Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

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Alice X marries Bob Y and keeps her name. Is it grammatically wrong to call her "Mrs. X"?

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Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Pfhorrest » Sat Aug 15, 2015 4:47 am UTC

I have always assumed that the name that is to follow after the title "Mrs." is the last name of the person holding that title, regardless of how she came to have that last name; if it's her maiden name that she never changed, her husband's name she took at marriage, or a whole new name she made up, doesn't matter, so long as it's her current name. Just like "Miss X" is the unmarried woman with the last name "X", or "Ms. X" is the woman with the last name "X", or "Mr. X" is the man with the last name "X", or "Dr. X" is the doctor with the last name "X", etc.

However I recently heard, with plausible-sounding citations, that the name that comes after "Mrs." is supposed to be the name of the husband of the person with the title; and that if the person with the title does not share that last name, then "Mrs." cannot be accurately applied to her at all: she's neither Mrs. Her-name, because that falsely implies a Mr. Her-name; nor is she Mrs. His-name, because that falsely implies that her name is the same as his.

That's very surprising to me and I'd like to know how many people shared my intuition about the matter or not.
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Derek » Sat Aug 15, 2015 7:02 am UTC

First of all, it's not really an issue of grammar, it's an issue of social norms. Traditionally it would probably be Mrs. His-name, but traditionally married women always had His-name. I would say that in modern times, if a woman keeps her last name, I would call her Mrs. Her-name.

Also note that there is the form, typically only used only in very formal circumstances, of Mrs. His-first-name His-last-name. For example, Mrs. John Smith. I always found that form really unusual myself, and kind of off-putting, like the woman doesn't have her own name or something.

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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Pfhorrest » Sat Aug 15, 2015 9:24 am UTC

Derek wrote:First of all, it's not really an issue of grammar, it's an issue of social norms. Traditionally it would probably be Mrs. His-name, but traditionally married women always had His-name.

Well there is an issue of grammar apparently (according to some people), and also an issue of social norms. I had though that there was only an issue of social norms, of whether or not women change their name at marriage, and that if we didn't assume that norm, then the grammar of "Mrs." would just change along with that, and a married woman who didn't change her name would still be "Mrs.", but "Mrs." whatever-her-name-already-was. But I'm being told now that that's not grammatically correct, because "Mrs. X" doesn't mean "the married woman with the last name X", but rather "the wife of Mr. X", so if there is no Mr. X (his name is Y instead) then she can't be "Mrs. X".

I would say that in modern times, if a woman keeps her last name, I would call her Mrs. Her-name.

That's what I thought too. Thanks for confirming that I'm not alone in that.

Also note that there is the form, typically only used only in very formal circumstances, of Mrs. His-first-name His-last-name. For example, Mrs. John Smith. I always found that form really unusual myself, and kind of off-putting, like the woman doesn't have her own name or something.

Yeah, I've always found that really weird and off-putting too, and upon hearing this new (to me) purported grammar rule, it made me think of that. It seems to go along with the notion of "Mrs. X" meaning "the wife of Mr. X", and just spelling out the full name (of the husband) for "X" instead of only a last name. Which maybe could count as evidence that that's what "Mrs." is actually used to mean... but I think should also count against the desirability of using it to mean that. I would be curious what is the older usage though. Are there attestations of "Mrs. Woman's-full-[married]-name" that are at least as old as the oldest attestations of "Mrs. Woman's-husband's-full-name", or does one date back before the other?
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby gmalivuk » Sat Aug 15, 2015 5:11 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:Well there is an issue of grammar apparently (according to some people)
Those people are wrong. Grammar has nothing to say about which name we use for people.
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Pfhorrest » Sat Aug 15, 2015 7:53 pm UTC

So you're of the camp that "Mrs." is appended to the woman's last name always, whatever it is, and the only question is whether the woman changes her last name to match her husband's? And there's nothing grammatically strange about calling Alice Y, husband of Bob X, "Mrs. Y"?
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Qaanol » Sat Aug 15, 2015 9:40 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:So you're of the camp that "Mrs." is appended to the woman's last name always, whatever it is, and the only question is whether the woman changes her last name to match her husband's? And there's nothing grammatically strange about calling Alice Y, husband of Bob X, "Mrs. Y"?

That is not what Gmalivuk said. Gmalivuk stated nothing whatsoever regarding which name “Mrs.” attaches to. The only claim Gmalivuk has proffered here is that the question at hand is not a matter of grammar.

It is a question of semantics, whereas grammar deals with syntax. It would be perfectly grammatical to refer to you, Pfhorrest, as “Mrs. John Jacob Jingleheimer Trebek”. That just might not be particularly meaningful.
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Pfhorrest » Sun Aug 16, 2015 3:36 am UTC

Ok, then replace "grammatical" in my question with whatever the broader term for linguistic correctness is. The gist of my question is whether that would be misusing the word "Mrs."
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Qaanol » Sun Aug 16, 2015 6:12 am UTC

I pretty much always use “Ms.”, but regarding “Mrs.” I have several friends and family members who kept their maiden names when they married, and I believe they each view it as something of a faux pas when someone refers to them as Mrs. Husband’s-last-name.

They might even see it as less of an error to call them “Mrs. Husband’s-full-name”, though of course that carries all sorts of outdated connotations and I would not recommend it.

Basically, you should use the name of the person you are talking about, and if their spouse’s name happens to be important, then mention it in words. For example, “Mrs. Her-last-name, who is so-and-so’s wife, …”
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Pfhorrest » Sun Aug 16, 2015 5:59 pm UTC

Yeah, using "Ms." makes the problem gp away, and of course it would be a faux pas to call her by her husband's name when that's not her name. What surprised me was the claim that Mrs. Her-maiden-name was somehow wrong too, not as a matter of social convention (about her taking his name or not) but just as a matter of language, claiming that "Mrs." doesn't work that way.
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby ThirdParty » Mon Aug 17, 2015 7:36 am UTC

As others have noted, it's a matter of style, not grammar.

Traditionally, "Miss" was used with the woman's own name and "Mrs." with her husband's name. So if Amelia Earhart marries George Putnam, you refer to her as "Mrs. Putnam" if she's your neighbor, "Miss Earhart" if she's your teacher (since her marriage is irrelevant in that context), and "Miss Amelia" if she's your servant. If posting a letter to her, you would address the envelope to "Mrs. George Putnam". (I use this example deliberately. Google phrases like "Miss Earhart crosses the Atlantic!" and "Mrs. Putnam crosses the Atlantic!" and see how many old newspaper headlines you get hits on.)

Since about 1950 or so, feminists have seen it as sexist to address a woman by her husband's name. They prefer to use "Miss" for unemancipated minors and "Ms." for adults, followed by the woman's maiden name. So she's "Miss Amelia Earhart" until she reaches age 18, at which point she becomes "Ms. Amelia Earhart", and she remains "Ms. Amelia Earhart" after marrying. This directly parallels the usage of "Master" and "Mr." for boys and men respectively.

The middle ground, quite common despite not really being permitted by either convention, is for a woman to adopt her husband's surname but keep her original given name. Which honorific to use in this case depends on which of the above two conventions you prefer. If you're a feminist and think her abandonment of her maiden name is a symptom of patriarchal brainwashing, you can address correspondence to "Mrs. Amelia Putnam". If you're a conservative and see her insistence on using her given name as radically individualistic, but are not so conservative that you're unwilling to respect her wishes, you can address correspondence to "Ms. Amelia Putnam".

The style guides I consulted all forbade "Mrs. Amelia Earhart" and "Ms. George Putnam". I'm also inclined to think that "Miss Amelia Earhart" would be an error; although it was fine in the 1930's, at this point "Miss" should be reserved for unmarried women.

So, in answer to the original question: no, don't use "Mrs." Use "Ms."

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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Echo244 » Mon Aug 17, 2015 10:26 am UTC

...what about it being a matter of individual choice?

Address people the way they prefer. Ask if you're unsure. Conventions are just a system for guessing up to that point. But really, however many style guides told me to, I wouldn't address anyone as "Mrs. Husband's-name" if I knew she'd kept her own surname on marriage, as that would be failing to respect the choice she'd made.
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Alexius » Mon Aug 17, 2015 4:22 pm UTC

ThirdParty wrote:As others have noted, it's a matter of style, not grammar.

Traditionally, "Miss" was used with the woman's own name and "Mrs." with her husband's name. So if Amelia Earhart marries George Putnam, you refer to her as "Mrs. Putnam" if she's your neighbor, "Miss Earhart" if she's your teacher (since her marriage is irrelevant in that context), and "Miss Amelia" if she's your servant. If posting a letter to her, you would address the envelope to "Mrs. George Putnam". (I use this example deliberately. Google phrases like "Miss Earhart crosses the Atlantic!" and "Mrs. Putnam crosses the Atlantic!" and see how many old newspaper headlines you get hits on.)

The survival of this is women who have scientific publications or a professional reputation under their unmarried names, and change their name on marriage- the almost always continue to use their unmarried name professionally. In some situations I think that's a legal requirement- some countries require doctors to practise under the name that they qualified under.

And while we're talking about crossing the Atlantic, there is also the practical advice that you should make sure that your children share a surname with both of you in case they go somewhere with only one parent. It can cause problems with security or immigration people if the children are travelling with an adult who doesn't share a surname with them. There are several ways to do this- for instance, my mother didn't change her name on marriage but I have her surname as a middle name. My supervisor went the other way- she took her husband's name as a middle name, so she goes by her unmarried name but has his surname (which is her children's surname) on her passport.

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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Lazar » Thu Sep 03, 2015 4:17 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:What surprised me was the claim that Mrs. Her-maiden-name was somehow wrong too, not as a matter of social convention (about her taking his name or not) but just as a matter of language, claiming that "Mrs." doesn't work that way.

Yeah, that claim is silly – they're trying to enshrine what's really a passing, arbitrary preference. You can read about the history of the terms here. Through the mid 18th century, "Miss" and "Mrs." had nothing to do with marital status: the former was used for girls and the latter for women (provided that the bearer had a certain social or occupational status), in complete parallel with "Master" and "Mr.". Then there was a period of transition: "Miss" expanded to include unmarried women of the upper class (inspired, perhaps, by contemporary French usage), while unmarried professional women continued to be "Mrs.". Over time the marriage-based system filtered down to the rest of society, though as recently as the late 19th century there were still a significant number of unmarried women who used "Mrs.". As you can see, honorifics have been constantly evolving, and your contacts are baselessly ascribing an absolute grammatical correctness to the preferences that happened to dominate when they grew up. Had they been born a couple decades earlier, they'd probably be objecting to "Mrs. Jane Marriedname" – it would have to be "John" – as strongly as they now object to "Mrs. Maidenname".
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Pfhorrest » Thu Sep 03, 2015 5:27 pm UTC

Will have to read that paper in a moment when I have more time, sounds like exactly what I was looking for, but in the mean time I wanted to note that the person who raised this objection to me is definitely not willingly trying to enshrine any kind of gender bias in language, as she is herself a strong feminist (in her 30s now for time-she-grew-up reference), and was citing other, older feminists (writing in the 70s) to support her position. Her objection seemed to be that "Mrs." is in and of itself inherently sexist language because it ties a woman to her husband's name, and can't properly be used with a woman's own name, and so shouldn't be used at all.
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Lazar » Thu Sep 03, 2015 5:46 pm UTC

Oh, okay – in that case, maybe replace "enshrine" with "ossify" in my post. But either way, I think people get a false sense of the immutability of these sorts of things. In fact, while English is increasingly turning to marriage-neutral "Ms.", many other languages are simply repurposing their "Mrs."-equivalent for that role.*

*While English may seem like an outlier on that point, it makes sense in light of a preference for shorter forms: in most cases the "Mrs." form is less elaborated than the "Miss" form (Frau vs. Fräulein, Señora vs. Señorita, Madame vs. Mademoiselle), whereas in English, unusually, it's the reverse.
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Echo244 » Fri Sep 04, 2015 10:51 am UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:and can't properly be used with a woman's own name, and so shouldn't be used at all.


I know plenty of women who've kept their own name on marriage, and thus become Mrs. Maidenname. Travelling with children occasionally involves digging out a long-form birth certificate, but that's more an annoyance than an obstacle. I really don't see any impropriety about their choice. Perhaps this is a regional issue or purity-of-language thing but it's a common enough choice in my experience that that kind of steamrollers any language-doesn't-work-that-way arguments. Language works the way we use it, sometimes, even if it's not the formally correct way. ;-D
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby mathmannix » Fri Sep 04, 2015 5:28 pm UTC

Derek wrote:Also note that there is the form, typically only used only in very formal circumstances, of Mrs. His-first-name His-last-name. For example, Mrs. John Smith. I always found that form really unusual myself, and kind of off-putting, like the woman doesn't have her own name or something.

I have a great aunt who does this. She has been widowed for decades, but is listed in the phone book and signs her checks this way. I could see this becoming a thing again...
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby gmalivuk » Tue Sep 08, 2015 4:57 pm UTC

mathmannix wrote:I could see this becoming a thing again...
Why would it become a thing again?
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby studyinserendipity » Wed Sep 09, 2015 11:43 am UTC

Echo244 wrote:...what about it being a matter of individual choice?

Address people the way they prefer. Ask if you're unsure. Conventions are just a system for guessing up to that point. But really, however many style guides told me to, I wouldn't address anyone as "Mrs. Husband's-name" if I knew she'd kept her own surname on marriage, as that would be failing to respect the choice she'd made.
Late to the conversation, but wanted to add that I agree with this - it's a choice and people can and do abide by it in most social circles, although you'll often get other conventional addresses.

Personal experience time!
I kept my name after marriage, and prefer to go by 'Miss' because I do not believe the designation of me as married or unmarried is important, also because I like the sound of the word better than Ms. or Mrs. My grandmother addresses things (mail and checks) to Myname Husbandslastname, and we occasionally get mail addressed to us from friends (usually invitations) using Husbandlastname only but using both of our first names, and I don't mind that because it is still a good guess to address things that way. I am a teacher and most of my students and parents address me in person as "Miss Jess" or "Miss Mylastname" because that is how it is listed at the school. I don't think anyone has ever done a "Mr. and Mrs. Husbandslastname" except for maybe junk mail and I super dislike that way of addressing me.

I suppose "Ms." is technically the most correct one, and it's not like guys get to choose the title so I suppose that's a little unfair, but hey if 3 titles for women exist, then I figure I should be allowed to pick :)
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Echo244 » Wed Sep 09, 2015 12:05 pm UTC

Technically, for £29.99 per person, the alternative titles Lord or Laird are available for men and Lady for women. Which evens up the choices a bit to four each for those who like to pick. ;-D
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Pfhorrest » Wed Sep 09, 2015 4:59 pm UTC

Anyone who works at a bakery should be able to call themselves Lady, etymologically.

And anyone who works security at that bakery can call themselves Lord, for the same reason.

All these other Lords and Ladies are posers abusing the good name of the Loaf for their own self-aggrandizement.
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby ThirdParty » Wed Sep 09, 2015 5:24 pm UTC

studyinserendipity wrote:it's not like guys get to choose the title
Back when I was in college, some of my teachers wanted to be called "professor", some wanted to be called "doctor", a couple of the teaching assistants went by "mister", and one joker told us to address him as "master" (even though he was definitely an adult).

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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Derek » Wed Sep 09, 2015 11:16 pm UTC

Pfhorrest wrote:Anyone who works at a bakery should be able to call themselves Lady, etymologically.

And anyone who works security at that bakery can call themselves Lord, for the same reason.

All these other Lords and Ladies are posers abusing the good name of the Loaf for their own self-aggrandizement.

How the fuck did the equivalent of "baker" come to be a word associated with high status? I'm more used to the other direction, terms of high status being diminished over time by over use.

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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Pfhorrest » Thu Sep 10, 2015 12:25 am UTC

Well they started out as gendering terms: the woman of the house made the bread, the LOaf-DIgger (i.e. kneader), and the man of the house guarded the bread, the LOaf-waRD. I'd presume the status of being "man of the house" / "woman of the house", i.e. head of household (as opposed to a child or other subordinate), went on to give them the prestige we now associate with them.
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby Echo244 » Thu Sep 10, 2015 10:26 am UTC

ThirdParty wrote:
studyinserendipity wrote:it's not like guys get to choose the title
Back when I was in college, some of my teachers wanted to be called "professor", some wanted to be called "doctor", a couple of the teaching assistants went by "mister", and one joker told us to address him as "master" (even though he was definitely an adult).


Master's degree? Though I believe the proper title attaching to that is "Magister", which nobody uses. Apart from one of the baddies in Doctor Who, on occasion.
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Re: Whose name comes after "Mrs."?

Postby speising » Thu Sep 10, 2015 12:38 pm UTC

There's also the MC, "master of ceremony".


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