Addressing old, young and in between people: Sir, Ma'am

Discussion in 'English Only' started by AntiScam, Mar 4, 2017.

  1. AntiScam

    AntiScam Senior Member


    In current spoken English:
    Sir for a man but what do you use to address a young man?
    Ma'am for a woman but what do you use for a young woman who is not married?

    What is safe if a man or a woman is the age gray area, that is they are not old but also not young? It seems more of a problem when you address women than men.
    It would be more helpful if you could indicate a rough age range for each case.
  2. london calling Senior Member

    We would call the Queen 'Ma'am' (although when you are introduced to her you must call her 'Your Majesty', according to protocol). Otherwise I would say it is terribly old-fashioned in the UK and I would avoid using it here. 'Sir' is still used: a girl in a pub in London called my elderly father 'Sir' not long ago. An older woman might be addressed as 'Madam'. We do not distinguish between married or single women of any age.
    Last edited: Mar 4, 2017
  3. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    In Britain, it's not usual to use any form of address except in professional circumstances, e.g. "Good evening, Sir, have you reserved a table?" Otherwise, people who frequently use "Sir" have probably recently come out of jail.

    London Calling has dealt with "Madam/Ma'am" in #2.

    Boys under 15 may occasionally be called "Son" or "Lad" by older men, but it's by no means widespread. There's no common equivalent for girls.
  4. DonnyB

    DonnyB Senior Member

    Coventry, UK
    English UK Southern Standard English
    I still occasionally get called "Sir" but it does come across as rather quaintly old-fashioned these days. Madam (not Ma'am, unless you're the Queen) is even less widely used.

    When I was young, I was taught to use "Miss", in school and out of it, as a formal form of address for girls/unmarried females.
  5. AntiScam

    AntiScam Senior Member

    Thank you all, but I'm really surprised!

    When I was in Canada, a small city of Kingston to be precise, I heard more than one bus driver say to me: Good morning, Sir!
    I heard people say: Yes, Ma'am, though, not quite often; that was in Ottawa. No one said Madam; I mean, never heard anybody say, Madam!

    Ottawa and Kingston are two cities in Ontario. I have yet to see what the North American speakers have to say.


    I wonder how the average native speaker would act-Or at least the three of you. I would love to see a scenario because I am really baffled.
  6. dojibear Senior Member

    Fresno CA
    English - Northeast US
    In the US it is the same: the titles are rarely used.

    I think it is age difference, rather than age. I am over 50 and sometimes a person under 22 will add "sir" to something they say to me.

    I think both "Sir" and "Ma'am" were more common 30 years ago. Perhaps it went out of fashion in US/UK but not in Canada.

    There is also a military influence. In the military everyone (even an officer) is required to address an officer as "Sir" or "Ma'am" or by their specific title ("Please start the meeting, Captain"), and to address non-officers by their correct title ("Thank you, Staff-Sergeant"). People who have served in the military may still say Sir/Ma'am out of habit.
  7. DonnyB

    DonnyB Senior Member

    Coventry, UK
    English UK Southern Standard English
    If a bus driver said that to me, I'd die of shock!:eek: Round here, they're so surly that you count yourself lucky if they even look at you.

    In shops, I find the tendency is to use my name if the person knows what it is, otherwise just Hello, thank you etc with nothing else. I get the occasional "mate", which is fine by me.

    But when I was still at work, we didn't used to call the customers "Sir/Madam": it would've been thought quite old-fashioned.
  8. london calling Senior Member

    I've been to North America on several occasions: you get used to being called 'ma'am'.:D

    Edit. And I had a long business phone call with a couple of gentlemen from Missouri the other day: they also called me 'ma'am' until I told them not to.
    Last edited: Mar 4, 2017
  9. Trochfa

    Trochfa Senior Member

    English - England
    I still get called "Sir" in a few shops and when being served at the buffet on the train.

    On the local bus I'm sometimes called "mate" or "butt". ["Butt[y]" A South Wales version of "mate" which stems from the mining era, and not in the sense of "butt-face", however appropriate that might be for me. :)]
    Last edited: Mar 4, 2017
  10. Keith Bradford

    Keith Bradford Senior Member

    Brittany, NW France
    English (Midlands UK)
    Perhaps I should explain my "recently come out of jail" comment in #3. From time to time see men in television documentaries who use "Sir" in every sentence. This seems so unusual that I strongly suspect that it is an ingrained habit learnt either in the army (see #6) or in prison. In the circumstances of the documentaries, I have concluded that prison is the probable explanation.
  11. AntiScam

    AntiScam Senior Member

    butt reminded me of a butcher from the suburb in Kingston who used to say, fella; now I do not remember if he addressed me by fella, but boy, how much did he love money!

    Thanks KB for your last comment.
  12. GreenWhiteBlue

    GreenWhiteBlue Senior Member

    The City of New York
    USA - English
    I strongly disagree with this statement. I do not think the situations are at all the same in the US and the UK, and the titles are used more often in the US than is suggested. Consider this: a man leaves his umbrella behind him as he goes to get off a bus. How do you get his attention? By yelling "hey, you!"? Perhaps that may be the case in dojibear's California, but in my own New York City, it would be very, very common to hear someone call "Sir! Sir! You forgot your umbrella!" Likewise, one would hear (or say) "Ma'am (or Miss), you dropped your glove", etc. Furthermore, if one goes down south, one will be addressed as "sir" or "ma'am" very frequently indeed, and one will hear children using those terms when speaking to their parents or teachers.
  13. RM1(SS)

    RM1(SS) Senior Member

    English - US (Midwest)
    Officers are only required to "Sir" officers who are of a higher rank -- a colonel doesn't say "sir" to a lieutenant. (Note that this applies to officers from other services and even from other countries.)
  14. DonnyB

    DonnyB Senior Member

    Coventry, UK
    English UK Southern Standard English
    In the UK, we would just call out: "Excuse me... excuse me! You forgot your umbrella/dropped your glove." Hardly anyone would preface it with Sir or Ma'am.

    When I had a brief spell working in a local secondary school in the 1990s the pupils (or most of them) addressed me as 'Sir' but I don't know if that's still common practice in British schools nowadays.
  15. You little ripper! Senior Member

    Australian English
    It's the same here. We might say, "Excuse me mate!" if it happened to be a guy, but other than that "Excuse me!" usually does the trick. :)
  16. natkretep

    natkretep Moderato con anima (English Only)

    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    I had the experience of dropping something, and someone called out, 'Sir! You dropped something.' I knew immediately that the speaker was American. I would have said, 'Excuse me!' or 'Hullo!'

    'Sir' is still used for male teachers here, and in some service situations.
  17. WyomingSue

    WyomingSue Senior Member

    Cheyenne, WY
    I agree with GreenWhiteBlue. Also, when I worked in a retail store, if a customer came up to the counter as if they wanted to ask a question I might say "Yes, sir, what can I do for you?"
    I can't think of any other good examples right now, but it wouldn't be that unusual to hear sir or ma'am in many parts of the States. I probably heard it several times just last week!
  18. sdgraham

    sdgraham Senior Member

    Oregon, USA
    USA English
    Just a couple of days ago in a huge store, I directed a woman to a check-out station that had just opened. I have not the foggiest idea what I would have used except "ma'am" to get her attention and still be polite.

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