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.