How to Use 'Mademoiselle' and 'Miss' in French

It's a controversial word in France

Friends enjoying Paris together
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The French courtesy title mademoiselle (pronounced "mad-moi-zell") is a traditional way of addressing young and unmarried women. But this form of address, literally translated as "my young lady," is also considered sexist by some people, and in recent years the French government has banned its use in official documents. Despite this sentiment, some still use mademoiselle in conversation, especially in formal situations or among older speakers.

Usage

There are three honorifics commonly used in French, and they function much the way "Mr.," "Mrs.," and "Miss" do in American English. Men of all ages, married or single, are addressed as monsieur. Married women are addressed as madame, as are older women. Young and unmarried women are addressed as mademoiselle. As in English, these titles are capitalized when used in conjunction with a person's name. They are also capitalized when functioning as proper pronouns in French and can be abbreviated:

  • Monsieur > M.
  • Madame > Mme.
  • Mademoiselle > Mlle

Unlike English, where the honorific "Ms." can be used to address women regardless of age or marital status, there is no equivalent in French.

Today, you'll still hear mademoiselle being used, though usually by older French speakers for whom the term is still traditional. It is also occasionally used in formal situations. Most younger French speakers do not use the term, particularly in large cities like Paris.

Guidebooks sometimes advise visitors to avoid using the term as well. Instead, use monsieur and madame in all cases.

Controversy

In 2012 the French government officially banned the use of mademoiselle for all government documents. Instead, madame would be used for women of any age and marital status.

Likewise, the terms nom de jeune fille (maiden name) and nom d'épouse (married name) would be replaced by nom de famille and nom d'usage, respectively. 

This move wasn't entirely unexpected. The French government had considered doing the same thing back in 1967 and again in 1974. In 1986 a law was passed allowing married women and men to use the legal name of their choice on official documents. And in 2008 the city of Rennes eliminated the use of mademoiselle on all official paperwork.

Four years later, the campaign to make this change official on a national level had gained momentum. Two feminist groups, Osez le féminisme! (Dare to be feminist!) and Les Chiennes de Garde (The watchdogs), lobbied the government for months and are credited with persuading Prime Minister François Fillon to support the cause. On Feb. 21, 2012, Fillon issued an official decree banning the word.

Sources

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ThoughtCo. "How to Use 'Mademoiselle' and 'Miss' in French." ThoughtCo, Apr. 29, 2018, thoughtco.com/mademoiselle-1372248. ThoughtCo. (2018, April 29). How to Use 'Mademoiselle' and 'Miss' in French. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/mademoiselle-1372248 ThoughtCo. "How to Use 'Mademoiselle' and 'Miss' in French." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/mademoiselle-1372248 (accessed May 27, 2018).