Ms., Mrs., and Missing options

Ms. was coined as a title for women analogous to Mr. for men, implying nothing about marital status. In this respect it is crucially unlike the traditional forms Mrs. and Miss.

In a recent post, linguistlaura says a friend of hers faced the choice of Mrs. or Ms. – no Miss – in a website’s dropdown menu. This, Laura writes, undermines the point of having Ms., because:

if it’s used in opposition to Mrs., then it implies ‘unmarried’, becoming synonymous with Miss. For it to retain its purpose, it has to be the only option (with Mrs. and Miss not available) or the Mrs./Miss system must be available: both options must be present.

There might have been no political agenda behind the website design, but the result has political implications. When Mrs. and Ms. are the only choices, would-be Miss-users default to Ms. (assuming a choice must be made), which lends Ms. connotations of Miss and so compromises its neutral function.

Whether or not Ms. can do double duty covering both Miss and [unspecified marital status] is immaterial: it shouldn’t have to.

*

Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing notes that the Miss/Mrs. distinction doesn’t reliably indicate a woman’s marital status: “she may continue to use Miss after marriage or, if divorced, may continue to use Mrs”. But the usual assumption is that Miss means unmarried and Mrs. means married.

The Handbook also includes two (unattributed) verses on the subject, one in support of the traditional title:

In typing Ms. for Mrs.
Your Smith Corona slipped.
I am a wife and mother
And not a manuscript.

(Ms., more commonly MS., is also an abbreviation of manuscript.)

And one in favour of Ms., which I like a lot and tweeted a while ago:

When you call me Miss or Mrs.
You invade my private life,
For it’s not the public’s business
If I am, or was, a wife.

Miller and Swift conclude that because some people feel strongly about titles, the “obvious and courteous” solution when writing about someone is to follow their preference – or to simply not bother with titles. After all, not everyone fits or wants to fit so neatly and necessarily into these categories.

[More on gender and language]
About these ads

31 Responses to Ms., Mrs., and Missing options

  1. Picky says:

    Unless, perhaps, they are purporting falsely to be Bill Gates, the Duke of Westminster, or Marie of Roumania.

  2. Categories, nix nix!

  3. Kerry says:

    ‘Ms’ was a great idea, but an innovation which, I fear, will never work in the way it was intended to. I’m married but have often opted to use Ms, a choice which, weirdly, has prompted consternation from acquaintances of a range of different genders/walks of life.The undercurrent from them is that there’s something pretentious about my doing so and that ‘Ms’ is really the preserve of unmarried woman who don’t want to give away that they’re single.

  4. Mark Gallagher says:

    The issue really becomes a problem with online forms on which Title is a “required field.” In this age of endless data gathering, nefarious and otherwise, I would suggest that women being forced to make a binary choice they find uncomfortable should opt instead for Mr. If the form makers/data compilers won’t play nicely, you might as well sully their data.

  5. John Cowan says:

    When we married, my wife changed her surname to mine (because she had been using her long-since-divorced first husband’s surname by default, and didn’t really want to keep it), but continued to use Ms. for all purposes. So her title has evolved thus: Miss Waas, Mrs. McGhan, Ms. McGhan, Ms. Cowan. My mother, on the other hand, was Miss Schultz, Mrs. Ordon, Mrs. Cowan till her death in 1981.

    In the 18th century, all women were Mrs., and I rather regret that we didn’t stick with that. That’s pretty much what happened in most of Europe in the 20th century: the title for married women became the title for all women with little fuss.

    You don’t say anything about pronunciation. In the native home of Ms., we use the KIT vowel, the same as for Mr., Mrs., Miss, but I’m told that in the U.K. the usual pronunciation is STRUT. What’s the story in Ireland? Also, I see that you are using a terminal period, American-style, for the abbreviated titles. Is that the Irish convention too, or an idiosyncrasy of yours?

  6. marc leavitt says:

    Stan:
    I think Linnaeus would pull his hair out over this one.
    During my (male) lifetime I have been single, married, divorced, single again, re-married and separated.
    Should these designations over time be denoted by the social taxonomists among us?
    My solution? Call me anything you like. Just don’t call me late to dinner.

    I

  7. Stan says:

    Picky: Grandiose disguise cannot be ruled out.

    Claire: Check!

    Kerry: That’s a regrettable reaction to your choice. I know many women who used Ms. before marriage and kept using it when they got married, but I never asked them if they ran into such consternation as you have. I’ve come across men who joke or sneer chauvinistically at it, but I’ve never encountered the idea that it’s pretentious, and I hope that’s not a widespread attitude.

    Mark: Yes, exactly. There’s a problem when the step can’t be skipped and people are forced to choose from unrepresentative or unbalanced options. I like your suggestion of technical disobedience.

    John: I’ve heard both pronunciations, but /mɪz/ is by far the more common in my experience. Macmillan and Collins include both, but I don’t know how proportionally popular each is in the UK, or in Ireland for that matter. Longman presumably has data, but I don’t have the book. As for the full stop, sometimes I include it and sometimes I don’t; I’m more inclined to omit it, I think, and I don’t know why I added it this time.

    Marc: Should they? No, but that won’t stop some from attempting to pigeonhole us anyway – if only through force of tradition.

  8. wisewebwoman says:

    Long been a beef of mine, I loved your second quote and posted it, post haste as it were, to FB.
    XO
    WWW

  9. Charles Sullivan says:

    If men had two titles based on whether they’re married or not I might consider it. Mister and Master? No. How can a Master be younger than a Mister? How about we just call young bachelors, ‘Mustard.’ And the old guys, ‘Mister’

  10. Have to say I’m baffled by the “manuscript” poem. Firstly, it doesn’t strike me as being in support of the traditional title at all: the protagonist appears to be saying, “Even though I choose to use Ms, I am as much a wife and mother as any Mrs“. Secondly, why Smith Corona instead of the more likely Corona Smith (and why is she yours)?

    The pronunciation of “Ms” I’m most familiar with has no stressed vowel.

    When friends in Germany got married, it sparked discussion of how laws regarding name changes work in different countries. For example, in Australian law you don’t so much change names as accumulate them, so a Miss A.B. who marries and becomes Mrs A.C. retains A.B. as an alternate legal name. Whereas in German law, once you change your name to A.C. you are no longer A.B.

  11. Stan says:

    WWW: I just wish I knew who wrote it. Miller and Swift refer to the two poems anonymously as “the following verse” and “another versifier”.

    Charles: Oh, Mustard would be great – especially in the same context as Mess(e)rs.

    Adrian: The way I read it is that the writer sees herself as a “Mrs” but found herself referred to (in print) as Ms, to which she objected. She says “your Smith Corona” because she’s addressing the person who typed the Ms reference to her, and it’s Smith Corona because that’s the name of a typewriter supplies company.

    Thanks for the interesting note on the Australian and German legal situations.

    • The poem is quite impenetrable to those of us who have never heard of Smith Corona. I interpreted “slipped” in the sense of “slipped information into the conversation”.

      I assume Irish law is closer to the German, but I have no grounds for that other than Ireland’s reputation for being relatively conservative socially. I won’t try to guess for other countries.

  12. Kory Stamper says:

    Another trick with “Ms” and “Miss” is that the connotations of each change depending on the user, the region, the age of the speaker, the presumed gender of the speaker, the ages and presumed genders of the listeners, etc. It’s very culturally specific. For instance, in parts of the American South if you want to show respect to a woman in a formal way, you call her “Miss [first name]” irrespective of her marital status, her age, or your age. But if I were back where I grew up and someone called me “Miss Kory,” it would sound belittling because that’s not how you use “Miss” in the part of Colorado I grew up in. Where I live now, if I call myself “Ms. Stamper,” no one bats an eye. If I go back to Colorado and introduce myself as “Ms. Stamper” (instead of “Miss Stamper” or “Mrs. Stamper”), I can guarantee that one person in the room will assume I’m a lesbian, because why use that slippery “Ms.” when you’ve got “Miss” and “Mrs.”?

    I rarely use titles in everyday life, and I never use them in professional correspondence unless my writer has signed their letter with one. If I have to fill out a webform that requires one, I get subversive and fill out every possible name field that I can, which is why a host of dumb catalogs come to my house addressed to “Rev. Dr. Kory Jehoshaphat Stamper, Jr., OBE.”

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      Appreciate you thoughtful and precise parsing of the “M”-female nominative-descriptive* shorthand options. (Even though, admittedly, still a slightly murky area of gender ‘labeling’.)

      Your observation re/ the association in many folks mind of the “Ms.” descriptive with lesbianism is well taken.

      For a time, and still to this day, I think some residual hesitancy, or reluctance in women personally using, or owning the “Ms.” designation, stems, to some degree, from it’s co-option by the nascent feminist movement of the ’60s, coalescing about the same time as the advent, and use of the revolutionary oral birth control pill; giving adult women of childbearing age the means and most importantly, IMHO, the power, to control their reproductive destiny like no other time in human history.

      Now men, who literally and historically were calling the shots (no pun intended) for millennia in the bedroom, were no longer in control, and for many males that amounted to a threat, but for some, perhaps a relief. (Kind of a two-edged sword, there.) But I digress.

      Another major ridge against the use of “Ms.”, I would suggest, came from the feminist-inspired 1972 launch of “Ms.” (Magazine), co-founded by the charismatic, intelligent, and frankly, very beautiful Gloria Steinem, with much media fanfare and hoopla— positive and negative, and all shades of gray in between. (Maybe not 50 shades. HA!)

      Harsher critics would argue that the feminist movement was rife with lesbian activists and sympathizers, and that “Ms.” (Magazine) was a mere mouth-piece, writ large, for their ‘perverse lifestyle’, and contrarian societal views.

      Well, I would argue that Steinem & Co. proved all those narrow-minded doubting Thomases wrong, and the magazine survives, and thrives to this day, as an abiding crusader for women’s rights, hetero-or-homosexual, and basic human rights in general.

      *Not sure if this is a legit grammatical term. Oh well. Hopefully you get my drift?

  13. John Cowan says:

    If a woman introduces herself to a reasonable number of people, at least one will assume she’s a lesbian no matter what she says or does (well, short of actually having sex). And a lot more will assume she’s not a lesbian, again no matter what. It’s a no-win situation.

    • Kory Stamper says:

      Haha, very true. But, I will say that I’ve had more than one conversation with smart people for whom the use of “Ms.” by a female speaker in reference to herself is the clincher in their judgment about that speaker’s sexuality. Lots of other things go into such judgments, of course, and the usual caveats about anecdotes and data apply.

  14. Stan says:

    Adrian: I wasn’t sure about Smith Corona when I first read the poem, but I inferred from the context that it had to do with writing or typing apparatus. To check this, I looked it up.

    Kory: That’s all very true, and well put. It is difficult to generalise about because of that cultural and connotative variation. I imagine (or would like to think) there’s some good research on this, but maybe not. Also: I salute your extravagant subversive tactics, Reverend Doctor.

    John: We’re a very assume-y species. I think we’re hard-wired that way, but can decondition ourselves to a useful degree.

    • No doubt as an editor you’ve had more practice than I have at resolving ambiguity — that, and you’ve blogged about eponymous objects. :-) I don’t think the solution would ever have occurred to me.

  15. Mise says:

    In Irish, a woman used to be formally addressed as Ainm Sloinne Uasal, whereas a man was An tUasal Ainm Sloinne. Because almost all application forms retain the English structure, in which the title precedes the name, women are now being addressed as An tUasal Ainm Sloinne as well so as not to worry the database structure. The Revenue Commissioners, bless them, still manage to get it right.

  16. mollymooly says:

    I generally opt for “Dr” too (though I believe in certain jurisdictions it is a criminal offence to do so if you have no higher degree). I find it brings me a better class of junkmail.

  17. Stan says:

    Mise: That’s interesting. So the way the information is solicited or stored has led to a convergence between male/female forms of address. (Welcome back, by the way; it’s great to see you blogging again.)

    mollymooly: I hadn’t considered that side of it. Better quality junkmail might be worth the risks.

  18. Picky says:

    I wonder if women still put their title in brackets after their names as they once did at the foot of letters: Molly Mooly (Dr), Marilyn Monroe (Miss), that sort of thing. If you’d no idea about their marital status that was a godsend when replying. Then along came Ms, and we all thought it would remove such problems. Not so, because one never knew whether a married woman would be as offended by being called Ms as by being called Miss. I was once told as a young reporter that a woman (who as it happened was well blessed with issue) had sued when she was called Miss in the paper, the implication being (in those illiberal days) that she was less than scrupulous.

    Incidentally that tale, being so evidently from the Dark Ages, explains why I was astonished people didn’t know what a Smith Corona was – a very popular make of typewriter. A typewriter, by the way, was a machine for … oh, never mind.

    Alex, I expect, is entitled The McCrae.

    • alexmccrae1546 says:

      @Picky… respectfully, I hardly deem that I’ve attained, (or earned) the elevated title of supreme singularity, i.e., “The”. “Mr.” will suffice, thank you.

      The titular “The”, I would suggest, should be reserved for the likes of say “The Incredible Hulk”, The Venerable Bede”, “The Thing”, “The Pope”, or that loathsome blowhard w/ the silly backcombed coif, “The Donald”… Trump that is. (Now there’s an odd mix of personalities. HA!)

      Hmm… the Smith-Corona ‘blind-spot’ thingy kind of baffled me, as well. I guess it could be chalked up to a generational thing?

      So, some folk out there, unfamiliar with say the early Olivetti* name might think their product could be some classy brand of olive oil, or perhaps a high-end classic custom car line of Italian vintage, like say a Ferrari, or the Bugatti**?

      *I pounded out many a university term paper back in the late ’60s while studying Poli. Sci. at York University, Toronto, on my bright-orange, compact, Yugoslav-manufactured portable Olivetti typewriter. It could almost be considered a mid-century antique these days. (Interesting that today, Olivetti is still extant, making tablets, printers and fax machines, retaining their business machines orientation going forward.)

      ** Although the Bugatti car manufacturers (and road racers), their family roots, were of Italian origin, their now-classic early modernist vehicles are identified as French, since there auto-works were based in France.

  19. There’s also Mx (http://nonbinary.org/wiki/Gender_neutral_titles) for those that don’t subscribe to the gender binary. Unfortunately it has yet to catch on.

  20. Stan says:

    Picky: I don’t know about the brackets-after-name practice; it’s not one I’ve seen much of lately. I would hope that the usefulness of Ms is steadily overcoming much of the initial reluctance; or that later generations, for whom it’s not a novelty, find it a more normal option.

    Alex: The Smith Corona blind spot, or in some cases uncertainty, is likely a generational thing.

    Silver Tyger: Thanks for that link. I like Mx more than the other suggestions mentioned. Interesting that it was originally pronounced “mux” (assuming the information is correct), but that “mix” is now also used. I’d have instinctively gone with the latter.

  21. […] At Macmillan Dictionary blog, Stan Carey wondered if you couldn’t care less about could care less, and on his own blog looked at the political implications of Ms., Miss, and Mrs. […]

  22. Nurn says:

    I always used to use Ms because when I got married, I didn’t change my name. It didn’t seem logical to be either Miss or Mrs. Now I don’t really care (no longer married, good decision to “keep” name).

    I also remember years ago (80s?) a female friend of mine had a real battle with the bank (AIB). She wanted no identifier at all on her bank card, either Mr, Ms, or Miss, just initials and her surname (possibly as a way to thwart targeted junk mail). She got her way in the end through sheer pigheadedness, by repeatedly asking the bank why it was anyone’s business what gender she was, as long as she had the money they wanted to get their hands on!

  23. John Cowan says:

    I actually did much of my early work, schoolwork and personal, on a Smith-Corona portable manual and then a Smith-Corona electric typewriter. Supplies used to be just a sideline to their main business of selling typewriters (and later, mechanical calculators). Their machines were much lower-end than the U.S. market leaders, IBM and Selectric, but perfectly fine for personal use.

  24. Stan says:

    Nurn: Fair play to your friend. If banks have no overriding need for these social titles, and we were all as persistent and insistent as she was in refusing them, it might have some effect on policy. (Probably wishful thinking.)

    John: My mother was a journalist for some years and had a manual and later an electric typewriter that I used to enjoy using for inconsequential thises and thats. But I don’t remember what make they were, and I never used them enough to create a lasting connection, nor did I ever have one of my own.

  25. […] Ms, Mrs and Missing Options from Sentence […]

  26. […] language generally centre on usage issues that recur frequently: singular they, generic he and man, Ms/Mrs and other forms of address, suffixes such as –ess, –ette and –trix, and common terms like […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 10,003 other followers