When it's time to address a letter or card to your single female friends, do you wonder if it's Miss or Ms.? The married gals make it easy. They go straight to the Mrs. title. But what about when you're not sure of someone's marital status? What's the difference between Miss, Ms., and Mrs.? Let's break it all down.
Traditionally, "Miss" is used to address an unmarried woman. This may be added to the title of someone's name, like Miss Halstead. Or, it can stand alone to refer to a single, unmarried woman. It can also be used as an expression. Let's look at an example of each:
I would like to take Miss Edwards out for dinner. (Title of someone's name, typically using their surname)
Pardon me, Miss. It seems you've dropped your scarf. (Standalone noun to refer to a single woman)
Well, aren't you little Miss Perfect? (Used as an expression)
Although you'll see this more in the south than say, New York, there are certain regions of America that use Miss with a woman's first name. It's also common in Canada.
You'll catch on to this quickly, though. It's merely another sign of respect. For example, a first grader might call his teacher Miss Suzanne. Or a parent might introduce their child to a friend, saying, "Eddie, I'd like you to meet my friend, Miss Marianne."
Then, Ms. came along. It was intended to indicate that a woman's marital status was unknown. This was born out of the women's movement in the 1970s when women felt "Ms." was a fair equivalent to "Mister," the title for men, whether they were married or unmarried.
Men were able to use the title "Mr." whether they were single or attached. Meanwhile, women were labeled as single with Miss or married with Mrs.
Why couldn't women enjoy an air of mystery too? Of course, it was deeper than that; it was rooted in equality. Examples here are pretty straightforward, like "Ms. Beauchamp" or "Ms. Fraser."
In American English, we never see the full word "missus" written out. On the rare occasion, you might see it in British English. But, on both sides of the Atlantic, "Mrs." is used to address a married woman.
Interestingly, "missus" is the informal version of "mistress." If you're a fan of historical fiction, you might notice some of the married ladies from prior centuries referred to as "Mistress Fraser" or "Mistress McKenna."
Meanwhile, if you're a fan of modern-day romance novels, you might come across a "mistress" or two. In today's world, "mistress" has devolved to refer to a woman who is committing adultery with a married man.
That said, when you come across the "headmistress" of a boarding school, don't look at her as a lecherous mistress. Rather, that's merely one of the versions of "mistress" that has survived the ages without any sort of scandalous undertone.
Back to modern society, when a woman marries, she traditionally takes her husband's last name, leaving Mrs. to precede the man's last name, as in "Mrs. Randall" or even "Mrs. Frank Randall."
It's important to note a key difference between the American and British spellings of Mrs. In the United Kingdom, folks tend not to put a period after Mrs. Here's an example from a headline in the UK's Telegraph:
Meet Instagram's Mrs Hinch - the very modern Mrs Mop who has secured 'six figure' book deal.
Meanwhile, an American headline will add a period when referring to a married woman. For example:
Meet Mrs. Claus and other famous characters, and enjoy arts, crafts & photo opps for FREE!
While it's important to choose the appropriate title for the appropriate party, there are times when gender neutrality comes into play. For example, we call our physicians "doctor," no matter their gender. So, you might have an appointment as a new patient with Dr. Shepherd or Dr. Randall with nothing to indicate their gender except your online research.
Another example of this is college professors. It's Professor Klaeger or Professor Luskay, no matter their gender. However, a quick scan through Rate My Professors might give you an indication of their gender.
Then, of course, we must respect those among us who choose not to indicate their gender. Nonbinary individuals, as well as those who don't wish to be labeled by their gender, will use the title Mx. While this is widely accepted in the United Kingdom (which means it won't have a period at the end), it hasn't made its way into mainstream America yet.
While these are the general rules of thumb for Miss, Ms., and Mrs., it's wise to do a little research before addressing a woman in any of these manners. You might offend a married woman by calling her Miss and vice versa.
If you want to dig deep, you can always refer to the queen of etiquette, Emily Post. Ready for another "what's the difference" debate? How about What's the Difference Between Altogether and All Together?