In the classroom and on social media, I’ve been called Katie, Teacher, Teacher Katie, Miss Katie, Mrs Katie, Miss, Mrs, Madam, Ma’am, Sir, Mam, Mom, Mommy, Sister, Aunty, dear, honey, darling and many more!
I’m happy for my students and followers to call me “Katie”. I also accept most other names because I understand that there are cultural differences and I know that people want to be respectful. Some of the names in the above list are better than others and a few are unacceptable in the UK. I wonder if you can guess which ones! Keep reading to find out!
Some vocabulary before we start
My full name is Katie Salter.
Katie is my first name (or given name).
Salter is my surname (or family name).
If I write “Miss Katie Salter” then “Miss” is my title.
If somebody is divorced, he or she was married but the marriage ended.
If somebody is widowed, it means his or her wife or husband has died.
If a woman changes her surname after she gets married, her married name is her new surname. Her maiden name is the surname a woman had before she got married and changed it.
A word about cultural differences
This post is about what we do in Britain. It’s also what you should do if you are speaking English in Britain. The “rules” are more or less the same in Ireland, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. I’ll point out any differences that I’m aware of but I’m mostly writing about Britain and British English here.
This post is NOT telling you what you should do in your own country or culture. If you’re speaking English in your country, maybe at work or in the classroom, then you should probably follow the customs of your country. In the same way, if I came to your country, I would follow your culture and customs.
Some people want to argue with me and they say things like “But we always say ‘Sir’ in our country because it’s polite.” Do you really say “sir” in you language or are you just translating? For example, if you’re speaking French, you don’t actually say “Sir”, right? You say “Monsieur”. So this kind of argument doesn’t really make sense.
In addition, the word “monsieur” in French can mean “sir”, “mister” or “man” in English so you can’t always translate word for word. In Japan, there are lots of different ways to address people depending on their age and relationship to the speaker. A lot of these words just don’t translate into English.
People also like to argue with me that calling a teacher by her first name is disrespectful. In a lot of countries, this is true. I know it’s very important to show respect to teachers, parents, older people and so on by using the correct titles to address them. In Britain, I think we have a different attitude towards respect. Here, we show it in different ways, like putting your phone away in a lesson and listening to the teacher! It’s not disrespectful if an adult student calls me “Katie” in the UK. It’s different for children.
More and more, English is an international language and you could even say that English doesn’t belong to Britain any more. So perhaps it would be wrong of me to say what’s correct and what’s incorrect in the international community. I’m not here to try to correct or challenge your way of doing things! My students can call me “Katie” if they want to but I don’t mind if they don’t because I understand why it makes some people uncomfortable.
When you don’t know what to call someone
Students often ask me about what to call somebody in this or that situation. It’s not always easy to answer hypothetical questions on Facebook but in real life, it’s actually not that difficult.
First, how does the person introduce himself or herself to you? If a woman introduces herself to you as “Jane”, you can call her “Jane”. If a man introduces himself as “Mr Smith”, then that’s what you should call him.
But what if the person gives their full name (“Hello, I’m John Smith”) or they don’t introduce themselves at all? In that case, there are several things you can do. You don’t actually have to call them anything at first! However, if you’re going to see the person a lot, you can’t avoid the issue forever! Eventually, you’ll need to know what to call someone.
Here are some suggestions. You can copy what everyone else does. For example, if you start a new job and everybody uses first names all the time, you can do the same. Alternatively, you can ask somebody. You might ask a colleague, “What should I call the boss?” You can even ask a person directly, “What should I call you?”
Finally, if you need help in a shop or if you stop somebody in the street to ask for directions or something like this, you can just say “Excuse me. Can you help me?” and you don’t need to worry about what to call the person. Saying “excuse me”, “please” and “thank you” are important ways to be polite in Britain but you don’t need to say “Sir” or “Madam”.
Using first names
In almost every situation in everyday life, British people call people they know by their first name. We use first names with friends and when we meet somebody in a social setting, like at a party. We use first names with colleagues, even the boss quite often, although this might depend on where you work.
Recently I moved house and I had to talk to estate agents, removal firms, storage companies and so on. In almost every case, we used first names straightaway. Similarly, if I needed a plumber, electrician or a cleaner, we would probably use first names with each other.
In adult education, students can call their teachers by their first name and this is not a sign of disrespect. In fact, in Britain, it can be considered more polite to learn your teacher’s name than to call them “Teacher”. It shows that you take an interest in them as a person If I called somebody in my class “Student”, that would be rude! I want to learn my student’s names and get to know them a little and it’s nice when they do the same for me. Of course, I know now that a student is not being rude when they call me “Teacher” but it was very strange for me the first time it happened.
We use first names more now than in the past. When I started working 30 years ago, I wouldn’t call my boss by his first name unless he invited me to. Nowadays, I think most bosses would prefer to be called by their first name, especially in a small company. Doctors might call their patients by their first name, although they would probably ask if this was OK first. This didn’t happen in the past. When I was a child, we had a cleaning lady. Mum called her by her first name but she called Mum “Mrs Salter”. I don’t think this would happen today. Mum would insist on being called “Alison”!
There are some situations where it’s important to be a bit more formal and I’ll explain this in the next few sections.
Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms, Dr + surname
We can use titles like “Mr” or “Mrs” to talk to or talk about people we don’t know or don’t know well. It is sometimes more polite than using first names.
Mr Smith is a man. Notice that “Mr” doesn’t tell us if he’s married or not. (Write “Mr”, say “mister”.)
Mrs Smith is a married woman, or she might be divorced or widowed. (Write “Mrs”, say “missus”, sounds like “misiz”.)
Miss Smith is a single woman, or maybe she’s divorced and has gone back to using her maiden name. (Write “Miss”, say “Miss”, it’s the same.)
Ms Smith is a woman and we don’t know if she is married or not. Maybe we simply don’t know and we don’t want to assume based on her age. Or maybe she prefers to use a neutral title that doesn’t show her marital status. Another possibility is that she uses her maiden name as her professional name, neither “Mrs” nor “Miss” seem quite right, so she uses “Ms” instead. (Write “Ms”, say “miz” or “mz”.)
Dr Smith is a doctor or somebody with a PhD ( a doctorate degree). Surgeons in the UK actually use “Mr” for historical reasons that you don’t need to know! (Write “Dr”, say “doctor”.)
(There are other titles which are less common, like “Reverend” for a priest or “Professor” for a senior university lecturer. There are special titles for judges, members of the royal family and so on that even native speakers might not know. Look at this Wikipedia link article if you want to learn more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_honorifics)
So when do we use titles instead of first names? Children and their parents still use titles for teachers. When I was a primary school teacher, I was always called “Miss Salter”. Only adult students can call teachers by their first names. I used “Doctor Smith” or “Professor Jones” for my lecturers at university. That was a long time ago now but I would guess it’s still the same now.
I always use a title to talk to my doctor, dentist, lawyer and so on, although even lawyers might switch to using first names when they get to know you. In all the situations mentioned above, it’s more polite to use a person’s title and surname unless they invite you to use their first name. I would also use titles in a formal business letter to somebody that I don’t know.
I would probably be called “Miss Salter” if I was contacted by the bank, my lawyer or somewhere where I was a customer or client. If I get a phone call or letter from the doctor’s or dentist’s surgery, they would probably call me “Miss Salter”.
I’m from the UK so I can only tell you confidently about British English. However, here are a couple of differences in American English that I do know. You should use a dot after a title when writing American English: Mr. Smith, Ms. Smith. You don’t need a dot for Miss because it isn’t a shortened form. There’s no dot in British English.
I think “Ms” is more popular in North America than in the UK. I hear it a lot on American and Canadian TV. My internet research about this suggests that it’s a common way to address a woman when you don’t know if she’s married or not, especially an older woman. In the UK, “Ms” is not related to age.
Mr, Mrs, Miss + first nameSome people call me Miss Katie or Mrs Katie on Facebook. This is fine but you probably won’t hear it in modern Britain. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it here except perhaps in a historical drama on TV.
However, it is still used by some people in the southern states of America. In this case, it’s a combination of respect and affection. You might hear it between neighbours or when a young child is talking to a teacher or a friend’s parent.
Mister, Missus, Miss and Doctor without a name
We never write “Mr”, “Mrs”, “Ms” or “Dr” without a surname. If you write “Thank you for your help Mrs” on Facebook, it’s not correct. “Miss” is a bit different because it isn’t a shortened. “Thank you Miss” is acceptable but it’s still rare in writing.
We don’t usually say “mister” or “missus” without a surname after it and I’ve never heard anyone say “miz” without a surname.
However, you might occasionally hear:
Excuse me, mister. (Children might say this to a man they don’t know, to get his attention. It’s less common from an adult.)
Hey! Mister! What do you think you’re doing?! (It can be used when you’re angry.)
I’ll ask the missus. (This means wife, partner or girlfriend.)
Hey, missus, is this your bag? (Old-fashioned and really unusual these days but possible.)
And you might hear these more often:
Miss! Can I go to the toilet? (In the UK, some children say “Miss” when talking to a female teacher.)
Excuse me, miss. (In America, they sometimes use “miss” instead of “ma’am” for a young woman.)
Thank you, doctor. (Personally, I would say “Thank you, Dr Smith” for example, but I have heard “doctor” used without a surname.)
Sir, madam, ma’am
If you want to be extremely polite to a man, you can call him "sir". However, It's very formal and a bit old-fashioned. Police officers and people in the military also use “sir” to talk to a superior. It's not correct to use "sir" for a woman.
If you want to be extremely polite to a woman in Britain, you can say "madam". Again, it’s very formal and not at all common nowadays. In fact, some women don’t like being called “madam” because it makes them feel old!
In an expensive shop, restaurant or hotel, the staff some say “Sir” or “Madam” to the customers. We usually only use these words when we don’t know the person we’re talking to and we don’t know their name.
Americans say “Ma’am” rather than “Madam” to be polite to a woman. In the UK, “Ma’am” is only used when you’re talking to the Queen or to your senior officer in the police or military.
“Ma’am” is pronounced “marm” in the south of England and “mam” in the north of England or American English.
“Mam” is a different spelling for “ma’am” which is acceptable in some countries but in the UK, it would probably be considered a spelling mistake. Perhaps this is because in some parts of Britain, “mam” means "mum" or “mother”.
Using family words
I want to tell you a few things about using family words. If you call me “Ma” or “Sister”, I’m OK with that but you might be interested to know that British people don’t often do this.
I’m less comfortable when people call me “Mum” or “Sis”. In the UK, these names are more a sign of affection and closeness, just used between family members. It’s too informal and too intimate when you’re talking to a teacher.
Maybe in your culture, calling a woman “Mum,” “Ma” or “Sister” would be a sign of respect. In the UK, it’s actually informal and affectionate rather than respectful. You shouldn’t say it to somebody that you don’t know.
In the UK, we only use this for one person: our mother. I can say “my mother” when I’m talking about my mum but when I talk to her, “Mother” is too formal. I might say “Yes, mother!” when I’m annoyed with her!
Mum, Mummy, Mam, Mammy, Ma, Mom, Mommy
These are all informal ways to address your mother in the UK. Mum and Mummy are the most common. Mam, Mammy and Ma are used in some parts of the UK. Mom and Mommy are more common in American English. These words are only used to talk to your mother and nobody else (except perhaps your mother-in-law).
As I said for Mother, I might say "Father" when I'm talking about my dad but probably not when I’m talking to him. You might also say “Father” if you’re talking to a monk or a priest.
This is what most native English speakers call their father (or maybe father-in-law) and nobody else.
As I mentioned, I know when learners call me “sister” it’s a sign of respect in their culture. However, in the UK, it’s informal and usually only used when talking to your actual sister. Even that is unusual because we would usually just use her first name. There are one or two exceptions. You can say “sister” to a nun or to a nurse. And sometimes people use it to talk to a member of the same religion, race or organisation, because you might feel like you have a family-like connection.
I would only use this to talk to an actual sister! It’s too intimate and informal for a person you’ve never met.
You can use this to talk to your actual brother, although we would usually just use his first name. It can also be used to talk to a member of the same religion, race or organisation, as I described above.
This can be used to talk to your brother but I think it’s actually used most often between male friends, not family. It’s very informal.
Children use Aunty and Uncle + first name for their biological aunts and uncles but they might also use them as a way to talk to neighbours or family friends. A child might call me “Aunty Katie” because “Katie” seems too informal and “Miss Salter” is too formal.
All the other family words I mentioned earlier are informal, affectionate and mostly used only within the family. They would not be suitable for showing respect in British culture. “Aunty” and “Uncle” are a bit different because they are a bit more formal and polite than using just a first name but they are friendly and affectionate at the same time.
We don’t usually call somebody just “Aunty” or “Uncle” without adding their first name as well. Also, we stop using these terms when we get older. I called my aunt “Aunty Caroline” when I was a child but now I call her “Caroline”. I’ve never called her just “Aunty”.
I want to give some special attention to the use of “dear” because I see it a lot on social media. In fact, native English speakers don’t often call each other “dear” and I advise English learners to be careful about using it.
Why? Firstly, it’s rather old-fashioned. Secondly, it can sound patronising or sarcastic! (“Patronising” means talking to somebody as if they are stupid or not important. “Sarcastic” means to say the opposite of what you actually mean as a joke. A person might say “Yes, dear” sarcastically, especially to their husband or wife, when they are slightly annoyed!)
Older people use “dear” more often than younger people. You might hear elderly people saying “dear” to their husband, wife, son, daughter or grandchild. Elderly women (more than men) might also say “dear” when talking to a child who is not a family member.
Younger people DON’T usually say things like “Thank you, dear” or “How are you, dear?” As I’ve already said, it’s just not that common nowadays.
If you do hear “dear”, it’s mostly said to a family member or to somebody younger. We don’t often say it to people we don’t know. It would be especially strange to say it to somebody older than you or to your teacher or boss!
English men don’t say “dear” to other men. They are usually careful about saying it to a woman because it can sound patronising. A man might say it to his wife or girlfriend but a lot of men don’t use it at all.
English women are most likely to say “dear” to a husband, boyfriend, son, daughter or to a child. She can say it to another woman but it’s not common. Women are perhaps more likely to use this word than men but it’s still rare.
We DO occasionally say things like “my dear friend”, “he’s a dear friend” or “she’s such a dear, kind person.” You might read something like “in loving memory of my dear husband/wife/father/mother” after somebody has died.
Also, we DO write “Dear xxx” at the beginning of a letter or email. I’ll say more about this later.
Other terms of endearment
What can you call a friend? Between two men, I've heard "buddy" and "pal" on American TV and "mate" in the UK. Female friends occasionally use "sweetie", "darling" or "honey" with friends. It depends on their personality. Personally, I never use anything with my friends apart from their first names.
Husbands, wives, girlfriends and boyfriends can call each other "darling", "honey", "babe", “love” and so on. You can use "darling", "sweetie", "honey", “love” or "pet" with children. This is not a complete list but just a few suggestions.
You should never use any of these words with somebody you don’t know. With social media friends (people who you chat to online but have never met face-to-face), the safest thing to do is just use a person's first name. You might be able to use some of the more friendly words I mentioned above if you really want to but you should definitely avoid the romantic ones like “darling”.
Some friends have nicknames for each other. John might be called “Johnny”. “Melissa” might be called “Mel”. There are also funny nicknames. My dad calls me “KP”! (It’s a famous brand of nuts and KP sounds like Katie.) My brother Daniel’s friends called him “Dan the Man”! This is very informal and only between friends.
I mentioned earlier that English speakers don’t use “dear” that often when they speak to each other but we do use “dear” to start a letter or an email.
Of course, we don’t actually write letters very often these days because so much can be done by email instead but there are occasions when a hand-written or typed letter is better than an email. The rules for emails and letters are slightly different because emails tend to be less formal than letters.
If you’re writing a letter to somebody and you don’t know their name and you don’t even know if it’s a man or a woman, you should start by writing “Dear Sir or Madam”. I mean that you have to write all four words, not “Dear Sir” only or “Dear Madam”. I can’t imagine a situation when I know I’m writing to a man but I don’t know his name.
In fact, this situation is very unusual in real life because we usually do know the name of the person we’re writing to or we can easily find it out. If you are applying for a job and you want to create a good impression, you really should find out the person’s name and title. I’m including this information because you might still need to know about “Dear Sir or Madam” for an English exam.
You should end this letter by writing “Yours faithfully,” and then your name underneath. If you’re writing an email, you probably don’t need to be this formal. You can start without “Dear…” and end with “Regards”, “Kind regards” or “Thank you”.
If you’re writing a formal letter or email and you do know the name of the person you’re writing to, then you should start with “Dear” + Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms/Dr + surname. Try to find out the correct title, especially for a woman. If you don’t know and can’t find out which title the woman prefers, “Ms” is probably the safest option.
If it’s a very formal letter, like a job application, or if you’re writing for an exam, end with “Yours sincerely,” and your name. If it’s an email, a slightly less formal ending is more common, like “Kind regards”.
If you’re writing a letter to a friend or relative, start with “Dear” + first name. In an email, you can do the same or write “Hi” + first name or just “Hi!” End the letter or email with “Love”, “Lots of love”, “Best wishes”, “Cheers” and your name, or just your name. “Love” and “Lots of love” are mostly used between family members or female friends. Men don’t use them as often as women do.
So what can you call your English teacher?You can call me “Katie”. If you're an adult speaking to a teacher, in my culture, it's OK to use his or her first name. I know it's different in some other countries and I know it makes some people uncomfortable. If you don't feel right calling me "Katie", you can say "Teacher" or "Teacher Katie". In Britain, these two things sound a bit unusual but in the international community, they are fine.
If somebody calls me any of the other names I mentioned, like “ma’am” or “Miss Katie”, I’m not going to be unhappy or annoyed at all! Some of them might feel a bit too formal or a bit too informal to some people but I don’t really mind. I just advise you not to use them if you ever visit the UK.
Do you remember I asked you at the beginning which words were not OK? “Sir” is a mistake because I’m not a man! Also, I really don’t like it when a man calls me “darling”, “sweetie” or something like that. It’s not an appropriate way to address any woman who’s not your wife or girlfriend and it’s definitely wrong for a teacher!
Here are a couple of blog posts of mine which you might find interesting:
What do you call your teacher?
How to be polite in English
Here’s an interesting Wikipedia article about “Ms” and where it came from.
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