One of my favorite things about German is how straightforward and clear names and titles are. Grown women are all called Frau (although I still can’t get used to being called Frau Duffin), and men are called Herr. If you have earned a doctorate degree, you’re quite simply Frau Doktor or Herr Doktor.
Unfortunately, English is a little bit different, and currently, what is acceptable is currently in flux (changing, unclear). Languages and societies change, and with that, the way we address each other also changes.
If you’re going to be meeting someone soon, this blog on how to address (call, refer to) people using the right names and titles in English may be right for you.
When to Use Names
Names are great, as they help us to identify each other. But when should you use someone’s last name as opposed to their first name?
Last names and titles are traditionally the more formal way of addressing someone. For example, if I don’t know someone (very well), I would always first call them Ms./Mr./Professor (last name) when addressing them.
First names, on the other hand, are more familiar, or part of a particular culture. In the United States, first names are used in business, at restaurants, coffee shops, with the flight crew on the airplane, and almost everywhere.
Some people, like me, actually prefer being called by their first name rather than their last name. For example, I will ask to be called Erin instead of Ms. Duffin when meeting someone for the first time. Maybe this will change as I get older, but for now, it feels right to me.
Here’s an example dialogue:
A: Hello, Ms. Duffin. I’m Professor Covington.
B: Hello Professor Covington, you can call me Erin.
(A: Hi, Erin. I’m John.)
As you can see in the above example, if you offer someone your first name, they will often follow suit (do the same) and reintroduce themselves with their first name or nickname.
Pro tip: Nicknames are very informal and should only be used with close friends. It’s usually best to wait and see if someone uses a nickname before calling them by one, even if you have heard other people use it on them. Once you get to know them better, you may also pick up (start using) that nickname, or find a new one completely, either due to an inside joke, or just from becoming more familiar with each other.
For example, one of my nicknames is Bob. It just sort of (basically, kind of, spontaneously) happened one day while I was hanging out with a close friend, but I would think it very strange if a stranger just started calling me Bob upon first meeting me.
So now that we have first and last names covered (discussed, talked about), what titles should you use with someone?
If someone is a professor, definitely call them “Professor (last name)” when you first meet them. As with the example above, they may reintroduce themselves with their preferred name, but allow them to take the lead (make the first step) on that.
If someone is a doctor, the same procedure is applied as with the title professor. It is polite to call them “Doctor (last name)” until or unless they inform you otherwise (tell you something else).
When a man or young man is not a doctor or a professor, call them “Mr. (last name)” when you first meet them.
We use Mr. regardless if the man is married, single, divorced, in a relationship, or widowed. This title is completely free of any “relationship” or marital status.
Before we explain names and titles for women, we would like to be clear on one thing: the title Mrs. is not necessary to use anymore in our modern society, and many people wouldn’t use it in any situation at all.
Traditionally, however, the title of a woman was given to her based on her age and her marital status– so if she was under 18, or single or married. This is, today, completely ridiculous (crazy, unneeded), as a woman’s value and worth to a society is no longer based only on her marital status!
Still, married women in English-speaking countries are usually called “Mrs. (last name),” and there is a complicated history here.
Mrs., pronounced “Miss-uss”, comes from the word “Mistress,” the feminine form of “Mister”, and indicated that the woman was bought by a husband’s family and then, technically, “owned” by her husband. Therefore, according to a few sources, Mrs. is actually another form of Mr’s, but missing the possessive apostrophe.
It is not the case anymore that husband’s own their wives, and therefore the title Mrs. is outdated.
This title, pronounced “Mizzz”, was developed in the 17th century and revived in the 20th. It’s the exact, neutral equivalent (same, equal) title to a man’s title, Mr., and is void of any (has no) marital status indication.
It would be a little weird to assume that someone was married because they look above a certain age, or to ask them first, right? What if they are 70 years old and never married?
Can you imagine asking a man if he was married?? It sounds very silly.
This is why the title Ms. is necessary.
Ms. Duffin is my preferred form of address in formal situations, for example, as Ms. can be used whether someone is married or unmarried, older or younger, and is as neutral a title as Mr.
The last title sometimes used with women is Miss.
Miss. is also a derivative of “Mistress,” but is used for unmarried women instead of married women. It can also be used for girls under 18 years old, as well.
We can use this with first names when we want to show affection for someone. For example, one of my grandmother’s friends used to call me Miss Erin. She wasn’t pointing out that I’m unmarried or under 18, but rather just wanted to use a term of endearment (a term or name to show familiarity or love to someone) when talking to me.
The most important thing to keep in mind, though, is to always follow the lead of the person who you’re meeting. If someone introduces themself as “Mrs. so-and-so”, use Mrs. If someone uses Doctor, use Doctor. And if someone (such as myself) thinks titles are all too formal and asks you to call them by their first name, feel free to do that, too.
You also have the same opportunity when you introduce yourself or when you sign an email. If at the end of an email, you write your full name, that is an indication to the email recipient that they should continue to call you by your title and last name. If you, however, sign an email off with “Best regards, Erin”, then expect them to address you in the future by your first name.
What are some of your rules for names and titles? Give us a shout in the comments below!
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Looking for grammar? Try Tricky Adjectives and Adverbs, when to use Which and That, Order of Adjectives, Its vs It’s, and Present Continuous tense!
Erin Duffin lives in Hamburg, is an English teacher, blogger, yoga instructor, and….you can just call her Erin!
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