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

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.

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

  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.

  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

    • 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.

      • 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

        • 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.

        • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.! 🙂

    • 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.”

      • 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.

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

    • 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’

  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.

      • 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.

        • 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.

  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.

    • 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.

  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.

    • 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.

  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.

    • 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.

      • 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!

  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.”!

  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?

    • 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.

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