My next topic is common titles. The most common titles for a woman are Mrs, Miss or Ms. The most common title for a man is Mr. The old social rule is ladies first, so this week I'll cover the female titles and the males will have to wait until next week.
Historically these were middle class titles; ordinary working class women did not use Mrs or Miss. However today they can be generally used for everyone. These titles have a similar language role to noble titles such as Duke, Lord, Baron... The use of titles, even those that everyone can use, is sometimes seen as too old fashioned. As a result many modern writers avoid using Miss, Mrs or Mr except in quotations and formal records.
These titles are usually used before the family name and not the given name alone. Example: Mrs Wong and Mrs Mary Wong are used, but not usually Mrs Mary. Miss is used for girls and unmarried women of any age. Mrs is used with the family name of the woman's husband. (In UK English, these titles are sometimes used with given names, for a younger sister, but it is less common today.)
Mrs (Mrs. in the US) and Miss (no full stop in US or UK) are abbreviations of Mistress, which is the female version of Master. Most abbreviations use a full stop for words with the end cut off (truncations), such as Aug. (August), Capt. (Captain), Can. (Canadian) and so on. Abbreviations that cut out the middle of the word (contractions) use an apostrophe, such as don't (do not), who've (who have), I'm (I am). Abbreviations of the first type are often names or titles and the second set are not. So at first it seems to make sense to use a full stop for Mrs. The problem is that Mistress was abbreviated by cutting the middle out of the word. That means that the correct abbreviation would be M'r's, a form nobody uses. It is much easier to think of Mrs as a word and not an awkward abbreviation.
The plurals for these female titles are rarely used. (Miss uses Misses, Ms uses Mss or Mses.) There is no plural for Mrs because more than one wife is not socially acceptable. However when referring to two women married to two different men, with the same family name, the French word Mesdames is sometimes used. (Mlles or Mesdemoiselles is old fashioned and rare.)
There are some dangerous points where the incorrect use of these titles may accidentally be insulting.
First, in Hong Kong English it is common to use Miss for all women, even those who are married. Be warned that this is not correct in Standard English. The sentence, "Miss Smith gave birth to a baby boy." assumes that she is not married.
Second, some women feel uncomfortable about having their marital status announced by using Miss or Mrs. They have chosen to use the merged form Ms (Ms. in the US). Using Ms is often seen as being radical and untraditional by some people. When too many people object to using this modern creation, the fair alternative is to list (m) or (s) after the names of the men to indicate if they are married or not. (That way one can use Mrs and Missand still treat everyone the same.) Using Ms is simpler. (Pronounced Miz, IPA: mIz)
Finally, today the word Mistress can also be used to mean concubine. Although, the title Mistress is still the proper and correct female equivalent of Master. (Hence Mrs is almost always pronounced missiz, IPA: misIz)
Mistress Weatherwax would never allow that sort of thing.
This was his father's mistress, and he often wondered if his mother knew as well.
The first uses the title of a respectable woman and a character in Terry Practchett's Discworld novels. The second sentence refers to a woman who is not conventionally respectable. (Other people's blood by Frank Kippax) The second meaning can also be used as a metaphor, "Music is his mistress". Mistress, as in a concubine, is never used before the person's name, it's a job description.