When Should You Use Miss, Mrs., or Ms.?

Combining business etiquette with social graces can be tricky, particularly when you throw personal preferences into the mix as well. You might meet a woman at a conference and begin a conversation with her, then a colleague steps up to join you. You find yourself in the awkward position of having to introduce her without offending her. "Mister" has always been used to address males regardless of their marital status, but it's a little more complicated when you're addressing a woman in a formal or business setting.

Illustration by Carina C. © The Balance, 2018

From a Historical Perspective 

The title "mistress" is the feminine form of "mister," but it's virtually never used these days. As is the case with "mister," "mistress" was traditionally considered to be marital-status neutral. It was used to refer to both married and unmarried women.

Eventually, "mistress" was split into two separate contractions to distinguish the marital status of the woman in question. "Miss" denoted an unmarried woman while "Mrs."—the abbreviation for "missus"—applied to married women. Women then moved back toward a less-identifying term once again, adopting "Ms." to include all adult women regardless of marital status.

When to Use "Mistress"

Strike this term from your business vernacular.

Never use the term "mistress" to identify or introduce a woman in the U.S. because it has a completely different meaning today than it did years ago, particularly in a business setting.

"Mistress" is now generally interpreted to mean a woman who is having an affair with a married man.

When to Use Miss

Address young girls as "miss." You can also address an unmarried woman as "miss," but many unmarried women prefer to be referred to as "Ms." instead. Your best bet is to try to determine how the woman wants to be addressed before introducing her or greeting her.

If you notice her speaking with someone else, that individual might know her at least fairly well and be able to speak to her preferences. Asking a simple question can save the day. 

When to Use Ms.

You almost can't go wrong with "Ms." Feminists first began promoting this term for women as the female counterpart to "Mr." back in the 1950s, and it gained steam in the 1970s. It can be used by any adult woman regardless of her marital status, but it refers to adult women, not girls. It's almost always better to err on the side of "Ms." if you're unsure of the woman's preferred title or marital status.

When to Use Mrs.

The term "Mrs." originated to refer specifically to married women, but some women prefer to keep the "Mrs." in their names even after divorce and particularly if they're widowed. It's not safe to assume that all women using "Mrs." as a title have a current or living spouse, nor is it safe to look for a wedding ring. Most women wear them, but not all do—particularly if they'd divorced, separated, or widowed. They still might want to be addressed as "Mrs."

Always use the abbreviation and don't spell out "missus" if you're writing the title, but use " Mrs" rather than "Mrs." in the United Kingdom and in British English—don't include the period.

There's no standard for spelling for "Mrs." in the English language, although both "missus" and "missis" appear in literature. 

Go to the Source

If you're still unsure even with these guidelines in mind and if it would be awkward or impossible to ask someone, let the woman in question tell you her preference if possible.

When you begin the introduction, pause as you get to the title and indicate somehow that she should feel free to fill in the blank.

You can hold an expectant hand out to her to finish for you, or you can say something like, "Miss? Ms.? Mrs.?" Now it's her decision and you can't make a mistake. 

This works better in some scenarios than in others. It's less than perfect if you're introducing someone from a podium. You'll definitely want to take her aside for a moment first and ask her how she would like to be addressed if you'll be introducing her to multiple people. 

Avoid the Issue Entirely

If all else fails, you might simply consider using the woman's full name. It's another foolproof way to avoid making a mistake. Don't simply use her first name by itself unless she's indicated that this is acceptable to her. 

A Word About Men's Titles

Men are easy. For the most part, there are only two ways to apply a gender title to the male species—men or boys:

  • Master: This title is used to refer to and address boys. It's never used for adult men unless the title is part of a professional title, not just a gender title, as in "headmaster."
  • Mister or Mr.: This term is used to identify men who are too mature to be called "master." It can refer to any man regardless of his marital status. The correct spelling is mister, but the term should always be abbreviated when you're using it as a title.