When to Use First and Last Names and Courtesy Titles

Ms., Mr., Mrs. Dr. or First Name?

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There are different ways to address people depending on both the relationship involved and the situation. It's important to learn the basic etiquette rules for using first and last names, as well as courtesy titles, in spoken English. When addressing someone, remember which register to use depending on the situation. Register refers to the level of formality required when speaking.

The examples below will help you learn which titles, if any, to use depending on the setting and social context. When you have finished reviewing the sentences, test your skills with a quiz near the bottom of the article, followed by the answers, which will show you how well you know the subject of titles.

When to Use First Names

You should address people by their first name in informal and friendly situations, such as with friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and fellow students, for example:

  • "Hi, Tom. Do you want to go to a film tonight?" > A man speaking to his friend
  • "Excuse me, Mary. What did you think of that presentation yesterday?" > A woman talking to a coworker
  • "Do you know the answer to problem number seven, Jack?" > A student chatting with another student

If you are speaking with coworkers in the office about work, use first names. However, if you are speaking to a supervisor or someone you manage, you may have to use a title and last name in more formal situations. The use of a first name versus a title depends on the atmosphere in the office. Traditional businesses (such as banks or insurance companies) tend to be more formal. Other firms, such as technology companies, are often more informal:

  • "Ms. Smith, could you come to the meeting this afternoon?" > A supervisor speaking to a subordinate at work
  • "Here is the report you asked for, Mr. James." > A man addressing his supervisor
  • "Did Ted complete the IT report?" > A supervisor asking if an employee at a technology firm completed a report

When to Use Courtesy Titles

Use courtesy titles—for example, Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Dr.—in formal situations such as in meetings, during public speaking events, or when addressing superiors at work or school. Some workplaces prefer an informal tone between management and staff. To be safe, you can begin by using a courtesy title and change to a more informal address if your supervisors ask you speak to them on a first-name basis, for example:

  • "Good morning Ms. Johnson. Did you have a good weekend?" > A student talking to her teacher
  • "Mr. Johnson, I'd like to introduce you to Jack West from Chicago." > An employee introducing a colleague to his supervisor
  • "Hello Dr. Smith. Thank you for seeing me today." > A patient addressing her doctor

Talking About Other People

Speaking about other people also depends on the situation. Generally, in informal situations, use first names when talking about other people:

  • Debra visited her parents over the weekend. > A husband speaking to his friend about his wife, Debra
  • Tina invited her boyfriend to the party. > A woman speaking to a coworker

In more formal situations, use the first and last name:

  • Alice Peterson made the presentation at the conference.> A CEO discussing a conference at a meeting
  • John Smith will give a marketing presentation. > A speaker making an announcement

Public Figures

When speaking about public figures such as actors and politicians, there is sometimes a tendency to use a single name in a sign of familiarity.

  • For example: Trump would refer to Donald Trump, Obama to Barack Obama, Beto to Beto O'Rourke and Nadal to Rafael Nadal.
  • Some celebrities go by a single moniker (Cher, Madonna). Lady Gaga may be referred to by both names or more informally as Gaga.

For less prominent members of the same family or for people with more common names, you would use the full name, Ivanka Trump, Michelle Obama, Justin Bieber, or Brad Pitt.

You might use a distinctive first name in some cases, such as referring to Serena Williams as Serena, though this would likely work best in context.

First and Last Name

Use both the first and last name in informal and formal situations to be more specific when identifying a person:

  • "Frank Olaf was promoted to department head last week." > A coworker talking to another
  • "Isn't that Susan Hart over there?" > One friend chatting with another

Title and Last Name

Use the title and last name in more formal situations. Use this form when showing respect or when you are trying to be polite:

  • "I think Ms. Wright assigned some homework." > A student talking to a classmate about a teacher.
  • "I think Mr. Adams is the best candidate." > One voter speaking to another at a campaign event.

Addressing People Quiz

Based on the examples above, choose the best way to address people in the following scenarios.

1. An informal chat with a colleague at work: Did you know that __________ got a promotion last month?
2. At a medical presentation: I'd like to introduce __________.
3. To a colleague who's confused: Do you know a __________?
4. Meeting someone for a job interview: It's a pleasure to meet you __________.
5. One student to another: Have you ever met that student? Her name is __________.
When to Use First and Last Names and Courtesy Titles
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When to Use First and Last Names and Courtesy Titles
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