Sexism, history, and punctuation: Everything you ever wanted to know about Miss, Mrs., and Ms

December 2 | Guest post by Linda Salamon
From Ms. To Mrs cake topper from Etsy seller ChristisCustomVinyl
From Ms. To Mrs cake topper from Etsy seller ChristisCustomVinyl

Being a professional calligrapher and Medieval History major, I'd like to address (no, I'm not sorry about the pun) the hot topic of Miss, Mrs., and Ms. I'm not going to get into whether or not you are taking your spouse's last name. That's a whole other can of worms! I'm talking about the history of these three titles for women, and their purposes…

History

Historically, "Miss" was used when referring to or addressing a girl (much like the almost archaic title "Master" used for boys), and "Mrs." was used for a grown woman (married or unmarried). Mrs. also indicated a woman (married or not) who was in business, or was a master of a craft. Neither title indicated marital status. It wasn't until the 20th century that these two titles indicated marital status; Miss coming to mean an unmarried woman of any age, and Mrs. meaning a married woman.

So much for your history lesson: and who cares, anyway, about what they used to do in the old days, right? Let's talk about Miss., Mrs., and Ms in "modern" times. Let's start with a pop quiz.

Which of these three men are married?:
* Mr. Joe Blow
* Mr. John Smith
* Mr. Jake Johnson

By simply reading their titles and names, you cannot tell who is living in marital bliss and who is living the swinging single life, can you?

Now, which of these three women are married?:
* Mrs. Jane Dough
* Ms Mary Smith
* Miss. Gladys McGillacuddy

Oops, not so fast! You may have assumed that Ms Mary Smith was single. That is a common misunderstanding of the title Ms.

But think about this in a rational, 21st century kinda way. WHY does society think that we must know a woman's marital status, and not a man's? Does this strike you as a bit sexist?

Sexism

Yeah, that's what people in the late 20th century thought, too. So some smart people got together and created the title "Ms", which was to replace all other women's titles so that there was only one female title (Ms), as there is only one male title (Mr.). Simple enough, right?

But somehow, over the course of years, people got the notion that anyone who uses the title Ms is a single, ball-busting feminist. Whereas in actuality, women who use the title Ms can be single and/or a married ball-busting feminists!

Punctuation

Miss. and Mrs. require punctuation. Ms is not an abbreviation, so it does not require a period at the end.

Addressing

I use the title Ms when formally addressing every woman in my circle of friends; single or married, old or young. Of course, when I address my customers' envelopes, naturally I will use any titles of their choosing.

But it is truly a pet peeve of mine if someone is using the Miss., Mrs., Ms titles without knowing their purposes. Many are the times I've had to curtail my auto-rant and not go off on a lecture about "the original purpose of Ms." So thank you all for allowing me to vent here on Offbeat Bride.

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  1. I love this! I prefer Ms for myself generally, although I don't object to a well-meaning Mrs, especially from an older writer. Maybe its a Southern US way of speaking, but I have used Miss for a child.

    1 agrees
  2. See, it really irks me when people/companies automatically assume I'm addressed by Ms. I get it's purpose but I self identify as Miss and don't like it when it's assumed that Ms is the catch all

    6 agree
    • Honest curiosity, can I ask why you chose Miss?

      I think there are regional differences at play, Miss had always seems really dismissive to me, unless you're taking to a young girl.

      5 agree
      • Not the person you were asking, but I just think Miss sounds the best on me. Imo it sounds more feminine, it feels more natural for me to say (I have to put actual effort into pronouncing Ms correctly, not sure if it's hard for other people or just my speech issues), and it sounds friendlier to me. Ms has a kind of harsh, buzzy sound and my last name is already pretty hard sounding (not to mention German, and people looooove to talk about how angry German sounds), so together it's just.. too much. It sounds like a name that would belong to a very strict woman rather than me, a small gentle goof

        1 agrees
        • Saying Ms tickles my mouth in an annoying way. Of course, I use it if it is someone's preferred title but I could never use it for myself – it makes my teeth itch to say it.

          2 agree
        • Most people who speak to me default to Ms, which I usually don't correct (I'm a Mrs.) because I really can't be bothered. I do correct people when they use Miss. though.
          I just can't use Ms, I never could get the pronunciation properly (damn you speech impediment!), so I went with Mrs. Also I took my husband's name, because mine was awful and I wanted to feel a clean break from my abusive family and building a little family of our own.

          3 agree
    • But… But it is the catch-all. It's great because people who don't know you don't have to guess any more. Think about it like wishing someone happy holidays- it includes whatever they may celebrate without risking guessing the wrong one. Those who know you will of course use Miss and know you're (example) Jewish so say Happy Hanukkah.

      14 agree
    • YES! Me, too. I hate hate hate having to check "Ms". I am a feminine, single woman and I prefer "Miss," even though I am well passed the spinster line. (Yes, I also refer to myself as a "spinster"). I find neither "Miss" nor "spinster" to be demeaning or dismissive to me. I embrace them! Honestly, I am a bit insulted by anyone telling me I shouldn't embrace my own self-identification.

      4 agree
    • But the point is that Ms IS a catch-all, at least at first. Instead of strangers or customer service representatives having to guess/assume whether you're married or not, or ask you before addressing you ("Hello, how can I help you today? By the way, are you married? Should I call you Miss or Mrs?"), Ms can apply to any woman. Then if you tell them that you prefer to be called Miss, they should call you that. If people know how someone self-identifies, they should always honor that, whether it's Ms Jane Doe or Mrs. John Doe or anything else. But meeting someone for the first time, it's rude for them to assume whether you're married or not, and Ms takes that out of the equation completely until they're given more information.

  3. This has bugged me all my life! I think I first decided to get a doctorate when a young child in part to avoid this mess. Screw calling me Mrs., you have to call me Dr.! 🙂

    25 agree
    • THIS! And yet so many *of my family members who should know* still don't do it.

      Worst sin? Calling me Mrs. Husbandsname Lastname. (We do share the same last name.) Whenever that happens it reminds me of Cotton on King of the Hill who only calls Peggy "Hank's wife."

      5 agree
      • We got a Christmas card from my aunt addressed to Mr. and Mrs. HisName HisLastName even though I did not take his name and even though she KNOWS I didn't take his last name. I hate seeing our names like that … it makes me feel like I don't even exist.

        13 agree
  4. That's interesting! I always thought Mrs was short for Mistress- not sure where I got that from!

    2 agree
    • I believe that all three are short for Mistress (although if Ms is a title in itself, this might fall down), which is one of the things that bothered me about the lack of equality between the options. You had Mistress (unmarried), Mistress (married) and Mistress (doesn't want you to know) as opposed to Master (can't tell). I think there has also historically been suspicion of a woman who uses Ms, possibly because divorced women used to use it when there was more stigma associated with divorce.

      Rather glad that when I am asked 'is that Miss or Mrs?' I can respond with 'Actually, it's Doctor'

      1 agrees
  5. I hope the author has checked with every married woman in her circle of friends whether or not they actually prefer being formally addressed as Ms rather than Mrs.

    2 agree
      • Perhaps because some women may prefer being addressed as Mrs. instead of Ms and to ignore that is as irksome as the presumption noted on the post that a woman who wants to be addressed as Ms is a "single, ball-busting feminist"?

        Basically, it's about respecting personal preferences.

        3 agree
        • I think it would be reasonable to address them as preferred if they correct her, but I don't see why she has to go by the presumption that they'd prefer society's default.
          I'd personally be delighted if people by default would refer to me as Ms instead of me having to correct them each time. I'd love it if every person out there checked with me first, but I know they won't. They won't even check with me before they presume I took his last name. I know when we get married, I'll start getting mail addressed to Mrs. Him. So I guess I'm your counterpart in this. But I also love it when people don't automatically assume I'm straight, or want children, or any other default mode of society.

          8 agree
  6. I did not change my last name when I married, and went my Ms. (with punctuation, oops) before and after my wedding. As an Elementary teacher, I am addressed at work by children and adults as Ms. Rodriguez. What I have found is that almost everybody considers Ms. the abbreviation of Miss, and pronounces it Miss when I they say my name. It's annoying, but it would be more annoying to correct it literally hundreds of times a day.

    1 agrees
    • I find that little kids call everyone "Miss" because they don't know the difference between saying "Miss" and "Missis" or"Mzzzz" (which is how I think Ms is supposed to me pronounced?), and most people don't really recognize a difference in pronouncing "Miss" and "Ms." I might be wrong, though.

      1 agrees
  7. This is so interesting! Thank you for writing this! I thought this is how it went: Miss = girls younger than 18. Ms. (with punctuation) = unmarried women over 18. Mrs. = married women of any age. Obviously, I was way wrong!
    I decided not to take my husband's name after planning to for months. When it came time to do it I got hit with all sorts of feelings like I was amputating a limb or something. I didn't realize how important my name was to me until it wasn't going to be mine anymore. I decided to stick with Ms. MaidenName and for weeks have been correcting people who keep call me Mrs. HisLastName.

    2 agree
    • I actually don't think you're way wrong (mostly because this is what I thought too 🙂 ). It's probably how it's used in many places/situations, which does actually mean something.

      2 agree
  8. Editor geek here with a question: why is there punctuation after "Miss"? I hadn't realized "Miss" was an abbreviation. "Mrs." is an abbreviation for "Mistress," I believe, but "Miss"? I've always seen that one used without punctuation as I assumed it was a full word.

    Contrarily, I've always seen "Ms." written *with* punctuation. Even if it's not actually an abbreviation, it just looks weird as the only honorific that's not punctuated.

    13 agree
    • Another editor here, in total agreement with you. The only reason I can think of for dropping a period at the end of 'Miss.' is if you're abbreviating 'Mississippi'.

      And yes, in the U.S., 'Ms.' typically (though not necessarily) has a period, to bring it in line with 'Mrs.' and 'Mr.'

      Perhaps the author is following some other convention, but if so, I'm unfamiliar with it. I'd be curious to find a style guide that backs up her statements.

      9 agree
      • Miss is also short for Mistress. One of those weird quirks of English where Mrs became so divorced from Mistress that everybody thought the full version was Missus and it somehow spawned another abbreviation of itself.

        I am sure you could read pages on the etymology of it all somewhere on the internet. I'm sticking with Ms!

        2 agree
  9. Despite my making it fairly clear that I prefer Ms (although I did take my husband's name – not because I felt I had to, I just like how it sounds so why not), I still get Mrs. all the time. I will say quite openly that it's fine for people who prefer it but to me it feels so musty and matronly. I am the opposite of that – no kids, living downtown, not a homeowner, people often assume I'm a college student or at oldest in my mid-20s when I'm 35. So. No thank you on the "Mrs."!

    3 agree
  10. I was taught in school that you use Ms. (with a period–I agree with the above comment that this makes it feel more consistent with other honorifics) to address any woman when you're unfamiliar with her marital status. I tend to keep using it when I learn that they are unmarried, because calling a grown adult woman Miss (no one I know punctuates this) feels absolutely condescending.

    How would you pluralize Ms.? Mses?

    9 agree
    • This is where I fall too. I will default to Ms. unless someone corrects me, the same way I will default to Mr. unless someone specifies Dr., Pastor, or President. Though these days, it's all first names anyway.

      4 agree
  11. I actually just hate it when I'm filling out forms and I'm not even given the OPTION of identifying myself as "Ms" as if I HAVE to specify if
    I'm married or single – what difference does it make??

    10 agree
  12. On paper and on anything official, I always use Ms. It's illegal for companies to discriminate based on marital status, and men don't have to specify, so why should I? Before I was married, I thought Miss was so diminutive; now that I'm married, it's more about "why do you care?"

    However, I also really like Mrs. because since I took my husband's last name, I share my name with a great song. We played it at the wedding, my friends reference it all the time, and last year, a group of my friends karaoked it dedicated to me at my birthday party .

    7 agree
  13. I was also told that even though i did NOT change my name that Mrs. MYLASTNAME would be appropriate for me, because I am married.

    1 agrees
  14. I always use Ms when addressing women who haven't provided their preferred title. Honestly I don't see how that's rude- I think it's far better to use that than assume they're married/unmarried. Once I've been corrected I will of course use the title provided.

    I kept my own surname and changed my title from Miss to Ms, but I don't get upset when people call me Mrs Husband's Surname. The only people I've corrected are people at work who asked me what my new surname was. I know no offence is meant and the older generation were expected to take their husband's name and didn't ever question it.

    Calling people Mrs His First Name Surname really annoys me though. It's like the woman's identify has been completely obliterated.

    9 agree
    • "Completely obliterated" That's exactly how I felt when I got a card in the mail a week after the wedding to "Mr. and Mrs. HisFirst HisLast" That was the time during which I was really struggling with the name change issue and that card was one of the items that sent me screaming over the edge into "I AM ME DAMN IT, AND I WILL NOT CHANGE!"

      4 agree
        • Haha! That would be great! We got one two days ago to Mr. and Mrs.
          HisName HisLastName and I left it on the counter for him to open since obviously it wasn't meant for me 😉

          2 agree
    • "Calling people Mrs His First Name Surname really annoys me though. It's like the woman's identify has been completely obliterated."

      ITA. It's a dreadful custom which makes the woman into nothing more than a semantic offshoot of her husband. It needs to die, and fast.

      I'm divorced but I refer to myself as Miss – for purely subjective, aesthetic reasons. I simply like the look and sound of the word 'Miss', but I dislike the buzzing sound of Ms, as other posters have already mentioned.

      2 agree
  15. I don't use titles most of the time anymore. If I have to tick a box on a form I still identify as a Miss, I dislike the term Ms, I was led to believe the term was invented for divorced women who didn't want to be a Mrs anymore, and I can't stand it as a "catch all" title for women. When I get married next year, I will tick the Mrs box on forms, but in all honesty the only people I actually address on envelopes as Mr & Mrs any more are my parents and future in-laws, when I have the need to even send an envelope or postcard. To all my friends I send items to it will be addressed as first initial then last name, if its being sent to a family it will be addressed to the "last name" family, titles are becoming less common and when was the last time you were introduced to any person as "this is Mr…., this is Mrs….", its all first name basis nowadays, and I must say I prefer it that way.

    3 agree
  16. I wonder if there's a cultural difference here, because a lot of people in the UK assume "Ms" is for divorced or widowed women. A friend had real trouble with a government-type application form, because she checked Ms and had it returned with a note saying she needed to provide her ex spouse's name!

    I also think it's interesting that in a lot of other languages they just dropped the unmarried title altogether. You rarely hear senorita or mademoiselle in Europe any more, unless someone in the conversation is making a point (or being an oldfashioned ass, either way!). As with almost any language change, it's much easier to persuade people to drop a word than replace two words with one new one!

    1 agrees
  17. I'm curious where the information on the dates in the post came from; a little bit of googling and some results like this one (http://www.geog.cam.ac.uk/research/projects/occupations/abstracts/paper25.pdf) suggest that the shift to using Miss for unmarried women actually started in the 1740's, not the 20th century. I haven't read the books cited in that article or the wikipedia page on the subject, but now I'm curious and I was wondering where you got your information from.

    3 agree
    • I’m the one who wrote this article and I’ve really enjoyed reading your comments! I have to say “mea culpa” with some of my statements about the etymology of the titles Miss., Mrs., and Ms. I certainly do not claim to be an authority about the history of the titles, and I enjoy learning….even if it means I am being corrected, ha!

      After reading the paper that Aileen linked to, it does seem that Miss. was used to denote unmarried ladies after the mid-eighteenth century, but the titles Miss. and Mrs. were still interchangeable at this period.

      As to punctuation, I think Miss and Ms have been written both ways: with or without the peroid. I often put a period after Ms., to be consistent with the other titles when I address my customer’s envelopes (many of customers ask me to do so.) Of course, language is never a static thing, and usage does change the rules as time goes by.

      Yes, I agree that titles are almost never used these days, especially when speaking in conversation. However, many people like to indicate the formality (or lack thereof) by using titles (or not) when addressing their invite envelopes. Formal weddings are, possibly, the most formal event people will attend in their lives. Using titles can let your guests know that you expect your guests to NOT show up in cutoffs or sweats to your formal wedding!

      (Personally, I think the informality of our society these days is unfortunate. I find it disrespectful to the artists for an attendee of the ballet or opera, and even at a fine restaurant or play, to show up in sweats and a baseball cap. Show some class and honor the people who are taking pride in their work and inviting you to share it! But this is another subject for another article….)

      Of course, couples can choose NOT to use titles, or use any titles they want. It can depend on the theme or mood of their event. For instance, a Penny Dreadful wedding invitation might take a cue from Miss Vanessa Ives and address all the women as Miss. And I have addressed hundreds of invite envelopes with “Lord” and “Lady” for weddings with a Medieval or Renaissance theme.

      That’s the beauty of weddings these days. Anything is acceptable, as long as it does not show disrespect or cause harm or hurt feelings. And we have groundbreaking websites like Offbeat Bride, and people like our fearless leader Ariel, to thank for that!

      1 agrees
      • Here, here! I totally agree that using titles or not can definitely be a signal to guests about the formality of the even they're going to attend.
        We did not use titles, just first names, on ours because it was a Halloween costume wedding and was about as laid back as one could get! By contrast, we went to a wedding earlier in the year that was very formal and our invite to that was addressed to Mr. MyHusband's LastName and Miss MyLastName. Given the level of formality at both events it would have been strange for that couple to NOT use titles as much as it would have been strange for us TO use titles.

        I do also agree with you that lack of formality in some areas is disheartening. I perform in a lot of theater and my parents always get dressed up when they come see my shows. Not like evening wear dressed up, more like Sunday best. At the last one I swear my father was the only man in a dress shirt and dockers. All the other men in the audience were wearing t-shirts and jeans. I couldn't help but feel a little ruffled at that. Like, I understand it's community theater and not the opera but I still think it merits looking a little nicer than if you're going to the movies!

        1 agrees
  18. I'm a high-school student, and at school we call all the teachers by title-surname. And all the women are "miss". Even our secretary, who's grandma to two students biologically, and the rest of the school emotionally. Even Miss Boyd, who's Mr Boyd's wife (they're married and both teachers at the school). Why? I'm 90% confident it's because Mrs is two syllables, and we are of a lazy generation.

    And Miss vs Ms… not sure. They sound so very alike I really don't know which we're saying. Maybe we DO call everyone Ms. Maybe we're just cool and egalitarian like that.

    2 agree

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