies" and perhaps even "gentlemen".

Also, in a friendly setting, "ladies" can still sound more respectful/friendly:

  • "Can I fetch you ladies any more tea or soda from the kitchen while I'm there?" sounds ok to me.
  • "Can I fetch you women any more tea or soda from the kitchen while I'm there?" sounds weirdly... clinical or even hostile.

(Of course, you could just go with "Can I fetch anyone...", but my point is that "women" sounds weird there.)

In short: The words have still have definite differences in nuances and have not become generally interchangeable. I'd say that in most settings, one or the other is more appropriate, sometimes very strongly so.


Addendum

I came across the following, and realized it should probably be referenced here as a caution:

The takeaway from those is that you should generally avoid using the singular "lady" as a direct form of address to a person herself, as it's likely to sound confrontational. There may be some exceptions...

...but it should generally be avoided as a direct form of address to one stranger.

  • Many thanks @Jacob C. for a very perceptive answer that brings out the fine difference between the 2 words -- your first ever post here at ELU really does comprehensively answer my question from an American perspective, and you are off to an excellent start here! I upvote. – English Student Jul 4 '17 at 5:43
  • You're welcome; I'm glad I could help. – Jacob C. says Reinstate Monica Jul 4 '17 at 16:32
  • Simply looking at your interesting and very insightful answer, @Jacob C., I strongly believe you have a lot to contribute to this website EL and U! I am a new member myself and as I told another enthusiastic new member recently, the community will benefit from your expertise and experience, which you can incorporate into some very original and articulate answers and comments. – English Student Jul 4 '17 at 20:56
  • Thanks for adding the interesting and contextually important 'addendum' @Jacob C. – English Student Nov 17 '17 at 13:11
  • You're welcome; I'm glad I could help. – Jacob C. says Reinstate Monica Nov 17 '17 at 20:33
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All ladies are women, just like all gentlemen are men. However, not all women are ladies, and not all men are gentlemen.

However, in everyday usage, at least in the parts of the US where I have lived, the terms appear to be used interchangeably most of the time.

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