We’ve already addressed honorifics, but for some reason I keep seeing people confused about Ms.! So now you all get a primer.
To understand Ms., let’s think about Mr. If someone is introduced to you as “Mr. Gary Noodlebaker,” what do you know about them? You know they identify as male, and…that’s pretty much it. You don’t know if he’s married or single, if that’s his birth name, or anything about his profession. You just know he’s male. Ms. operates similarly, and can be used by any woman. As “Ms. Jaya Saxena,” you know I identify as a woman, and that’s it. I could be married, I could be single, but that’s not revealed by my title. This is great.
However, there are a few other options for women, since marital status is something that’s been treated as more important for women than for men. Miss is the honorific generally used for young, unmarried women. (Master is sometimes used for young boys in the UK, but it’s not as common as Miss.) Mrs. is used when a woman is married and has taken her husband’s last name, but even then she can still use Ms., it just becomes a matter of preference. Some people think it’s a generational thing, but I’ve met many younger married women who have taken their husbands last names and prefer Mrs. However, you do not have to use Mrs. once you are married., so I do believe that when in doubt you should use Ms.
Also, if a woman has married and hasn’t taken her husband’s last name, you use Ms. This seems to confuse a lot of people, who think that something has to change about the way you address a woman when she gets married. But considering nothing has to change about a man’s name, the same goes for women!
So what’s so confusing? According to Wikipedia, “Mrs originated as a contraction of the honorific Mistress, the feminine of Mister, or Master, which was originally applied to both married and unmarried women. The split into Mrs for married women from Ms and Miss began during the 17th century.” Ms. fell out of use as an honorific, but in 1901 an article in The Sunday Republican suggested reviving the title to avoid the etiquette faux-pas of calling a woman by the wrong title. By having a “more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation,” we avoid calling a 16-year-old girl Mrs., or a married lady Miss. Ms. didn’t really get going until the mid 20th-century, but clearly it fills a void. The usages of Miss, Mrs. and Ms. have been the norm for quite some time, and if you insist on going by archaic, 16th-century usages of everything then you have other issues you need to deal with.
On a different note, I’m curious to see if and how this will change as same-sex marriage becomes more common. For instance, if two men get married and want to change their titles to something that indicates it, or if two women marry and don’t want to use Mrs. but still want to show they’re married. Or if gender-nonconforming people come up with titles that are completely different (performance artist Justin Vivian Bond uses “Mx” and I love it). Traditions and usage are fluid, and our job as polite people is to make the best effort we can to use everyone’s preferred titles without driving ourselves crazy. And remember, if you’re not sure JUST ASK. It’s always polite to ask.