Mr. and Mrs.: What do they stand for?
The contractions Mr. and Mrs. are short for Mister and Missus/Missis. These contractions, like their longer forms, are used in etiquette to show respect to men and women. Mr. and Mrs. are pronounced the same as their longer forms: Mr. is pronounced as [ mis-ter ] and Mrs. is pronounced as [ mis-iz ] or [ miz-iz ] in the Northern United States and as [ miz-iz ] and [ miz ] in the Southern United States.
Mr. and Mrs. are typically used as titles or honorifics before a person’s name to show respect. Traditionally, Mr. is used before the names of men and boys while Mrs. is used before the names of married women.
The contraction Mr. has been used since the 1500s. Mr. was used as a shortening of master, a title used for men of high authority. By the mid-18th century, both Mr. and its longer form Mister had become distinct words from master and became common English honorifics to generally address men of higher social rank.
The contraction Mrs. has a very similar history as it too dates back to the 1500s. It was used as a shortening of mistress, a title used for women of high rank or a woman who was the female head of a household. Eventually, Mrs., and its longer form Missus became distinct words from mistress and were used as general honorifics to refer to married women of higher social rank.
When should Ms. and Miss be used?
Historically, the title Miss has been used as an honorific for unmarried women or young girls. While both of these cases are still true today, Miss is also used to refer to women when their marital status is unknown or unimportant.
The title Ms. is an honorific used to refer to any woman, regardless of marital status.
Generally speaking, it is considered proper etiquette to use Mrs. to refer to married women, Miss to refer to unmarried women and young girls, and Ms. to refer to a woman of unknown marital status or when marital status is irrelevant.
In everyday usage, though, it typically comes down to personal preference. A person may prefer any or none of these titles, and it is always best to ask a person how they want to be addressed before using a particular title or honorific.
Alternatives to Mr. and Mrs.
Gendered honorifics may not be appropriate in all contexts, however. Often, people may want to avoid using Mr. or Mrs. because they are gendered and exclude nonbinary people, who may, for instance, identify as gender-fluid or agender. So what alternatives are there?
Before looking at other specific honorifics, there are some options to use when generally addressing people if you don’t know their preferences. The most obvious and usually best choice is to simply use a person’s name. Most people are perfectly fine with being addressed by their first name. Using a last name alone, though, is usually best saved for close acquaintances. If you know the person more closely, you could use more affectionate terms such as friend, buddy, or pal. Alternatively, you could skip the honorifics altogether and address someone simply with a polite expression such as “Hello” or “Excuse me.”
When it comes to gender-neutral alternatives to Mr. and Mrs., there are a few possible options. Some people use newer, gender-neutral honorifics such as Mx., M, Ind. (short for individual), or Misc. (short for miscellaneous). However, these are not commonly used, and many people are unlikely to know what they mean. In some situations, it is possible to refer to someone by a gender-neutral professional title (Doctor, Professor, Coach, Vice President, etc.) or military rank (Captain, General, Lieutenant, Sergeant, etc.).
To repeat a prior point, the best route is usually to just ask a person how they want to be addressed and follow their preference. The goal of using titles and honorifics in the first place, after all, is to show respect and a great way to respect someone is to use the terms of address they told you they personally prefer.