If you have ever written a formal letter, an email, or just addressed someone important, you have probably addressed them with the formal prefix mister or misses (abbreviated forms Mr. or Mrs.). This term has become a commonly used prefix in professional, academic, and formal communication now for centuries, not just here in the United States with American English, but also in British English and other languages. However, even though it is so common, many people do not actually know its origin, its proper spelling, or how to pluralize it correctly. In this article, let’s explore the proper use of the word mister, how to pluralize it, look for its synonyms, and learn its context.
How do you address multiple misters?
Imagine a scenario where at your job, you were required to address a room full of other professionals. Perhaps you were just introducing another speaker, or maybe you were asked to give a lecture on a topic that you are quite familiar with. In a formal setting, it might be appropriate to address them verbally with a gender neutral term, but maybe you want to address them using a formal prefix.
Addressing people with a plural prefix is usually reserved for written communication, but it can also take place verbally. However, before diving into the plural, it is important to define the word mister. The Merriam Webster English dictionary defines mister as, “sir; used without a name as a generalized term of direct address of a man who is a stranger; used sometimes in writing instead of Mr.”
In the modern English language, mister is an honorific term of respect afforded to someone who you do not know on an individual level, or someone you do not wish to refer to by their first name. Most commonly, whether spoken or written, the correct plural form to refer to multiple men is by using the word “sirs”, however, the word misters is also used on occasion.
For example, the phrase, “Misters Jacobson and Pratt” would refer to two men in the same context, assigning them to one occupation, time, or region. This is especially common in the legal practice, where law firms are referred to by the conglomeration of the last names of the partners, or in legal application, where defendants or petitioners are referred to together. For example, if three men filed a lawsuit, they could potentially be referred to as Misters Smith, Jones, and Brown”. The abbreviation for this, according to the Canadian Translation Bureau, the plural of Mr would be Messrs [mɛsərz/”messers”]. An example of this would be Messrs. Hamilton, Thorne, Bradley and Clark.
The History and Origin of the Word
Much of the reason that the usage of the word mister is so complicated is due to the length of time that it has been in use in common English, and you’ll find a whole lot of different meaning when you try to Google its etymology. According to EtymOnline.com, the word mister has been in use since the mid fifteenth century. The grammar of the word has been changed in such a way that it lends itself to error, and over time, even its application has changed. For example, it was originally used to preclude someone’s “Christian name”, the term used in England for someone’s birth or given first name. It then was changed to become a form of address for someone whose name was unknown in passing (e.g. “hey mister”), and finally, the disappearance of the word “master”, reserved for either young unmarried men or slave owners, depending on context, led to the use of the titles Mr and Mrs as just a common respectful prefix for someone’s legal name.
Another example is the French messieurs abbreviated Mses (the plural of monsieur abbreviated Mss), which has a similar meaning to the English misters, and even has a similar female counterpart of mesdames to the English madams abbreviated Mmes.
According to the EtymOnline source, a dictionary in 1895 stated that, “Sir and madam or ma’am as direct terms of address are old-fashioned and obsolescent in ordinary speech, and mister and lady in this use are confined almost entirely to the lower classes.” This is no longer the correct context for this word, however, and it is now usually used as a term of respect in personal, formal address.
Unlike many words in English, the etymology of this word seems to be entirely internal, rather than deriving from another language like Latin.
Examples of the Word in Context
The best way to understand how to use a word properly is to explore its context. Reading or hearing the word being used in the right way will solidify its usage in your mind. Here are some examples:
- “Did you CC Mr. Davidson on that email?”
- “Mr. Jefferson was one of the primary authors of the Declaration of Independence, but he was assisted by Messrs. Franklin, Adams, Sherman, and Livingston.”
- “Did Mr. Cooper make it to his very important afternoon appointment today, or did he end up having to reschedule that?”
While these are just examples, they should demonstrate the most common uses. English speakers primarily reserve the “mister” title for either someone they do not personally know, or someone they are addressing with respect in a formal setting. This can be compared to the formal and informal verb cases in Spanish, which follow the forms tú, which is informal, and usted, which is formal. The difference is subtle, but can be used to communicate respect or familiarity, depending on which one is chosen.
Synonyms for Mister
Another great way to understand the proper use of a word is to explore words with similar meanings. While it is hard to find synonyms for mister when used as a title, it can have synonyms when used as an informal direct address for someone whose name is unknown. For example, instead of saying “Hey, mister!”, someone might say, “Excuse me, sir?” or “Hey man, how are you?”
While they do convey the same meaning at their root, some are more culturally acceptable given the context. And since language is driven by culture and colloquial interpretation, some people might actually take offense if addressed informally with a formal term.
At the end of the day, addressing either one man or multiple men can be done in a variety of ways and depends on context, environment, and interpersonal relationships. Just read the context and you will be just fine.