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Suppose, for instance, that a man (John Smith) and his father are both present in a conversation and that the speaker would like to address each of them individually. Suppose also that the conversation is taking place in a formal setting—the speaker doesn't know John and his father very well.

What honorific would be appropriate in this case? John and his father are both Mr. Smith.

The problem can be extended to other situations as well. For example, when John's wife and mother are both present in the same conversation. Mrs. Smith is a common way to address John's mother, but John's wife is technically Mrs. Smith as well.

I'd like to understand more about the English honorifics system. Hopefully, someone can help me out.

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    There isn't any special 'honorific' for this situation. Assuming the father has a different forename, the speaker might call him Mr Smith and his son (Mr) John Smith, and the ladies Mrs Smith and Mrs Mary Smith. Oct 28, 2021 at 13:09
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    There are suffixes such as Jr, Sr, III, IV, used in these contexts, but they tend to be explicitly chosen by people as part of their name. Otherwise, it's no different than if 2 unrelated John Smiths turn up - you need to find some way to differentiate them.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 28, 2021 at 13:25
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    Don't some borrow the French fils and pere? Oct 28, 2021 at 13:40
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    You could simply say "Mr. Smith" to both and convey your intention through eye contact and body language (youtu.be/hoe24aSvLtw). Oct 28, 2021 at 14:05
  • The problem can also be extended to when there are two Mr Smiths present who are not related to one another.
    – nnnnnn
    Nov 6, 2021 at 3:18

1 Answer 1

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I know of no standard to differentiate amongst people that would have the exact same honorific. In the US, age is a typical form of distinction: "the elder Mr. Smith," "the younger Mrs. Smith," "Mr. Smith senior," or "Mr. Smith junior." A generic way would be to use their full name, e.g. Mrs. Jane Smith or Mrs. Sally Smith.

Case in point: In the film Sense and Sensibility, there is a scene involving a visit amongst Edward Ferrars, the Dashwood ladies, and an incorrect assumption. As is the apparent custom of the time, Edward acknowledges every woman according to their relative age and marriage status:

  • Mrs. Dashwood (the matriarch)
  • Miss Dashwood (Elinor, single, oldest sibling)
  • Miss Marianne (single, middle sibling)
  • Margaret (child, youngest sibling)

Elinor is in love with Edward, but guards her emotions to protect herself. The ladies believe that Edward was obligated to marry Lucy Steele. So after he greets everyone, the ladies engage in awkward but polite conversation, and ask after "Mrs. Ferrars," whom they believe to be Lucy. Edward assumes the ladies are talking about his mother, so he answers in kind. It is only when Mrs. Dashwood uses a more specific name, "Mrs. Edward Ferrars," that Edward understands the confusion. He says, "I think you mean my brother -- you mean Mrs. Robert Ferrars." After some exposition, the ladies realize that Robert married Lucy, and Edward did not. Edward is now free to marry Elinor, and more importantly, Elinor is now free to let her emotions show. The scene employs honorifics to illustrate how culture and customs can both help and hinder effective communication.

I'm not suggesting the use of antiquated cultural customs to distinguish between people with the same honorific, but specificity is generally a good thing when it comes to multiple Mr's or Ms's.

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