The feminine terms Miss, Mrs., and Ms. and the gender-neutral term Mx., along with their masculine counterpart Mr., are known as courtesy titles. Although these titles are often useful as signs of respect in professional or formal settings, addressing someone by the wrong one can cause offense; as with all matters of personal identity, it is important to be sure you are using a person’s preferred form. The guide below will provide some context for how the terms have been used traditionally and some advice for how to consider using them now.
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Ms. vs. Mrs. vs. Miss vs. Mx.
The confusion around Ms. versus Mrs. versus Miss versus Mx. comes from all of these courtesy titles referring to differences in marital status (whether someone is married) or gender identity.
- Ms. is a general title that does not indicate marital status but is still feminine.
- Mrs. is a traditional title used for a married woman.
- Miss is a traditional title used for an unmarried woman.
- Mx. is a title that indicates neither marital status nor gender.
Uses of Miss
Miss, when attached to a name, is a traditional title of respect for a girl or unmarried woman. It has been used by itself (as a term of direct address) or in combination with a first or last name, a descriptor of a prominent characteristic, or something else the person represents.
Historically, in a formal setting, people would use Miss along with an unmarried woman’s last name, regardless of how well they know the person in question. It was also used when the woman’s marital status was unknown. The title was applied to women in positions of authority, like teachers or supervisors. In these kinds of settings, it was considered polite to continue using the Miss title until the addressee invited you to use her first name.
In contemporary use, Miss is considered more appropriate for young women, if at all. The connotation of Miss as referring to an unmarried woman may be seen as dated or misogynistic today; men’s courtesy titles have never revealed their marital status, and many women would prefer for that to be the case for them as well. (Read on for options that are marital-status- and age-neutral.)
Note: In some regions and communities, Miss is often used with a first name as a sign of respect or affection. But when paired with a full name, Miss can also be used as a prelude to a chastisement, especially when addressing a child.
Use of Mrs.
Mrs. (pronounced MIS-uhz) is a traditional title of respect for a married or widowed woman. Like Miss, it has appeared with names and characteristics. Historically, the title was often used before a woman’s husband’s first and last name instead of her own—this practice still exists but is becoming less common as women’s identities and accomplishments are increasingly recognized as being separate from their marital status and those of their partners.
In professional and other formal settings, when addressing married women and when speaking to women in positions of authority, it was long customary to use Mrs. along with their last name. Again, it was polite to wait for an invitation from the addressee to drop the formal title and use her first name.
In contemporary usage, Mrs. is becoming less common, particularly in professional settings. Still, it appears as an option on many official forms and documents, and many women still choose to use it.
Use of Ms.
Unlike Miss and Mrs. but like Mr., Ms. (pronounced miz) doesn’t indicate marital status. The title, first suggested as early as 1901, came into limited use in business contexts in the 1950s for women whose marital status was unknown. It didn’t really take off, however, until the women’s liberation movement of the ’60s and ’70s, when feminists embraced it as a suitably marriage-status-neutral equivalent of Mr.
Like Miss and Mrs., Ms. can precede a woman’s name or be used on its own as a form of address.
Miss vs. Ms.
Both Miss and Ms. can apply to a woman who is unmarried or whose marital status is unknown. Which of them you use should depend on the preference of the person you’re addressing. When in doubt, consider Ms.; like Mr., it has the benefit of making marital status irrelevant in a way that Miss does not. Incidentallyly, whereas most newspapers used to introduce people, and particularly women, using courtesy titles, it is now more common for them to be omitted, other than in quotes.
Use of Mx.
The gender-neutral Mx. (pronounced miks or muhks) appeared in print as early as the late ’70s. It was originally devised as a title for people who didn’t want to be identified by gender and now is also embraced as a title for people whose genders fall outside the binary. In addition to its gender-neutrality, Mx., like Ms.—also doesn’t indicate marital status. As with the other titles included here, Mx. is typically used in conjunction with a person’s name, as a sign of respect.
Like the other honorifics described here, Mx. is not a one-size-fits-all title—some people may dislike it or prefer no title at all, while others fully embrace it—so it’s best to ask, just as you would for a person’s pronouns.
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Variations in pronunciation
Mrs. may sound like “MIS-iz” or “MIS-is” in parts of the midwestern United States. On the other hand, southerners may pronounce Mrs. as “MIZ-iz” or “miz.” And, making things more complicated, “miz” is also the pronunciation of Ms. Therefore, in the South, Mrs. and Ms. may sound identical.
Finally, Mx. can sound like “mix” or “muhx.” And you’re more likely to hear it spoken aloud in the UK than in the US, as the term is more widely known and used there.
British English vs. American English
In British English, you may see Mrs. spelled out as missus in print, though this is rare in American English.
Another difference is punctuation—Brits don’t use a period after Mrs., Ms., Mx., or Mr., though Americans do.
While most people use titles such as Miss, Mrs., Ms., and Mx. to show respect, you can risk offense if you don’t use them correctly, so it pays to know how each works. These titles shouldn’t be confused with personal pronouns, which can represent people’s identities beyond the gender binary. And remember: It’s important to use the title and pronoun that match a person’s identity when you address them.
This article was originally written in 2018 by Shundalyn Allen. It has been updated to include new information.