Titles are hard to navigate when speaking with an adult woman. Ms. Mrs. Miss? What's the difference? They're each an abbreviation or an English honorific in the English language used to address women, and they refer to the marital status of those women — whether they're married or unmarried.
How Do I Address a Woman if I Don't Know Her Marital Status?
Addressing a woman without knowing her marital status can be awkward. But there are ways you can go about this.
For example, you can find out her marital status by asking someone who knows her personally. Or you can research her marital status online by seeing how others may address her.
If you can't find out her marital status, you do have a way out.
Do You Assume Ms. or Mrs or Miss?
While you probably never want to assume, if you have to use a title and aren't sure what is correct, always go with Ms.
There’s a long and ever more antiquated list of rules about when to use Miss, Mrs. or Ms. in America. You can see the famous etiquette expert Emily Post’s rules here. However, for your business letters, or more likely, emails, she is very clear that “Ms.” should be the default, unless you are absolutely without a doubt positive that the woman you’re addressing has a different preference.
Basically, miss should be used solely when referring to an unmarried woman, while Mrs. is the correct title for a married woman. Meanwhile, Ms. does not depend on marital status and can be used for all women.
What Does Ms. Mean Instead of Mrs.?
Ms. implies only that you’re addressing an adult woman, without commenting on whether she's single, married or seeing a guy she met on Bumble but still hasn't talked about what they are yet because five dates seems like too soon still even though she really likes him... It's often used when talking to a young unmarried woman or a young girl, and it doesn't always indicate marital status in case the woman is unmarried, divorced or something else entirely.
Meanwhile, you'd use Mrs. if you know that she's married.
The takeaway is that if you’re going to use an honorific, use the English honorific “Ms.” However, honorifics are becoming less and less common, even in professional situations. If you’re writing a formal business letter, you’ll want to use “Ms.” If you’re writing a cover letter, it’s important to get a sense of the culture of the organization, to decide whether or not to use an honorific when addressing the hiring manager. Companies often have a mission and culture statement on their website, which will help you get a sense of how formal you should be. You should also keep in mind that if you’re applying for jobs at established institutions or in the government sector, there may be a higher level of formality expected.
It’s important to research the person you’re writing to, as well, in case their title should be Dr. or Professor, in which case you would always use that rather than “Ms.” Make sure you check their status.
How to Use Mr. Mrs. Ms. and Miss Correctly
Now that you have a better understand of Ms. versus Mrs., let's break down all of the titles more specifically.
Mr. should be used when addressing men, both married and unmarried. You should use Mr. before his surname or full name. Mr. is an abbreviation for mister. Mr. is also an abbreviation of Master.
Mrs. should be used before the surname or full name of a married woman only. It is an abbreviation for the word mistress. Research by Cambridge University historian Dr. Amy Erickson, published in History Workshop Journal, finds that Mrs. was, for centuries, applied to all adult women of higher social status, whether they were married or not. But times have since changed.
Use Ms. before a surname or full name of a woman whether she is married or not. It's a portmanteau of the words Miss and Missus.
Meanwhile, miss is a title used before the surname or full name of an unmarried woman. Miss is an abbreviation of mistress. Erickson says that “few people realise that ‘mistress’ is the root word of both of the abbreviations ‘Mrs,’ and ‘Miss.'" Her investigations revealed that Miss was only adopted for adult women in the middle of the 18th century — anytime before that referred to sex workers.
Other Tips and Facts to Keep in Mind
Women didn't always used titles.
“Until the 19th century, most women did not have any prefix before their name. Mrs. and, later, Miss were both restricted to those of higher social standing," according to Erickson's research. "Women on the bottom rungs of the social scale were addressed simply by their names. Thus, in a large household the housekeeper might be Mrs. Green, while the scullery maid was simply Molly and the woman who came in to do the laundry was Tom Black’s wife or Betty Black."
Another important thing to keep in mind, is if you’re certain of the gender identity of the person you’re addressing and consider the possibility that someone may be non-binary or genderqueer. One option in this case is Mx. Mx avoids specifying gender. Although not widespread, it is becoming more common in America, especially for transgender people. British bank HSBC recently added nine additional gender-neutral titles to allow non-binary and transgender customers to feel more comfortable. However, it’s important to keep in mind that you want to be sure of and sensitive to their preference of abbreviation. You can always ask how they like to be addressed.
As correspondence becomes more email-based, it’s less common to need to write formal business letters. Most aspects of job hunting, from cover letters to offer letters, are done by email now. In many cases, it can seem odd to address someone with an honorific. A good rule of thumb while job hunting, is to err on the side of formality in the cover letter, but follow the hiring manager’s lead for any additional correspondence. If you receive an email from a hiring manager or recruiter to set up an interview, and they write “Dear Jane,” it might be seen as odd to respond back “Dear Ms. Doe.”
Allison Green, who writes the very popular Ask a Manager blog, weighed in on this issue in one of her posts. She says if a hiring manager has made it plain that first names are appropriate without the surname, you might seem “out of touch” responding differently. She adds, “You are not a child talking to a grown-up. You’re both adults. It’s okay to use first names.” She even makes the case for skipping honorifics all together, but says if you’re not comfortable getting on a first-name basis straightaway, to at least make sure you’re “mirroring” the hiring manager’s level of formality with regards to Ms Mrs Miss.
If you’ve been working with a recruiter, and are concerned about how to address higher-ups in the company, it’s a great idea to just ask about what’s normal for that business. It’s also a great way to open up a conversation and learn more about the work environment.
Most importantly, pay attention to how the person you’re corresponding with writes, and take your cues from there. The bottom line is that however you address someone, make sure to be respectful and thoughtful. Again, you can always ask how they prefer to be addressed.
Ana Cottle studied Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley. She has lived and worked in Uruguay and Argentina and speaks both Spanish and Yiddish. She is passionate about issues facing women and has written for a number of publications, including books, newspapers, and online journals. Read more from Ana at medium.com/@AnaCottle/.