Grammar Mrs., Ms., Miss: Understanding the Difference |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

Mrs., Ms., Miss: Understanding the Difference

We all at some point have addressed someone as Ms., Miss, or Mrs. We may also have a general idea about when to use these forms of address in American English, as well as to whom we should express them.

At the same time, it’s good to further understand the distinction among these references so we can ensure greater precision in being polite.

When to Use Mrs.

Mrs. (pronounced MIS-iz) is a form of abbreviated address that specifies a married woman. Where we can also refer to a married woman as Ms., we would not refer to a single woman as Mrs.

Mrs. has no standard spelling. In nonfictional quotations and dialogue, Mrs. will typically retain its abbreviated form. When used in fictional dialogue, it might sometimes be written as missus or missis.

We would include the title before a woman’s name.

Mrs. Galuska, it is a pleasure to meet you and your husband.

Mrs. Jeong would be a fine addition to the research team.

Mrs. also is not a standalone title. In American English, if we wish to politely address a married woman without using her last name, we’ll often refer to her as ma’am. Ma’am is a contraction of madam, which has become less common in much of the U.S.

What Is the Difference Between Ms. and Miss?

Ms. (pronounced miz) gained prominence in the 1950s as a title of courtesy for addressing single women or women whose marital status was unknown.

Since then, it has gained further popularity as a term of respect that can be used independently from a woman’s spousal connection or lack thereof. It also equitably reflects the similar form used to address men, Mr., which does not regard marital status.

Today, Ms. can be used to address any woman regardless of whether she is married or single or has an unknown status. Unless a woman’s married status is known and we are sure it is either preferred or well received, Ms. is a proper courtesy title.

We would include it before a woman’s name.

It is a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Galuska.

Ms. Jeong would be a fine addition to the research team.

As we do for Mrs., we can also refer to a woman as ma’am if we wish to respectfully address her regardless of her marital status.

Miss (pronounced mis as opposed to miz) is traditionally a polite way of addressing or referring to a young, unmarried woman (e.g., 18 years old).

When using it, we would normally follow it with a last name (Miss Richards). In parts of the American South, we may hear it used with a first name as well (Miss Amber). This same practice might be encouraged for addressing a teacher among very young students (e.g., preschool) elsewhere in the U.S.

Miss can also be a proper address if we are speaking to someone we don’t know. In this context, the woman’s age would not matter. Compare the following sentences:

May I help you, Miss Richards? (young, unmarried woman)

May I help you, Ms. Richards? (marital status irrelevant)

May I help you, Mrs. Richards? (married status known, address proper to use)

Excuse me, miss. May I help you? (unfamiliar woman, age irrelevant)

A Note on Mistress

The Associated Press Stylebook identifies mistress as an archaic and undesirable term for “a woman who is in a long-term sexual relationship with, and is financially supported by, a man who is married to someone else.” AP advises omitting mistress in favor of terms such as companion, friend, or lover.

The modern mistress is a departure from the word’s original meaning. In the early 1300s, mistress was the female equivalent of the male master (later mister), indicating one who has control, authority, or high social standing. Regardless of her marital status, a mistress may have been someone who was a governess, a female teacher, a supervisor, or a woman with influence in a household.

One might have also used mistress to denote a woman who is beloved to someone and has great sway over the other person’s affections.

In the late 1300s, mistress began to shift toward disrepute. During the fifteenth century, it became a disparaging term for “a kept woman of a married man.”

While the current-day Mrs., Ms., and Miss do not embody the present meaning of mistress, each abbreviation stems from the word’s early honorific usage.

Mrs., Ms., Miss: A Closing Note

In determining which title to use to show courtesy, we should observe how a woman refers to herself or how others refer to her. As mentioned, if we do not have that revealed or understood preference, we will be most proper in using Ms.

Related Topics

Ms., Mrs., or Miss: Which One Should You Use?
Punctuation for Abbreviations

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10 responses to “Mrs., Ms., Miss: Understanding the Difference”

  1. Judith says:

    In the South, older ladies or close friends of your mother, for example, are sometimes addressed as “Miss” followed by the first name. It’s a way of showing a feeling of closeness but respect by not calling the person by her first name.

  2. Jane M. Joukovsky says:

    How about the use of “Ma’am” or “Madam?” I find the former (presumably derived from Madam) used in the US, and the latter in the UK, particularly by people in the service industry. I think the words are intended to show respect to the person being addressed.

    • says:

      Yes, these terms are forms of respectful or polite address to a woman.

  3. Adeniyi Adedeji says:

    This was very interesting to read.

  4. Sara Hayward says:

    My understanding is that Ms does not have a period after it, because it isn’t an abbreviation. Is anyone able to verify this?
    Great article as always, thanks for your work!

    • says:

      In American English the preferred spelling for this title is to use a period. British English omits the period. It is a title of courtesy rather than an actual abbreviation (not to be confused with the abbreviation MS for Multiple Sclerosis).

  5. Emerson says:

    I think the article should have included information on a woman who has obtained an MD or doctorate when discussing titles. With so many women achieving higher degrees, I would have appreciated more explanation on addressing women with their degree title or traditional title.

  6. Karen says:

    Any clarity on what to use if the person identifies as non-binary? My child goes by Mx (pronounced mix) but neither of us are sure if it’s used in official language.

    • says:

      Merriam-Webster says the term is “used as a gender-neutral title of courtesy.” The Chicago Manual of Style lists it as a social title. Both use Mx. with a period for American English.

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