Punctuation Review #2: Honorifics

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A reader wonders,

Why on earth do we place a period after Ms? It’s not an abbreviation of anything I know of.

Americans place a period after Ms. because style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style and The AP Stylebook tell us to. British speakers do not place a period (full stop) after Ms because their style guides tell them not to.

American Style Guides

The Chicago Manual of Style
Use periods with abbreviations that end in a lowercase letter: p. (page), vol., e.g., i.e., etc., a.k.a., a.m., p.m., Ms., Dr., et al.

AP Stylebook
Ms. This is the spelling and punctuation for all uses of the courtesy title, including direct quotations. There is no plural.

British Style Guides

The Penguin Guide to Punctuation
Abbreviations are very rarely used in formal writing. Almost the only ones which are frequently used are the abbreviations for certain common titles, when these are used with someone’s name: Mr Willis, Dr Livingstone, Mrs Thatcher, Ms Harmon, St Joan. (Note that the two items Mrs and Ms are conventionally treated as abbreviations, even though they can be written in no other way.)

Guardian and Observer Style Guide
Mr, Ms, Mrs, Miss

The reader who questions the period after Ms. also objects to the repeated use of honorifics throughout an article:

Unless there’s a possibility of confusion, I see the repeated use of Mr., Ms, and Mrs. as an unnecessary courtesy–and annoying or actually silly at times.

Both American and British newspaper guides agree with our reader that the repetition of honorifics throughout an article is unnecessary.

The Guardian/Observer guide discourages the repetition of honorifics after their first mention, but allows some variation according to context:

In news stories particularly we should use an honorific if it sounds jarring or insensitive not to do so – for example, a woman whose son has been killed on active duty in Iraq should be “Mrs Smith” and not “Smith”. We need to use our judgment and be guided by the tone of the piece.

The AP rejects courtesy titles altogether, unless they occur in a direct quotation:

Refer to both men and women by first and last name, without courtesy titles, on first reference: Susan Smith or Robert Smith. Refer to both men and women by last name, without courtesy titles, in subsequent references. Use the courtesy titles Mr., Miss, Ms. or Mrs. only in direct quotations or after first reference when a woman specifically requests it; for example, where a woman prefers to be known as Mrs. Smith or Ms. Smith.

It’s futile to overthink arbitrary punctuation usage. Pick a relevant style guide and follow its recommendations.

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11 thoughts on “Punctuation Review #2: Honorifics”

  1. Um… Ms. is an abbreviation of Miss. I thought it was quite obvious, but apparently it’s worth pointing out?

  2. Sorry, Cesar, but Ms. is not an abbreviation of Miss. It was invented because the idea that a woman’s marital status was irrelevant had taken hold. If anything, you could call Ms. an abbreviation of “None of Your Business.”
    “Because … style guides tell us to” is the best explanation of why and why not to punctuate honorifics there can be. AP goes with not punctuating the Dr in Dr Pepper because it’s a brand name. Outside the honorific topic, do you put a period after the S in Harry S Truman, the president? Some would say no, because it doesn’t stand for anything; he had no middle name but was advised to put an initial because it looked more respectable.

  3. “(Note that the two items Mrs and Ms are conventionally treated as abbreviations, even though they can be written in no other way.)

    Guardian and Observer Style Guide”
    Shouldn’t those people be aware that “Mrs.” is an abbreviation of “Misses” (a verbal slurring of ‘Mistress’)?

    As to “Ms.”, I can only think of its unabbreviated form as the phonetic “Miz.” It looks weird, though, which might be why I’ve never seen it done.

    There are occasions when it’s all right to spell these titles in full, but AP’s users don’t want to waste character spaces, and the rest of us are in too much of a hurry.

  4. My comment has nothing to do with punctuation of honorifics, but with one way they’re currently being spoken. I live in a part of the country with a lot of native Spanish speakers who work with customers. They will always refer to a woman customer as “Miss.” I am speculating that they’ve adopted this spoken honorific since it is customary in their culture to use the polite expression of “Senora” for a woman of my age, and we as English speakers don’t use the term Missus, alone, as a polite term to address a woman customer. (Also, they don’t have to risk offending anyone by assuming marital status.) Speakers of American English might use the expression “Ma’am” if a courtesy address is used at all. That sounds polite enough for me, even though it’s more common in certain parts of the country, but not typically where I’m from where we’re way less formal (and probably less courteous!). The scary thing is that it now has caught on with many of the (usually young) non-Latino clerks and servers. “Thank you, Miss” or “May I help you, Miss” always makes me chuckle even though I know it’s used as a sincere effort to be polite.

  5. It’s interesting that Cesar thought “Ms” is the abbreviation for “Miss.” I would suspect he is a non-native English speaker, very young, or both. At the time it caught on (I’m old enough to remember), it was very weird and awkward verbally addressing a woman as “Miz,” but very useful for written correspondence. It saved a lot of embarrassment in having to ask (or guess) about the correct form of address. Also, since I was unmarried well into my 30’s, it saved a lot need to explain.

  6. It is an amusing bit of PC, the whole “Ms” thing, which makes absolutely no sense linguistically. Just shows you how well it tends to work out when political ideology is allowed to influence normal language. It’s very “Soviet”, actually. Just skip all “gender oppressive” labels and call everyone comrade, for no gods’ sake.

    I am not a fan of all the periods that SAE requires on so many things, Mr., Mr., Dr., etc. No one mistakes those for complete words. Everyone knows they are abbreviations and what they are abbreviations for, so they serve no purpose except making typing a bit more of a PITA. Is the period after Mr. placed to avoid the potential confusion of it being misread as murr or something close? Is there really a fear of that happening? And omitting periods in all-caps abbreviations is becoming common to the point of preferred– US, USAF, DOE, SAT, etc. I think that makes sense. But leaving them out of small case abbrevitions seems a bit too much– just “eg”? Really? That just looks wrong; like a misspelling or typo.

    I have been told that “technically” (or pedantically) speaking, British English only calls for eliminating the “full stop” after abbreviations that begin and end with the first and last letters respectively of the full word being abbreviated- so Mr , Mrs , Dr, etc. But that it is supposed to be used when the abbreviation does not meet that criterion, e.g., Gen. , Capt. , Maj ,

  7. Curtis,
    “Mrs.” may have begun as an abbreviation of the word “Mistress,” but as nobody would spell it out in front of a name nowadays, the way one might spell out “Doctor” or “General,” I think it has stopped being an abbreviation.

    As for “Miz”: in my part of the world, all three—Miss, Mrs. and Ms.—are pronounced “Miz.”

  8. Roberta B.,
    I agree that “Ma’am” is a courteous usage, but women in some parts of the country apparently become absolutely rabid if anyone calls them that:

  9. Venqax,
    I’m all for having one honorific for everyone, like “Citizen” or “Comrade.” For Americans, I think I’d vote for “Dude.”

    Your question about full stop or no full stops. Usage may have changed, but when I taught in a London school, that was the rule. If the abbreviation ended with the last letter of the full word, the full stop was not needed. I think it’s that way in French: M. for Monsieur, but Mlle for Mademoiselle.

  10. Thanks, Maeve. I did read the 2010 post on using “Ma’am”……..and all the comments! Wow! What a lively discussion that was. I’m not sure how I missed it the first time around. I can’t believe how many people consider it insulting. I was totally unaware just what strong feelings were evoked by that form of address, even though it’s not that customary in my part of the country. Many of them just wished the expression would just go away. Well, most cultures have a formal and informal way of conversing with other people, not just with honorifics, but also in verb form. English, in general, is much more egalitarian. Imagine how insulted some of these people would feel about being spoken to with a more familiar verb form. There are unintended consequences of an evolving language. Instead of a trend where all of us are moving toward referring to each other as “Comrade,” we’re increasingly being influenced by the incoming immigrants with a more common emphasis on gender-specific and formal/familiar grammar adapting their speech patterns to our American English. So, in addition to “Thank you, Ma’am” as Southern and Midwestern, “Thank you, Miss” is the new courtesy heard with increasing frequency in (the People’s Republic of) California.

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