Ms., Miss and Mrs. are three different ways to address women, normally as a title used before a surname. The words have very different contexts, however, and using them incorrectly can make your writing seem clumsy and even cause offense.
In truth, these titles are disappearing from informal speech, and some major publishers do not use them at all unless it is a direct quotation. In writing, you will mostly come across the terms on official forms. Of course, they are used in certain professions, like teaching, and they are considered terms of respect. However, modern etiquette dictates that we should always be careful when using Mrs., Ms. and Miss.
The golden rule of Mrs., Ms. and Miss? When you are unsure of a woman’s marital status, and the situation dictates that you must use a title, use Ms. For example, if you are writing a formal letter in business, you could address a female as Ms. Jones, Ms. Wallis etc.
A couple of notes:
Ms. is a relatively new word. It became popularized in the 1950s, at a time when the world became more conscious of feminist issues. It is now used as the default form of address for a woman whose marital status or age is not known. Indeed, many married women prefer to be addressed as Ms. The Guardian Style Guide, for example, states: “use Ms for women … unless they have expressed a preference for Miss or Mrs.”
Pronunciation: Ms. sounds a bit like mizz (rhyming with his, biz, Liz). In some regions, the pronunciation is less sharp, sounding more like muss with a very soft u.
In speech and writing, the rule for using Ms. is applied when we do not know a woman’s marital status, or if that person has indicated they prefer you to address them as Ms.
Mrs. is a title used to formally address a married woman. As married women used to almost always adopt their husband’s surname, Mrs. would have indicated who they were married to, e.g. Mrs. Dalloway is married to Mr. Dalloway. It’s important to remember that it can be offensive to assume a woman is married by addressing her as Mrs. If in doubt, use Ms. instead. If it’s important to them, the person being addressed can correct you.
Pronunciation: Mrs. is pronounced as miss-is/miss-us. In British English, they will sometimes spell out the word missus, but this is used very informally and sometimes even as a scolding term for a young girl.
In speech and writing, the rule is to use Mrs. when we are sure of a woman’s marital status and she does not go by another title such as Dr., Lady, or Rabbi. This can apply when a woman is widowed or divorced. Although, some divorced women prefer to be referred to by Ms. It should also be noted that Mrs. has become a kind of honorific term in politics, i.e. Mrs. Thatcher, Mrs. Merkel etc. Again though, it’s best not to make assumptions.
Miss is a title used to address a woman who is not married, and also for female students and young girls (formally). In the American South, Miss has also been used as a respectful title followed by a woman’s first name regardless of their marital status, e.g., in the movie Driving Miss Daisy or as Miss Ellen from Gone With the Wind.
Pronunciation: Miss is pronounced as you would expect, rhyming with words like this, hiss and kiss.
Remember: miss is also a verb, meaning to long for someone or something or to fail to hit a target. Therefore, it’s important to capitalize Miss when using as an honorific so as not to cause confusion.
In speech and writing, the rule is to use Miss to address a woman who is unmarried, unless they have indicated otherwise. It can also be used to formally address students and young girls. If there is a doubt about any of these things, use Ms. instead.
As you will have noticed, the whole business of Mrs., Ms. and Miss can be somewhat formal. But there are other honorifics for women that can be used in speech and writing, both formally and informally.
Madame is the French equivalent of Mrs. It is used in very, very formal addresses when we know the marital status of the woman, or as a term of respect for a woman in a position of power.
Example: Madame Lagarde has been a pivotal figure as head of the IMF for over a decade.
Madam is used a lot more frequently, and it is basically an umbrella term for a woman of importance or a term of respect. Note that madam is only capitalized when used as a direct title.
Ma’am (pronounced mam with one syllable) is actually a contraction of madam. In some parts of America, it is used as a term of respect for a woman, normally someone who is not known to you. In British English, the term is used formally to address a woman of nobility or a woman in a position of power. For example, in the police service, a female commanding officer would be addressed as ma’am.
Tips to Remember the Difference
We have already explained that Ms. is usually the default term of address when you are unsure of a woman’s marital status, but it looks so similar to Mrs. that the two titles can be easily mixed up. A tip to remember the difference is that Mrs. contains an r in the spelling, as does marriage. If you can remember that, then you’ll know that Mrs. always refers to a married woman. Remember, if there is any doubt, use Ms.
There are several titles used when speaking or writing to women. The major titles are Mrs., designating a married woman, either currently or previously so; Miss, for an unmarried woman or young woman or girl; and Ms., used by those women aiming for a neutral, more progressive title. Ma’am, madam, and Madame are other terms, with more specific usage. A good rule of thumb is to ask how someone would like to be referred. “Should I call you Ms. Freedman or would you prefer something else?” will garner the information about which honorific to use. When not sure of a woman’s preference or marital status, Ms. Is the safest choice.