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How to address your envelopes in the 21st century

The other day, my son asked me the difference between Miss and Ms. As I explained it to him, he peppered me with questions about why these rules of etiquette exist and whether they’re important.

I told him what I always tell my clients and what I always tell you here on the blog: what's important is being respectful. Sometimes that means using the honorifics in their very traditional ways, and sometimes it means knowing when not to use them.

Because here’s the thing about etiquette: its meant to help you treat others with respect, but because it’s codified over time, it can sometimes be too old-fashioned, too imprecise, or even too insulting.

We’re here today with an updated glossary of honorifics, as well as some inormation about special cases and order of address, meant to provide guidance as you’re figuring out how to address your wedding invitations, elopement announcements, and save the date cards.

First, a note about using first and last names:

It was traditionally considered proper to address a married couple by the husband’s first and last name, i.e. Mr. and Mrs. Clark Kent. This is still considered the (somewhat old-fashioned) norm for exceptionally formal invitations if the husband and wife share a last name. However, over the last several decades it has become acceptable (and for many women, preferable) to include the wife’s first name as well, i.e. Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Lois Kent.

You’ll probably know which invitees of yours prefer the former and which prefer the latter. And if you don’t, no one’s going to stone you for making the wrong choice. Do your best, forgive your own errors in advance, and read on for more information and advice on how to use specific honorifics.

How to address your envelopes in the 21st century

SOCIAL HONORIFICS

The term "honorific" just means a title or word implying or expressing high status, politeness, or respect. Sometimes there are professional titles (like Doctor) -- we'll get to those further down in this guide. First, we're dealing with social honorifics.

Miss and Master

The appropriate terms of address for children (if you’re being really super formal), particularly children under the age of 18, children who still live at home, or children who are still in school. Note that most girls will be accustomed to this form of address and most boys will not unless they have a history of attending formal events. (Note: if children are invited to your event, it’s good (and expected, in etiquette terms) to include them on the envelope so that their parents do not have to ask you, OR to address the envelope to the entire family, i.e. The Kent Family or The Lane-Kent Family.)

Mrs. and Ms.

Mrs. is the customary form of address for a woman who is married. However, the much more broad-reaching term Ms. can also be used for married women, as you’ll see in a moment.

Ms. is the customary form of address for any of the following:

  • a woman (i.e. non-child) who is unmarried;
  • a married woman who does not share a last name with her husband; and
  • a married women who simply prefers Ms. to Mrs. for feminist or other personal reasons.

If you don’t know what term of address your friend or aunt or co-worker prefers, Ms. is probably the way to go because it is so broad an honorific.

Mr.

Mr. is the customary term of address for adult males, whether they are married or unmarried.

Mx.

Mx. is a gender-neutral term of address coined in the 1970s. This honorific is used for anyone who is non-binary or gender fluid or who doesn’t wish to reveal gender. Mx. could also be used when referring to a transgender person whose preferred pronoun is unclear.

PROFESSIONAL HONORIFICS

Dr.

Dr. is a term of address for doctors of all kinds. Some people prefer you to use this honorific socially and some prefer you not to. If you’re not sure, it never hurts to err on the side of using it. Please, though, if you’re going to use Dr. to address male doctors, use it for your female doctors, as well. Traditional etiquette sometimes suggests that you drop this honorific for married women, or sometimes for all women. But we haven’t met a woman alive who thinks that sounds fair. If you’re addressing a couple in which both individuals are doctors AND they share a last name, you can use Drs. as the term of address, as in Drs. Clark and Lois Kent.

The Honorable

This is the customary term of address for judges, both male and female. As with Dr., some judges prefer you to use this honorific socially and some prefer you not to. If you’re not sure, it never hurts to use it. The proper way to use the honorific is as follows: The Honorable Clark Kent (without the word “judge”).

Captain, Sergeant, and other Military Ranks

Current and retired officers are customarily addressed by their rank. They’ve certainly earned it. Non-commissioned officers and enlistees are addressed using their social honorifics, as above (see Mr., Ms., etc.).

SOME SPECIAL CASES

While it's typically pretty easy to figure out which social and professional honorifics to use, there are special cases that can raise questions. Here are the most common ones we get asked about.

Widows

Traditionally, a widow retains her husband's last name (if she took it in the first place) until she remarries. Traditional etiquette says that you should address a widow the same way that you would if she were still married. If you’re not sure, it’s best to ask what she prefers.

Married or co-habitating couples with different last names or with hyphenated last names

Here you’ll want to list the names separately like so: Mr. Clark Kent and Ms. Lois Lane, or Mr. Clark Kent and Ms. (or Mrs.) Lois Lane-Kent, for example.

Divorced women

After a divorce, some women revert to their maiden names. In this case, use Ms. and the maiden name. For divorcees who have kept their husbands’ last names, you’re still best sticking to Ms. And please, by all means, no matter how formal you’re being, do not refer to a divorced woman by her husband’s FIRST name. Once Lois divorces Clark, she should never again be addressed as Mrs. Clark Kent, though she may choose to be addressed as Ms. Lois Kent if she doesn’t change her name.

WHAT ABOUT ORDER OF ADDRESS?

According to long-standing rules of etiquette, the order of address when addressing mail to a couple works like this:

  • The individual with the highest-ranking professional title is listed first (Major Lois Kent and Captain Clark Kent)
  • Professional title “out-ranks” social title and therefore is listed first (Dr. Lois Kent and Mr. Clark Kent)
  • Otherwise, if rank is the same or if there is no professional rank at all, traditionally men are listed before women (Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Lois Kent). But as we always say here, but you know your friends best and you know how they feel about this particular issue. Respecting them sometimes means breaking rules of etiquette.
  • When addressing same-sex couples, etiquette indicates that you can choose who goes first (like if you work with Bob and are inviting him with his husband, whom you don’t know, you might list Bob first) or else list the individuals alphabetically.

OUR LAST WORD

Remember that none of this really super matters. In your lifetime, you’re going to be addressed in ways you wouldn’t prefer to be addressed. Personally I can’t stand being referred to by my husband’s first name, a la Mr. And Mrs. Clark Kent. But it hasn’t killed me yet, and I’ve never once thought less of the people who addressed my envelope that way. But I do love it when someone who really knows me remembers that I’d like to be addressed by my own name no matter how formal the event thankyouverymuch.

Enter into everything with a respectful outlook and you’ll be fine.

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