Terms of Address

One would address the Dalai Lama as his Holiness
One would address the Dalai Lama as his Holiness.

Pier Marco Tacca / Getty Images

A term of address is a word, phrase, name, or title (or some combination of these) used to address someone in writing or while speaking. Terms of address are also known as address terms or forms of address. Nicknames, pronouns, pejoratives, and terms of endearment all qualify.

Key Takeaways: Terms of Address

  • A term of address is any word, phrase, name, or title used to address another person.
  • Terms of address may be formal (Doctor, The Honorable, His Excellence) or informal (honey, dear, you). Formal terms of address are often used to recognize academic or professional accomplishments, while informal terms of address are often used to show affection.

A term of address may be friendly (dude, sweetheart), unfriendly (You idiot!), neutral (Jerry, Marge), respectful (Your honor), disrespectful (buddy, said with sarcasm), or comradely (My friends). Although a term of address commonly appears at the beginning of a sentence, as in "Doctor, I'm not convinced that this treatment is working," it may also be used between phrases or clauses. For example: "I'm not convinced, doctor, that this treatment is working."

Related terms include direct addressvocative, and honorific. Direct address is just what it sounds like. The speaker is talking directly to the person mentioned, as in the above conversation with the doctor. A vocative is the term of address used, such as the word doctor in the previous example. An honorific is a term used to show respect and comes before a name, such as Mr., Ms., the Reverend, the Honorable, and the like, as in, Mr. Smith, Ms. Jones, the Reverend Christian, and the judge, the Honorable J.C. Johnson. In formal contexts, terms of address may sometimes be used to indicate that a person has more power or authority than another. In those cases, terms of address can be used to show respect for or submission to another.

Formal Terms of Address

Formal terms of address are typically used in professional contexts such as academia, government, medicine, religion, and the military. In the United States, common examples include:

  • Professor: Used to address a member of a school or university's faculty.
  • His/Her Excellency: Used to address the ambassadors of foreign governments.
  • The Honorable: Used to address American ambassadors along with U.S. judges and justices.
  • His/Her Royal Highness: Used to address members of a royal family, including British princes and princesses.
  • Doctor: Used to address a physician who has obtained a medical degree or someone with a Ph.D.
  • Captain: Used to address U.S. naval commanders regardless of rank; any officer who has been placed in charge of a vessel may be addressed this way.
  • His Holiness: Used to address both the Pope of the Catholic Church and the Dalai Lama.

Most formal titles, both in speaking and writing, precede a person's name. Those that follow a name include the honorary "Esquire" and academic suffixes that indicate possession of a degree, such as "John Smith, Ph.D." Members of religious orders also use suffixes, such as "John Smith, O.F.M.," which indicates membership in the Ordo Fratrum Minorum (the Order of Friars Minor).

Informal Forms of Address

Informal terms of address are used outside of professional contexts and include terms such as nicknames, pronouns, and terms of endearment. Unlike professional forms of address, which are typically used to recognize a person's authority or accomplishments, informal terms of address are typically used to express affection or closeness. In the United States, common examples include:

  • Honey: Used to show affection for a romantic partner or child.
  • Dear: Used to show affection for a romantic partner or close friend.
  • Babe/Baby: Used to show affection for a romantic partner.
  • Bud/Buddy: Used to show affection for a close friend or child (sometimes used in a pejorative sense).

In English, informal titles are sometimes used to show respect. Unlike formal titles, these do not indicate any level of professional or educational accomplishment:

  • Mr.: Used to address both married and unmarried men.
  • Mrs.: Used to address married women.
  • Miss: Used to address unmarried women and girls.
  • Ms.: Used to address women when marital status is unknown.

The simple pronoun you can also be used as a term of address, i.e. "Hey you, how's it going?" In English, you is always informal. Some other languages, however, use multiple pronouns, each indicating a certain degree of formality. Japanese, for example, has many different pronouns that can be used between people depending on their relationship, and Spanish has both familiar and formal pronouns used as terms of address.

Historically, terms of address have been used to emphasize class differences between those who have power and those who do not. "The asymmetric use of names and address terms is often a clear indicator of a power differential," writes linguist Ronald Wardhaugh:

"School classrooms are almost universally good examples; John and Sally are likely to be children and Miss or Mr. Smith to be teachers. For a long time in the southern states of the United States, whites used naming and addressing practices to put blacks in their place. Hence the odious use of Boy to address black males. The asymmetric use of names also was part of the system. Whites addressed blacks by their first names in situations which required them to use titles, or titles and last names if they were addressing whites. There was a clear racial distinction in the process."

Sources

  • Straus, Jane. "The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation: the Mysteries of Grammar and Punctuation Revealed." John Wiley & Sons, 2006.
  • Wardhaugh, Ronald. "Understanding English Grammar: a Linguistic Approach." Blackwell, 2007.