Mrs. vs. ms.?

The formal title of Ms. is the modern and polite way to address a woman who is unmarried or whose marital status is unknown. In contrast, we use the title Mrs. for married women. Depending on their personal preference, both Ms. or Mrs. are acceptable titles for divorced or widowed women. We exclusively use Miss for young, unmarried females, but for gender neutral pronouns, Mx. is the correct formal title to use.

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What is the difference between Mrs. and Ms.?

If you grew up in an English speaking country, you might recall using your teacher’s name with Mrs., Ms., Mr., and sometimes even Miss. If not, you might have used a similar title such as Professor, Headmaster, or a professional title like Doctor. In certain regions of the United States, such as the Southern U.S. states, it’s common to always hear titles in front of one’s full or last name. But why? And how do you learn the difference? 

Mrs. and Ms. are English honorifics

The key to learning the difference between Mrs. and Ms. is to understand how they are examples of English honorifics, which are used in the English language to address others with a title that indicates respect. English honorifics are very common, and we often see them used with a person’s full or last name. Other than Mrs. and Ms., we use similar titles like Mr., Miss, Sir, Dr, Lady, or Lord

The titles Ms., Mrs., and Miss are specifically used to address women while indicating or alluding to their marital status. For example, we use the title Mrs. to address a woman who is married or previously married, but we can also use the title Ms. to acknowledge a woman who is not married or if their marital status is not known. While primary academic sources fail to state otherwise, it is common to use Ms. for widowed women in the U.S., as well. The title Miss, however, is only used for non-married women and is typically reserved for young women.

The title Ms. is essentially the female equivalent of Mr. since Mr. does not indicate a man’s marital status either. But in certain areas of the world, such as the Philippines, most people formally address others with titles like sir or ma’am to avoid any implicit assumptions about marital status.

Mrs. and Ms. are pronounced differently

Mrs. and Ms. sound and look very similar to each other, but we also pronounce them similarly to Miss, which we use for young girls or younger, unmarried women. The correct way to pronounce Mrs. is “miss-is” or “miss-us,” and the correct pronunciation of Ms. is “mizz.”

In summary: 

Mrs. = miss-is or miss-us
Ms. = mizz
Miss = miss

Ms. is the modern and more socially conscious title for women

There was a time when titles like Ms., Miss, and Mrs. were not so confusing. Before the 17th century, it was common to hear English speakers use Ms. instead of Mrs. or Miss for all women, whether they were married or not. But around 1800, societies became more concerned with differentiating marital statuses and began addressing women accordingly. In fact, during this period, married women were addressed with Mrs., followed by their husband’s name (e.g., Mrs. John Smith). 

It wasn’t until the 20th century that Ms. made a comeback in mainstream English language. According to JSTOR Daily, women felt dissatisfied with how gendered titles revolved around their husband’s identities and while erasing their own. Feminist activist Sheila Michaels played a large part in popularizing the term after discussing the title over a radio broadcast in the 1960s’. Since then, Ms. has become the most neutral and courteous compromise between Mrs. and Miss since we can use Ms. for any woman regardless of their relationship status. 

There are still arguments made about honorific titles and their ability to create subtle “power dynamics” through everyday language. For example, while Ms. and ma’am are used for any woman whether they are married or not, it’s common to hear the title Miss used in the same manner for younger women or young girls. Meanwhile, there is no marital or age distinction made for men, who we simply refer to as Mr. for mister, or sir

Mrs. and Ms. are both short for mistress

Another reason why Mrs., Ms., and Miss are confusing is that, while either term carries different meanings, each noun derives from the word mistress. You might be thinking: doesn’t the word mistress carry a negative or crude connotation? This notion isn’t entirely wrong. 

The noun mistress carries several definitions in modern times, but throughout history, the English Language has defined mistress as a woman with power, ownership, or the woman of a household. In the United Kingdom, mistress has been used to define a female instructor or a woman who is notable for something. But in modern times, we’ve begun using mistress to describe a woman who rules, dominates, or a woman who is having an affair with a married man. 

What about Mrs. vs. Missus?

To add another layer of complexity to this, it’s also common to see people write Mrs. as missis or missus, which is yet another derivative of the word mistress. We also hear people use Mrs. and missis/missus similarly to “wife” in conversation. For example,

“I need to go home to the missis.”
“Let’s see what the missus is up to.” 
“The Mrs. is calling me.” 

Either form of spelling is correct, but in terms of writing out a conversational phrase with missis or missus, it’s more common to see the title of Mrs., instead. The reason why is because Mrs. is a formal title, and writing out missis or missus is considered informal and relatively old-fashioned. 

Depending on where you live, people may not use missis or missus in the way as Mrs., either. In the United Kingdom, the noun missus is an informal way to refer to a woman if her name isn’t known, which makes the term more similar to Ms. instead of Mrs

What does Mrs. mean?

The noun Mrs. is an honorific title of courtesy before the last name of a married woman. For example, if a married woman’s full name is Jane Doe, the correct way to address her is “Mrs. Doe” or “Madame Doe.” 

The title of Mrs. is an abbreviation of the word mistress, and we generally use Mrs. as a title in place of words like “Madame.” The plural form of Mrs. is “Mesdames,” which is French for “ladies.”

Synonyms

Frau, helpmate, helpmeet, lady, madam, missus, old lady, wife, wifey, woman.

What does Ms. mean?

The noun Ms. is a title used in place of Miss or Mrs., which means it’s used for a woman regardless of whether she is married or not. The plural form of Ms. is Mss or Mses

Synonyms

Lady, ma’am, woman.

Which is correct: Mrs. and Ms. or Mrs and Ms?

You may have noticed how some publications use a period after certain titles, such as Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Dr., while others omit periods entirely. The difference in punctuation is simply regional. The use of periods after titles is more common in the United States than in European countries, such as England. 

The courteous grammar guide for using Mrs. and Ms. in a sentence

In order to use Mrs. and Ms. correctly in a sentence, it’s important to remember three key questions: 

  1. What is the person’s preferred gender pronouns? 
  2. What is the person’s marital status? 
  3. What is the occasion for using the title Mrs. or Ms.? 

Remembering all three of these questions is vital to avoid accidentally offending someone, especially since people respond to specific titles differently in other cultures. 

What is the person’s preferred gender pronoun?

Addressing somebody with an incorrect gendered title can be humiliating for the person you’re addressing and jarring for others to witness as well. When meeting new people, be sure to listen to how they acknowledge themselves or are referenced by others with pronouns like “she/her,” “he/him,” or “they/them.” 

If somebody presents themselves with she/her pronouns, titles like Ms. or Mrs. are appropriate. But, if somebody is using non-gendered or non-binary pronouns like they/them, the correct gender neutral title is Mx (pronounced em-eks). Mx is appropriate to use regardless of one’s marital status, as well. For example,

Mx + Person’s last name = Mx. Conway

Sentence example:

“I would like to introduce Mx. Conway.” 

According to GLAAD’s “Tips for Allies of Transgendered People,” if you’re unable to hear one’s pronoun through conversation and need to ask, start with introducing your own name followed by “I use the pronouns she/her,” or however you identify yourself. 

What is the person’s marital status?

If you’re addressing a woman with an unknown marital status or an unmarried woman, the best title to use is Ms. If a woman is widowed or divorced, it’s also appropriate to use Ms. However, be sure to ask or listen for whether they use their maiden name, their late husband’s last name, or their ex-husband’s last name. 

Ms. + Woman’s last name = Ms. Anderson

When addressing a married woman, it’s appropriate to use the title Mrs. followed by their last name. It is important to note, though, that not all married women change their maiden names after marriage. Sometimes men use their wife’s last name instead, too. 

Mrs. + woman’s maiden name = Mrs. Anderson
Mrs. + woman’s husband’s surname = Mrs. Carter 

If you’re addressing a young unmarried woman, it’s perfectly fine to use Ms., but it’s also correct to use Miss in the following ways: 

Miss + Women’s first name (very young, less formal) = Miss Amy 
Miss + Woman’s last name (young, more formal) = Miss Cruz

What is the occasion for using the title Mrs. or Ms.?

Titles like Mrs. and Ms. are commonly used for addressing one another or introducing people, but how we use them varies greatly depending on the social circumstances. The following guide outlines how to use Ms. vs. Mrs. whether you’re in a casual, formal, or academic environment. 

Casual Interactions

For most casual social interactions in the U.S., it’s uncommon to use formal titles while introducing or address friends and family members. However, there are times when it might be appropriate to use Ms. or Mrs. instead of somebody’s first name. This is especially true if you’re much younger than the person you’re referring to, or if the person is an important acquaintance. 

Here are a few examples of acquaintances where you might use Mrs. or Ms. for casual interactions:

  • Residential neighbors
  • A friend’s parent or older relative 
  • An employer
  • Local business owners or practicing professionals (e.g., store owners, lawyers, etc.)

Examples of how to use Mrs. or Ms. in a casual setting:

Ms./Mrs. + Person’s last name (more formal) = Ms. Lang or Mrs. Lang
Ms./Mrs. + Person’s first name (more relaxed) = Ms. Amelia or Mrs. Amelia

If you’re uncomfortable using Ms. or Mrs. in a casual setting, it may be a good idea to fall back on using ma’am instead. The entire point of using formalities is to avoid insulting somebody, so the most harm you’d cause by using sir or ma’am is having somebody insist that you call them by their first name instead. After all, you wouldn’t want the opposite circumstance to occur. 

Formal Settings

When addressing formal letters, such as wedding invitations, it’s common to use Ms. or Mrs. followed their first and last names. There are also formal events, such as aristocratic parties or high-brow ceremonies, where people expect to be introduced with a title of respect followed by their first and last name. You can discover such titles ahead of time by noting guest lists, table settings, or through formal announcements from the event host upon one’s entrance. In these circumstances, it could be humiliating to address somebody incorrectly, so when in doubt, use the following title structure:

Mrs./Ms. + first and last name = Mrs. Alice Thompson or Ms. Alice Thomspon

If appropriate, one may also prefer to have their professional honorifics used instead:

Doctor + full name = Doctor Alice Thompson
Captain + full name = Captain Alice Thompson

Additional honorific titles include: 

  • Coach (sports)
  • Officer (military, police, firefighters)
  • Lieutenant (military, police)
  • Colonel/General/Sargeant (military)
  • Reverend (religious leader)
  • Your/Her Highness/Majesty (royalty)
  • Grand Duchess (royalty)
  • Princess/Queen (royalty)

Educational Settings

As mentioned before, it’s common to use Mrs., Ms., or Mr. for the titles of teachers in the United States, but there are educational settings where it may be more appropriate to use professor instead. All three titles are common for preschool through high school educators, or for adjunct instructors at the college or university level. 

However, some higher education instructors may expect their students to use the titles Professor or Doctor instead of Mrs., Ms., Miss, or Mr. For example, the title of professor usually indicates someone with a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree, while a Doctor is someone with a Ph.D. or doctorate. 

In either case, it’s important to look for how they introduce themselves through their syllabi, emails, or class introductions before assuming their preferred titles. Also, It’s crucial to remember that unless the instructor says otherwise, it’s usually a major faux pas to call them by their first name.

Here are a few examples of how we use Mrs. and Ms. for educational settings: 

Preschool-12th Grade
Mrs./Ms. + Teacher’s last name = Mrs. Wallace or Ms. Wallace 
Principal + School principal‘s last name = Principle Wallace

Community College or University
Mrs./Ms. + Teacher’s last name = Mrs. Lincoln or Ms. Lincoln
Professor + Teacher’s last name = Professor Lincoln (for instructors with a Ph.D.)
Doctor/Dr. + Teacher’s last name = Dr. Lincoln (for instructors with a Ph.D. or doctoral degree)

*Note on formal instructor titles

For formal essays, written correspondence, or professional resumes, be sure to include the instructor’s first and last name after their appropriate titles. For example,

  • Mrs. Janet Lincoln
  • Ms. Janet Lincoln
  • Professor Janet Lincoln
  • Dr. Janet Lincoln 
  • Dr. Janet Lincoln, M.D./Ph.D./D.N.P. (use their highest degree abbreviations when appropriate)

Test Yourself!

Don’t miss your opportunity to impress new acquaintances with savvy grammar skills. Test how well you understand the use of Ms. vs. Mrs. with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false: It is more common to use Ms. for older women than younger women.
    a. True 
    b. False
  2. If your unsure about a woman’s marital status, the correct title to use is _______.
    a. Miss
    b. Ms.
    c. Mrs.
    d. Miss or Ms.
  3. True or false: The use of Ms. was predominantly used during the 18th century. 
    a. True 
    b. False
  4. True or false: Miss is an appropriate title to use when you’re unsure about a woman’s age or marital status.
    a. True
    b. False
  5. Which of the following phrases is most grammatically correct in the United Kingdom?
    a. The Commonwealth vs Mrs. Katherine Smith
    b. The Commonwealth vs Missis Katherine Smith
    c. The Commonwealth vs. Mrs Katherine Smith
    d. The Commonwealth vs. Mrs. Katherine Smith

Answers

  1. A
  2. B
  3. B
  4. B
  5. C

Sources

  1. Luu, C. “From the Mixed-Up History of Mrs., Miss, and Ms.JSTOR Daily, Nov 7, 2017.
  2. Fox, M. “Sheila Michaels, Who Brought ‘Ms.’ to Prominence, Dies at 78.” The New York Times, July 6, 2017. 
  3. Mistress.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2019.
  4. Missus.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2019.
  5. Mrs.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  6. Mrs.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2019.
  7. Ms.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2019.
  8. Ms.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2019.
  9. Ms.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2019.
  10. Tips for Allies of Transgender People.” GLAAD, 2019.