Q. I am a Child Protection Co-ordinator within my local community; and therefore often have to write to complete strangers for references. What is the correct title to give a woman if I only have her full name, (for example Jane Smith)? Do I assume that she is single (Dear Miss J. Smith), or do I address her as Ms Smith?
A. When writing a formal letter, and you know the name of the recipient, it is important that you begin the letter using the name, rather than Dear Sir or Madam. This can be interpreted as too impersonal, especially when trying to build a working or business to client relationship with the individual.
However, as in this case, there are instances when the marital or professional status of the recipient of the letter is unknown.
Of course, using the title Miss indicates that the female recipient is not married, and Mrs. is an abbreviation for Missus, indicating that the addressee is, or has been, married.
If you are in the situation where you are unsure, it is suggested that the proper etiquette is to adopt the title Ms. as this can be applied to both single and married ladies.
Using Ms when Unsure
Obviously using the wrong title can look unprofessional, ill-informed and may even, in some cases, cause offence.
Some believe that using Mrs. or Miss. Is presumptuous and looks old-fashioned, Therefore, opting for Ms. is a much ‘safer’ option. It is actually quite commonplace in business etiquette to opt for Ms. even when you are aware of the marital status of the addressee.
However the use of Ms. in place of Mrs. and Miss has been the norm for many decades and continues to be a default for a female addressee whose title is not known. It was standard practice from around the early 1950s to use this title, but is commonly and mistakenly thought to be more of a recent phenomenon.
This is because during the feminist movement, typically between the 1960s and 1980s, a number of women did not want to be ‘defined’ by their marriage status and instead chose the more neutral title of Ms. over Mrs. or Miss. So it is thought that Ms. is analogous with Mr. in that it doesn’t denote marriage status.
In modern business practices, addressing a female of any age or marital status as Ms. is widespread. There are those that believe that the practice of using the title Ms. for all women should be the standard code of practice, and is in fact proper business etiquette.
This is perhaps because for many years there have been women that have worked in traditionally male or competitive environments that have opted for this title, therefore it has become the norm and expected.