First Name, Last Name, or Title?

Describing People
Describing People. Creative / DigitalVision / Getty Images

There are different ways to address people depending on both the relationship involved and the situation. Here are the basics of using first and last names, as well as titles in spoken English. The most important point is to remember which register you should use depending on the situation. Register refers to the level of formality used when speaking. Here are some explanations to help you get started.

 

First Name Only

Use a first name in informal and friendly situations. Use a first name with your friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and fellow students.

Hi, Tom. Do you want to go to a film tonight? - Man to his friend
Excuse me, Mary. What did you think of that presentation yesterday? - Woman to a co-worker
Do you know the answer to number seven, Jack? - Student to another student

If you are speaking with co-workers in the office about work, use a first name. 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 first name or title depends on the atmosphere in the office. Traditional businesses (banks, insurance companies, etc.) tend to be more formal. Other companies, such as technology companies, are often very informal.

Ms. Smith, could you come to the meeting this afternoon? - Supervisor speaking to a subordinate at work
Here is the report you asked for Mr. James.

- Man to his supervisor

Mr., Mrs., Miss, Dr.

Use courtesy titles in formal situations such as meetings, public speaking, or when speaking to superiors at work or school. Remember that some workplaces prefer an informal tone between management and staff. It's best to begin using a courtesy title and change if your supervisors ask you to use a first name basis.

Good morning Ms. Johnson. Did you have a good weekend? ​- Student to her teacher
Mr. Johnson, I'd like to introduce you to Jack West from Chicago. - Employee introducing a colleague to his supervisor

Talking About Other People

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

Debra visited her parents over the weekend. - A husband speaking to his friend
Tina invited her boyfriend to the party. - A Woman speaking to a co-worker

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

Last Name Only

When speaking about public figures such as actors and politicians, it is also quite common to use just the last name: 

Bush is finally leaving soon! - One man to another
Nadal is a monster on the court. - A tennis player speaking to his doubles partner

Sometimes, supervisors might use just the last name when speaking to a co-worker. Generally, this means the supervisor is not too happy:

Jones hasn't completed the report on time. - Boss complaining to another manager
Ask Anderson to come into the office as soon as he gets in.

- Supervisor speaking to a co-worker

First and Last Name

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

Frank Olaf was promoted to department head last week. - One co-worker to another
Isn't that Susan Hart over there? - One friend to another

Title and Last Name

Use the title and last name in more formal situations. Use this form when showing respect and / or being polite:

I think Ms. Wright assigned some homework. - One student to a teacher
I think Mr. ​Adams is the best candidate. - One voter speaking to another voter at a rally

Addressing People Quiz

Choose the best way to address people based on the situation based on the suggestions above:

  1. Informal chat with a colleague at work: Did you know that Ms Smith / Alice got a promotion last month?
  1. At a medical presentation: I'd like to introduce Dr. Peter Anderson / Peter Anderson.
  2. To a colleague who's confused: Do you know a Mr. Smith / Alan Smith?
  3. Meeting someone for a job interview: It's a pleasure to meet you Tom / Mr. Franklin.
  4. One student to another: Have you ever met that student? Her name is Jane Redbox / Jane.

Answers:

  1. Did you know that Alice got a promotion?
  2. I'd like to introduce Dr. Peter Anderson.
  3. Do you know Alan Smith?
  4. It's a pleasure to meet you Mr. Franklin.
  5. Have you ever met that student. Her name is Jane.