I was struck today by the difference between the sentences:

Ladies, are you ready to order?


Lady, are you ready to order?

The first (at least in my idiolect) is clearly respectful, while the singular borders on disrespectful, yet the only surface difference is that one is singular, and the other plural. How did this come about, and are there other, similar words?

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    I would say it's less because of the exact word but rather that when addressing an individual, you should use a name/title. When using plurals, it's more trivial. E.g. Gentlemen, are you ready to order? Gentleman, are you ready to order? Compare this to "Sir/Madam, are you ready?" where Sir/Madam is the title. Or if you were in a worldwide conference: "Australians, cast your vote." vs "Australian, cast your vote." which is rather indirect.
    – Inazuma
    Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 13:35
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    In short, the singular lady has been used for over a millennium as a team of honor or respect. Later it was used as a form of direct address, akin to ma'am. This brings us to a "neutral" usage. Which can easily become a negative usage. It perhaps is related to men's attitudes toward women. Look, lady, keep your wits about you. Although sir can be used with a negative meaning also. Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 13:40
  • Mentioned but not answered at Does calling to a strange woman 'Hey lady' sound angry?. Commented Oct 11, 2017 at 13:56
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    I would posit it may be because you can say "Madam (usually reduced to "Ma'am")..." or "Miss, are you ready to order?" But whereas Madam (from French madame) has been fully absorbed into English, its plural Mesdames is not even slightly normal everyday English, and the plural Misses sounds exactly like Mrs. So "ladies" has to take their place. And while @Clare above might be right about singular "lady" moving historically from respectful to neutral to negative, most people who use "Ma'am", "Miss" and "ladies" are unaware of the historical development of how one addresses women respectfully. Commented Nov 7, 2017 at 2:57
  • +1 @StevenLittman - I think you've hit the nail on the head, there. There are really not any colloquially used plurals that replace the word ladies and remain respectful, but there are definitely other words to replace lady, like ma'am.
    – saritonin
    Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 21:59

2 Answers 2


"Lady" is never used to address someone by itself. It can be used as either a title for nobility or as a common noun, but it is always meant to be used alongside an identifier, such as a name or article. For example:

Lady Macbeth threw a knife at the old nun.


The lady caught a knife that was thrown at her.

However, using the term "Lady" without such an identifier, such as the name of the noble lady or an article to signify which lady you were speaking of, leaves the phrase incomplete. Hence it sounds disrespectful not because of the context, but because of its incompleteness.

On the other hand, since "Ladies" is a plural term, it already encompasses an entire group of people without the use of an identifier.

For your example, the correct form of usage in that sentence would be either of:

My lady, are you ready to order?


Lady Macbeth, are you ready to order?

You can also reorder the sentence to get:

Is the lady ready to order?

All of these are equally respectful, though "My lady" also has a context of subservience.

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    The word “lady” is used as a common noun, not just as a title
    – herisson
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 1:05
  • What I meant was, in light of that, I don't understand why it should be considered "incomplete" to use the word without an article as a form of address. The OED records a long history of such use; for example, "Noe, certes, lady, it is not I" from apparently somewhere in the 1400s. It does seem to have gone out of style: the OED also cites the 1901 N.E.D. as saying " The uneducated, esp. in London, still often use ‘Lady’ in the sing. as a term of address for ‘Madam’ or ‘Ma'am’." But I don't think there is anything inherent about the meaning of the word that expains this point of usage.
    – herisson
    Commented Jan 10, 2018 at 1:45
  • It's generally impolite to refer to anyone using a common noun. You'll find the same difference in the level of respect for similar sing./plural pairs -"woman"/"women", "human"/"humans", etc. It's worth noting that there exist some words, such as "madam", were created for the use of directly addressing a person, such as in Carl's answer.
    – Artezanz
    Commented Jan 11, 2018 at 16:27

The respectful address for one lady is "Madam" or "Ma'am" -- as in "Ma'am, are you ready to order?"

But you do not ever address a group of ladies "madams" -- because if could sound like your are calling them brothel-owners. You also do not call them ma'am-s. (It does not seem suitable to make plural). So-- you say ""Ladies, are you ready to order?" and with repetition this seem even more respectful.

Since no one (normally) address one a "Lady" (you either know their name or you say ma'am), to address one as "Lady" comes across as forced or weak effort to be respectful... such as when your patience is coming to an end.

But it still seems (to me) one can still call a 3rd party a lady in a very positive way, such as "she was a such a sweet young lady."

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    According to Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003), the preferred plural for madame in the sense of "lady" is mesdames, not madames.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 5:54
  • On the other hand "sirs and madams" is a well-attested way of respectfully addressing a mixed gender group of people. Commented Jan 2, 2018 at 16:11
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    While I agree that "sirs and madams" would be way of respectfully-- I don't see why you want to call it "well-attested". I am a native English speaker and do not recall ever hearing anyone use that phrase.
    – Carl
    Commented Jan 3, 2018 at 21:25

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