Miss, Mrs., Or Ms.: When To Use Each

By Chris Kolmar - Dec. 18, 2020

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How you address a person can make a huge difference in how your correspondence is received. When you’re writing a professional letter or speaking to someone in a position of authority, it’s polite to use established formal titles to address them.

For men, their titles remain the same regardless of their stage in life or marital status as “Mr..” It can be a little trickier to distinguish whether to use Miss, Mrs., or Ms. to formally address a woman and how to differentiate between them when you don’t know someone’s background or preferences.

The Traditional Use of Miss and Mrs.

Whether you’re writing a business email to a colleague or speaking with someone you don’t know well, demonstrating the utmost respect is required. When addressing someone formally, the titles of Miss and Mrs. were initially allocated to emphasize a woman’s marital status and age. They are used in conjunction with their family name or their husband’s last name if married.

Historically, these titles are granted as an expression of respect and demonstrate distinctions between social status. However, in today’s world, they pose more complex questions.

Examples of situations to use a professional address include:

The Emergence of Ms.

Once upon a time, there was only Miss and Mrs. to make the distinction between married and unmarried women when addressing formally. This duality was later questioned by people who thought it strange that a woman is dictated professionally by whether she is married.

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Feminists of the 1950s-1970s deemed the term Miss as immature for adults and stated that women should have a lifetime title regardless of marriage, just like men with the title “Mr..” They constituted “Ms.” as the title to be given to unmarried adult women, specifically, but it can be used to refer to a woman at any point in her life.

While indoctrinating the term “Ms.” into mainstream society may seem like a small feat, it was a great accomplishment for the feminist movement. It was the first time that there was an all-encompassing phrase to address adult women formally. It also took a significant step away from a woman’s success status being determined from marriage by allowing them to acclaim a formal title that doesn’t allude to their love life.

How to Know the Difference Between Miss, Mrs., and Ms.

Many people get confused about which title to use when addressing a woman formally, but you’ll remember it forever once you learn the difference between Miss, Mrs., and Ms.

  1. Miss. (Pronounced like “Miss”) The title of Miss is traditionally used for younger unmarried women under 18.

    While Miss was originally used to suit women of any age who were unmarried, it’s now almost exclusively used to represent the younger demographic of women. It should not be used to address adults.

  2. Mrs. (Pronounced like “Miz-iz”) The term Mrs. refers to a married woman of any age. Sometimes, women who have become widowed or divorced still prefer to use this title, but it’s based on personal preference.

  3. Ms. (Pronounced like “Mizz”) Out of all the titles used to speak professionally to women, Ms. is the newest and safest bet if you’re unsure which title to use.

    The title Ms. was first indoctrinated into society in the 1950s out of a desire that many women had to be recognized formally outside of the confines of marriage. It’s the most inclusive and respectful phrase you can use when speaking or writing formally to a woman because it’s an appropriate title for any woman despite age or marriage choices.

What to Do if You Don’t Know a Woman’s Status

The biggest struggle when deciding which title to use when corresponding professionally with a woman is when you don’t know their status. Deciphering between the complexities of formally addressing a woman can be stressful, and some people perceive it as rude to be referred to under the wrong title. Luckily there are ways to avoid a misunderstanding that creates tension.

You should never presume a woman’s status if you’re unsure. In this situation, the best action to take is using the term “Ms.” because it can apply to any adult woman. There are methods you can use for the future to better accommodate the person’s preferences.

  1. Do research online. While it may sound a little creepy, if you’ll be dealing with a person regularly and are uncomfortable asking them whether they’re married, the internet can be a valuable source. Usually, you’ll come across some written documents where they’ve been formally addressed, and you can use this professional title in the future.

  2. Ask someone they know well. Another tactic you can use to determine which professional title you should address is asking a friend or colleague close to them. While you may not know the person well, someone in your professional circle probably does. Ask them casually either whether the person is married or what professional title they usually use.

  3. Ask them about their preferences. The most highly recommended method you can use to determine what titles you should use is to ask the person directly what their preferences are.

    You never know what they will want to be called unless you ask. Some married women prefer “Ms.,” and other people prefer a professional title without the use of gender roles at all.

    Having an open discussion about what formal title they prefer will have the best outcome to make everyone in the interaction feel comfortable.

Problems With Miss, Mrs., and Ms.

There is a troubling precedent set by differentiating women by their marital status, but not men. When the distinction between a woman’s title was limited to Mrs. and Miss, it was a demonstration that stated the pinnacle of adulthood for women as getting married.

Many people took issue with this because it insinuates that a woman’s professional or formal titles should be defined by whether or not she’s married. Feminists sought to aid this problem by implementing the term “Ms.” to be designated for adult women who are unmarried or who simply don’t want to be formally addressed as Mrs. or Miss due to their underlying connotations.

However, there are still more problematic aspects to only prescribing gender-based formal titles.

In addition to the glaring problems that defining women’s formal titles by their marital status creates, we live in a modern progressive society where gender identity norms are different from those in the early 1900s.

Most well-known formal titles include clarification of one’s gender, even for men. This poses a problem for people who identify as gender-fluid or non-binary because they’re not provided representation in a common exchange of life. Some people also prefer to use professional titles that don’t have to make a statement about their gender.

In recent years, there has been a more positive movement towards including a more comprehensive range of ways that people identify in their formal titles.

Examples of Gender-Neutral Options for Formal Titles

  1. Mx. (Pronounced like “Mix”) Mx is a term that’s used to address a person formally but does not indicate gender. Although the term has been around since the late ‘70s, it’s only recently seen a rise in popularity. The title is still gaining traction in American-English. However, it is commonly used in places like the United Kingdom.

  2. Ind. This title is used to represent the word “individual.” It is another respectful option to professionally address someone through writing or speaking, without basing the title on gender.

  3. M*. Similar to Mx., M* serves the same function of professional acknowledgment while being gender-neutral.

Final Thoughts

The titles of Mrs. and Miss were traditionally used preceding a woman’s last name to display a form of respect. In the 1970s, the term “Ms.” was added to join these ranks by feminists who appealed having no adult title for unmarried women and wanting a term equal to that of “Mr.” for men.

Although using formal titles when addressing a person of authority or in business is still recommended, there are additional actions you should take to accommodate a person’s title preferences. Such as asking them whether they prefer the title of Miss, Mrs., Ms., or something else like the gender-neutral option of “Mx.”.

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Chris Kolmar

Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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