Miss., Mrs., or Ms.?

The Quick Answer
Should you use Miss., Mrs., or Ms. when addressing a woman in a letter or email?

Even though there are several nuances to consider (see below), in general terms:
  • Miss. is used for an unmarried woman.
  • Mrs. is used for a married woman.
  • Ms. is used for a married or unmarried woman.
If you're unsure of the woman's marital status (single, married, divorced, or widowed), then use Ms., which will be safe 99% of the time.

Note: Ms. (from Mistress) is the female equivalent of Mr. (from Mister).

Miss., Mrs., and Ms.

Writers are often unsure whether to use Miss., Mrs., or Ms. when addressing a woman in an email or letter.

The titles (or honorifics as they're really called) Miss., Mrs., and Ms. are all contractions of the word Mistress. In general terms:
  • Miss. denotes an unmarried woman.
  • Mrs. denotes a married woman.
  • Ms. offers no indication whether the woman is married or single.
However, these are not 100% rules, and there are some nuances worth learning if you do not wish to offend.

Ms.

The contraction Ms. is short for Mistress.

Mistress is the female version of Mister (which is shortened to Mr.). Neither Ms. nor Mr. tells us the marital status of the person.

When referring to a woman whose marital status is unknown, it is nearly always safe to use Ms. It is also nearly always safe to use Ms. if the woman has been divorced or widowed and it is unknown whether she wants to remain a Mrs. or revert to Miss.

Unfortunately, even though using Ms. ought to be 100% safe in all circumstances, some married women believe it to be a lower status than Mrs. Therefore, to eliminate completely the risk of causing any offence, you will need to do some investigative work to find out what title the woman uses for herself.

Mrs.

Like Ms. and Miss., the contraction Mrs. is short for Mistress. It is used for a married woman. Mrs. can also be used for a divorced or widowed woman who wishes to retain the title.

The reasons for retaining the Mrs. title are personal and varied, but they include (1) ensuring the children's parents have the same surname, (2) maintaining respect for a deceased husband, (3) warding off future suitors, and (4) maintaining the kudos of a famous husband.

Also of note, some married woman prefer Ms. over Mrs. as a sign of independence, and some even use Ms. in a work setting and Mrs. in a home setting. Therefore, to eliminate completely the risk of causing any offence, you will need to do some investigative work to find out what title the woman uses for herself.

Miss.

Like Ms. and Mrs., the contraction Miss. is short for Mistress. It is used for an unmarried woman.

It is highly appropriate to use Miss. for a young girl or woman below marrying age. Miss. can also be used for a previously married woman, but you should only use Miss. if you know the woman uses this title for herself. Using Miss. for a divorced or widowed woman carries the connotation that she is available to suitors, and this could offend her.

See Also

adverse or averse? affect or effect? appraise or apprise? avenge or revenge? bare or bear? complement or compliment? dependant or dependent? discreet or discrete? disinterested or uninterested? e.g. or i.e.? envy or jealousy? imply or infer? its or it's? material or materiel? poisonous or venomous? practice or practise? principal or principle? tenant or tenet? who's or whose?
What are contractions? What does connotation mean? When to use a comma with Dear, Hello, and Hi at the start of a letter When to use Yours faithfull and Yours sincerely at the end of a letter List of easily confused words