Terms of Address

term of address
Professor is a term of address in both the U.S. and Britain, but academics in the two countries use the term in different ways. Getty Images

A term of address is a word, phrase, name, or title (or some combination of these) used in addressing someone in writing or in speech, also called an address term or a form of address. Nicknames, pronouns, pejoratives, and terms of endearment all qualify.

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.

Thou, Thee, Ye, and You

Barry J. Blake, in "All About Language," informs us as to why we no longer sound Medieval or Renaissance.

"French usage spread to England in the Middle Ages and thou (nominative) and thee (accusative), the singular forms, began to be used as intimate singular forms, while ye and you, the plural forms, were used as non-familiar singular forms. This usage continued until the 17th century, when thou and thee dropped out and you became the regular singular as well as plural."

English's trend toward casualness, then, didn't just start in the last 50 years.

Some languages still have multiple pronouns. Japanese, for example, has many different pronouns used between people in a conversation, depending on their relationship, and Spanish has both familiar and formal pronouns used as terms of address, both plural and singular forms of each.

Power, Racism, and Terms of Address

Ronald Wardhaugh explains in "An Introduction to Sociolinguistics" how terms of address can be used to emphasize class differences between those who have more power than others. "The asymmetric use of names and address terms is often a clear indicator of a power differential. 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."