John Larrysson Column: Common Titles - Mr

This week I'll discuss the most common title for a man, Mr. Last week I discussed the most common titles for a woman Mrs, Miss and Ms. They are all abbreviations for Master or Mistress that have become new words. These titles are used before the family name and not the given name alone. Example: Mr Wong and Mr David Wong are used, but not usually Mr David. (In older UK English, Mr David can be used in the case of a son or younger brother e.g. if Robert Wong is called Mr Wong, his little brother may be called Mr David by a servant or employee.)

The plural of title abbreviations such as Mr are complicated. Instead of having an English plural, the equivalent French plural is sometimes used; Monsieur is Mr in French. (The plural Messrs. is an abbreviation of French messieurs. e.g. Messrs Smith and Jones.) American English uses the title Mr with a full stop (Mr.) and British English does not (Mr).

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Mr is spelt and pronounced Mister to keep it separate from its original meaning, Master. Today Mr is used for all adult males. Some people from 19th century newly rich families used the title master for boys, names without titles for teenage boys and mister for adult males. This may sound traditional, but it is not historically correct.

Historically not every man would be addressed as mister. He had to have some measure of success and standing in society. A man addressed as Mr was above the common man, but below the upper class and aristocracy. The following people would historically be addressed as Mr: landowners, university graduates (Especially those with a Masters degree.), teachers, employers, surgeons (Read next week’s article.), retired military officers, junior naval officers (also the mates on merchant vessels who could be addressed as either Mr Mate or Mr Baines) and experts in a skill (master craftsmen). The title Mr is also used with some other titles such as chairman and the title president, as in Mr. President. The same middle class historical rules about who can use the title Mr also apply to the female titles, Mrs or Miss.

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Some classes of people traditionally were not addressed as Mr, unless they had earned it by one of the ways listed above. These untitled people included: actors, professional athletes, newspaper reporters, children, accused or convicted criminals, antique dealers and so on.

It may seem unfair to deny the title Mr to accused criminals who have yet to prove their innocence. But a person who is on trial has a lower social status, until they are found not guilty. Titles are a matter of status, not fairness. People in some kind of authority, but who were not nobles, traditionally used these titles. Historically, people who were entertainers of some sort, as well as the general population did not.

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Checking the style choices of most newspapers will show that these titles are often no longer used. The world is becoming more egalitarian and titles are overly formal and old-fashioned. As a result many modern writers avoid using Mr except in quotations and formal records.

There is one final unusual point of the title Mr used in British English. I'll have to cover that next week.

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Related Article: Common Titles - Mrs, Miss or Ms

Common Titles - Mr Surgeon

by John Larrysson

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A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.