How Honorifics Are Used in English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Prison inmate and woman standing before a smirking judge.

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An honorific is a conventional word, title, or grammatical form that signals respect, politeness, and social deference. Honorifics are also known as courtesy titles or address terms.

The most common forms of honorifics (sometimes called referent honorifics) are honorary titles used before names in salutation—for example, Mr. Spock, Princess Leia, Professor X.

In comparison to languages such as Japanese and Korean, English doesn't have an especially rich system of honorifics. Commonly used honorifics in English include Mr., Mrs., Ms., Captain, Coach, Professor, Reverend (to a member of the clergy), and Your Honor (to a judge). (The abbreviations Mr., Mrs., and Ms. usually end in a period in American English but not in British EnglishMr, Mrs, and Ms.).

Examples of Honorifics

You've probably heard honorifics throughout your whole life, so you might need to be reminded of how they appear. But here are plenty of examples to refresh your memory in case you do.

  • "'Mrs. Lancaster, you are an impressively punctual person,' Augustus said as he sat down next to me," (John Green, The Fault in Our Stars. Dutton, 2012).
  • "The Reverend Bond walked up to the horse, smiling up at Benton.
    "'Afternoon, Reverend,' Benton said to him.
    "'Good afternoon, Mister Benton,' Bond answered. 'My apologies for stopping you. I just wanted to find out how things went yesterday,'" (Richard Matheson, The Gun Fight. M. Evans, 1993).
  • Princess Dala: The Pink Panther is in my safe, at ...
    Inspector Jacques Clouseau: Your Highness, please. Don't say it, not here, (Claudia Cardinale and Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther, 1963).
  • "The New York Times waited until 1986 to announce that it would embrace the use of Ms. as an honorific alongside Miss and Mrs," (Ben Zimmer, "Ms." The New York Times, Oct. 23, 2009).
  • "John Bercow, Speaker, Britain's First Commoner (that's an honorific for the class conscious of you out there), was greeting and welcoming his new intake in Portcullis House. He is master of this domain," (Simon Carr, "My Ill-Tempered Encounter With the Speaker." The Independent, May 12, 2010).

The Honorifics Ma'am and Sir in the U.S. and Britain

Certain honorifics, such as ma'am and sir, are used more often and carry more meaning in some parts of the country and even the world than others. Different social uses of these words in tell a lot about how a region or country values deferential titles. "The use of ma'am and sir is much more common in the South than elsewhere in the United States, where calling adults ma'am and sir can be taken as being disrespectful or cheeky. In the South, the terms convey just the opposite.

"Johnson (2008) reported that when two English 101 classes at a university in South Carolina were surveyed, data showed that Southern English speakers used ma'am and sir for three reasons: to address someone older or in an authority position, to show respect, or to maintain or reestablish good relations with someone. Ma'am and sir are also frequently used by Southerners in customer service, such as restaurant servers," (Anne H. Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson, Understanding English Language Variation in U.S. Schools. Teachers College Press, 2011).

And in British English, sir is granted as a title of honor in formal speech to those that earn it. "Now you must understand that in the British Isles, the honorific Sir is very widely used to bestow a knighthood on any citizen who performs exceptionally well in public life. A leading jockey can become a Sir. A leading actor. Famous cricket players. Queen Elizabeth has awarded the title in honorary form to [U.S. presidents] Reagan and Bush," (James A. Michener, Recessional. Random House, 1994).

H.L. Mencken on Honorifics

You might be wondering, then, which honorifics are used most often in everyday English rather than formal English. Here, there are, again, differences between British and U.S. English, and H.L. Mencken goes into them. "Among the honorifics in everyday use in England and the United States, one finds many notable divergences between the two languages. On the one hand the English are almost as diligent as the Germans in bestowing titles of honor upon their men of mark, and on the other hand, they are very careful to withhold such titles from men who do not legally bear them. In America, every practitioner of any branch of the healing art, even a chiropodist or an osteopath, is a doctor ipso facto, but in England, a good many surgeons lack the title and it is not common in the lesser ranks. ...

"In all save a few large cities of America every male pedagogue is a professor, and so is every band leader, dancing master, and medical consultant. But in England, the title is very rigidly restricted to men who hold chairs in the universities, a necessarily small body," (H.L. Mencken, The American Language, 1921).

TV Distinction

In the following excerpt, Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson discuss T/V system honorifics, a very specific usage of the form. "In many languages ... the second person plural pronoun of address doubles as an honorific form to singular respected or distant alters. Such usages are called T/V systems, after the French tu and vous (see Brown and Gilman 1960). In such languages, the use of a T (singular non-honorific pronoun) to a non-familiar alter can claim solidarity.

"Other address forms used to convey such in-group membership include generic names and terms of address like Mac, mate, buddy, pal, honey, dear, duckie, luv, babe, Mom, blondie, brother, sister, cutie, sweetheart, guys, fellas," (Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson, Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge University Press, 1987).

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "How Honorifics Are Used in English." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). How Honorifics Are Used in English. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "How Honorifics Are Used in English." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).