Mrs/Miss/Ms/Ms.

[David, I see that you have already replied to Ahmad's question, which is not surprising considering how long it took me to finish this.  I hope you don't see this as contradicting you in any way.]

Ahmad wrote:

This thing confounds me.

Ahmad, you're not the only one.  This is more a question of etiquette than of grammar, but I'll try to answer your question as best I can.

First of all, your fourfold multiple-choice selection really needs to be in the body of your post, not just in the subject heading.

Things get easier when we are addressing a man.  If I did not know our moderator and were introduced to him in a formal setting, I would address him as "Mr Evans".  "Mr", here, is pronounced as "mister", which is actually a lazy pronunciation of "master".  A married man, a single man, be he never married, divorced, or widowed, or even a young boy is formally addressed as "Mr".  Let me point out that, although "Mr" is common in BrE and is my personal preference, it is more commonly written with a period ("Mr.") in AmE.

But you asked about addressing women.  That's way more complicated.  Whichever way you go, you stand a good chance of offending the woman in question.  I base this on personal experience.

The female equivalent of "master" is "mistress".  Historically, this title could be applied either to the wife of the master of a house, or to an unmarried woman who owned the house in her own right.  Some centuries ago, "mistress" was variously abbreviated to "Mrs" (which eventually came to be pronounced so as to rhyme with "kisses") or "Miss" or "Ms" (both of which were pronounced as "miss").  Any of these could be applied to either a married or unmarried woman, or even a young girl.

(In recent times, the word "mistress", which used to be unequivocably understood as a term of respect, has experienced pejoration, as it is now almost universally used to refer to a paramour or to address a dominatrix.  Some years ago, the wife of a friend of mine, who was actually a school teacher and rather well educated, asked me how to spell "Mrs".  I told her "M-R-S".  She said "No, I know how it's abbreviated, I want to know how it's actually spelled out.", to which I replied "It isn't.  It's an abbreviation of 'mistress', and it's pronounced 'missez'.".  She was outraged.  "I'm nobody's mistress!" she said.)

Over time, the title "Mrs" came to be applied only to married women.  Furthermore, it took on the meaning of "the wife of ...", so that the former Miss Jacqueline Bouvier was properly referred to as "Mrs John Fitzgerald Kennedy" rather than "Mrs Jacqueline Kennedy".

"Miss" is still commonly used to address unmarried women and young girls.  It is also used to address or refer to career women that use a professional name that is different than their legal or "social" name.  For example, many years ago, I read a society column in a magazine or newspaper that said, describing a social event:

Assemblyman and Mrs Tom Hayden were in attendance, she in a smart blue jumpsuit (anything that wraps itself around Jane Fonda can hardly be called stupid).

[I'm sorry. but I can't find the source and I've quite possibly misquoted it slightly, seeing as Mr Hayden and Miss Fonda divorced in 1990, and I'm guessing that it's been more than forty years since I read the piece.]

Miss Fonda had previously been  Mrs Roger Vadim and later became Mrs Robert Edward Turner, but she has always been known professionally as Jane Fonda, which also happens to be her birth name.  When addressing her or referring to her by that name, the form "Miss" is correct.  "Mrs" can only be used when referring to a woman by her husband's name.

It has become acceptable in much of the English-speaking world, including most of the United States, for a woman to retain her maiden name when she gets married.  In such instances, the Miss never becomes a Mrs.  Conversely, a woman that does legally adopt her husband's surname has the option of retaining it in the event of his death or a divorce, in which case she remains a Mrs, or doffing it and reverting to her maiden name, in which case she is once again a Miss.

Rarely, a man takes his wife's surname, but he is still a Mr.

The feminist revolution of the 1960s and '70s saw a revival in popularity of the form "Ms", with the preferred pronunciation being /miz/ to distinguish it from "Miss".  The message was that, just like all you "Mr"s, it's none of your business whether I'm married or not.  Nevertheless, I've known some traditionally-minded women who were seriously offended when someone addressed them as "Ms".  I say, get over it, unless you make it clear how you wish to be addressed.

I had a particularly difficult time when I started receiving letters from an Internal Revenue Service agent who signed her name as "Pat Hernandez" questioning my tax return for 1990.  In English, the name "Pat" is gender neutral, as it can be short for either the masculine "Patrick" or the feminine "Patricia".  I didn't know whether I should call her "Miss", "Mrs", "Ms", or "Mr"!  I ultimately settled on addressing my return correspondence to "Agent Hernandez".  I finally found out her gender when she began calling me at work, at which time I advised her not to call me at work again unless she wanted to be sued for harassment.  This resulted in my appearing in Federal court facing a panel of six IRS lawyers.  I won the case without bothering to hire a lawyer myself.

So, today, it is normal to address a woman as "Ms" + surname if her marital status is unknown, and she doesn't have another title like "Dr" or "Senator" to supersede the more humble honorific.  If you are uncomfortable with that, I would err on the side of "Miss" rather than "Mrs".  As with "Mr", "Mrs" is usually spelled with a period ("Mrs.") in AmE, but "Miss" never has a period (although she might get cramps).  I've seen "Ms" spelled both ways, and in recent years I've heard it pronounced variously as /mis/ and /miz/.

Some women object to being addressed as "ma'am" because it makes them feel old.  "Ma'am" derives from the French phrase "ma dame", which literally means "my lady".  However, I've never known a woman to be offended when I actually addressed her as "my lady".

DocV

Ahmad wrote:

In case, a woman is widow and of ripe age, should I use her maiden name prefixed by Ms. or Mrs. A,BC?

David replied:

I may need to read through DocV's post a third time just to be sure, but I don't think it addresses this follow-up question of yours.

I actually think I answered that when I wrote:

... a woman that does legally adopt her husband's surname has the option of retaining it in the event of his death or a divorce, in which case she remains a Mrs, or doffing it and reverting to her maiden name, in which case she is once again a Miss.

It doesn't matter how old she is.

My sister was married to a man named Mr Cline.  She kept the name Mrs Cline when she divorced him a couple of years later.  Now, many years later, she is married to another man, but still goes by the name Mrs Cline.

Some years ago I rented a house from a woman who was more than eighty years old whose name was Mrs Mansker.  I think that marriage ended in divorce also, but it doesn't matter.  Anyway, when it ended, she reverted to her previous husband's name, and was known for the rest of her life as Mrs Locatelli.

Another couple I know both changed their last names to Hart when they got married, and they both changed their first names as well.

DocV

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