Miss, Ms. or Mrs.? Let’s Review These Courtesy Titles
For those who like using courtesy titles before people’s names, selecting between Miss, Ms. or Mrs. can sometimes cause a bit of confusion.
On the surface, there shouldn’t be all that much confusion among Miss, Ms. or Mrs., since each has a traditional meaning that’s pretty clear.
But culture has had a hand in blurring those lines a bit for reasons that aren’t all that unreasonable when you really stop and think about it.
So let’s look at the three titles, what they mean and why there’s occasionally some controversy. I’m going to look at them out of order, but there’s a reason for that.
Traditionally, Miss is the courtesy title placed before the name of a young girl or an unmarried woman. Miss implies a single female.
But there’s a secondary usage of Miss that comes as a sign of respect, even for older, married women. Growing up in the South and in a Southern Baptist Church, I would often hear Sunday School teachers referred to as “Miss Susan” or “Miss Beverly,” even when Susan and Beverly were older women, were married and were even grandmothers. The Miss simply meant a show of respect to an elder.
Miss is also the only one of the three that can stand alone as a form of address. You could approach a stranger on the street and say, “Excuse me, Miss, do you know where the bus stop is?” That usage of Miss would presumably be addressed to a woman who might appear to be unmarried, but it could be used with a woman who is married since the stranger would have no way of knowing her marital status unless he acted like some bizarre stalker and stared at her ring finger.
The plural of Miss is Misses. No period is used after either form.
I’m skipping ahead to Mrs., because it’s probably the least confusing of the three. It’s the title used for women who are married.
The title can precede the woman’s first and last name or just her last name, as in, “Mrs. Douglas” or “Mrs. Helen Douglas.”
When the woman’s first name is not known, it can precede her husband’s first and last name, as in, “Mrs. Henry Douglas.” But in this day and age, this form is becoming less and less common, which isn’t difficult to understand because it seems to imply the woman’s name isn’t as important as her husband’s, an outdated, archaic view of things.
It’s also important to point out that the Mrs. title can still be used when the woman is a widow or has been divorced.
Mrs. originated as a shortening of the French mistress. It’s pronounced “miss-iz,” not “miss-riz,” as some people unfortunately try to say it.
The plural of Mrs. is Mesdames, which is abbreviated as Mmes.
So, it’s Miss when there’s no wedding ring and Mrs. when there is or was one.
But not always.
Growing up in the 1970s, I definitely remember when Ms. was becoming an important social signal in the Women’s Rights Movement. But the Ms. title actually dates back to the 17th century where it was briefly embraced, then vanished until the mid-20th century when it began to gain favor once again.
Traditionally, Ms., pronounced “mizz,” was used when a woman’s marital status was not known. So if you didn’t know whether to refer to Annie Davis as “Miss Annie Davis” because she was single, or “Mrs. Annie Davis” because she was married, “Ms. Annie Davis” was always an acceptable choice. Annie might subsequently correct you so that you know thereafter which she prefers, but when you didn’t know and weren’t in a position to ask politely, that’s the way it used to be done.
But as the feminist movement progressed, an obvious double standard became clear: a man is referred to as Mr. whether he’s married or not, and his marital status doesn’t even matter. So why should a woman’s marital status matter? Is a woman more or less valuable because she’s single, or more or less valuable because she’s married?
Ms., then, became to be viewed as the female equivalent of Mr., drawing attention to the person, not their age or marital status.
And former vice-presidential candidate Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro was a perfect example of why Ms. could be the sole proper choice. Ferraro was married but used her birth name rather than her husband’s last name, which was Zaccaro. Author and columnist William Safire pointed out it would be incorrect to refer to her as “Miss Ferraro” because she was married but equally incorrect to refer to her as “Mrs. Ferraro” because that wasn’t her husband’s last name.
So we’ve reached a point at which the use of Ms. is no longer solely a matter of marital status; in some cases, it’s the preferred title and ettiquete more and more insists upon the use of the subject’s preference, not the writer’s.