English Usage Topics > Addressing Someone

Addressing Someone

When you talk to someone, you sometimes use their name. You can sometimes use their title, if they have one. Sometimes you use a word that shows how you feel about them, for example darling or idiot. Words used to address people are called vocatives.

Position of vocatives

If you use a vocative, you usually use it at the end of a sentence.
I told you he was okay, Phil.
Where are you staying, Mr Swallow?
When you want to get someone's attention, you use a vocative at the beginning of a sentence.
John, how long have you been at the university?
Dad, why have you got that suit on?
A vocative can also be used between clauses or after the first group of words in a clause. People often do this to emphasize the importance of what they are saying.
I regret to inform you, Mrs West, that your husband is dead.
Don't you think, John, it would be wiser to wait?

Writing vocatives

When you are writing speech down, you separate a vocative from words in front of it or after it using a comma.
Don't leave me, Jenny.
Professor Schilling, do you think that there are dangers associated with this policy?

Addressing someone you do not know

In British English, if you want to say something to someone you do not know, for example in the street or in a shop, you don't usually use a vocative at all. You say `Excuse me' if you need to attract their attention.
In modern British English, the titles Mr, Mrs, Miss, and Ms are only used in front of names. Don't use them on their own to address people you do not know. Also, don't address someone as `gentleman' or `lady'.
In British English, it is usually considered old-fashioned to use a word that shows the person's job, such as officer (to a policeman). However, this is commonly used in American English. Doctor and nurse can be used in this way in British and American English.
Is he all right, doctor?
Some people use you to address someone whose name they do not know, but this is very impolite.

Addressing someone you know

If you know the surname of the person you are talking to, you can address them using their title (usually Mr, Mrs, Miss, or Ms) and surname.
Thank you, Ms Jones.
Goodbye, Dr Kirk.
Titles showing a person's rank can be used without a surname after them.
I'm sure you have nothing to worry about, Professor.
Is that clear, Sergeant?
Mr and Madam are sometimes used in front of the titles President, Chairman, Chairwoman, and Chairperson.
No, Mr President.
People do not usually address other people using their first name and surname. Don't say, for example, `Thank you, Henry Smith'. Say `Thank you, Henry' or `Thank you, Mr Smith'.
If you know someone well, you can address them using their first name. However, people do not usually do this in the course of an ordinary conversation, unless they want to make it clear who they are talking to.
What do you think, John?
Shut up, Simon!
Short, informal forms of people's names, such as Jenny and Mike, are sometimes used as vocatives. However, you should not use a form like this unless you are sure that the person does not object to it.

Addressing relatives

People usually address their parents and grandparents using a noun that shows their relationship to them.
Someone's got to do it, mum.
Sorry, Grandma.
The following list shows the commonest nouns that people use to address their parents and grandparents:
in British English, Mum, Mummy, Mother
in American English, Mom, Mommy, and especially for young children, Mama or Momma
in British English, Dad, Daddy, Father
in American English, Dad, Daddy, and sometimes Pop
in British English, Gran, Granny, Grandma, Nan, Nanna
in American English, Granny or Grandma
in British English, Grandad or Grandpa
in American English, Grandad or Grandpa
Aunt and Uncle are also used as vocatives, usually in front of the person's first name.
This is Ginny, Aunt Bernice.
Goodbye, Uncle Harry.
Nouns showing other family relationships, such as `daughter', `brother', and `cousin' are not used as vocatives.

Addressing a group of people

If you want to address a group of people formally, for example at a meeting, you say ladies and gentlemen (or ladies or gentlemen, if the group is not mixed).
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.
If you want to address a group of people informally, you can use everyone or everybody, although it is not necessary to use any vocative. You can also use guys to address a group of people informally, whether they are male or female.
I'm so terribly sorry, everybody.
Hi guys, how are you doing?
If you want to address a group of children or young people, you can use kids. You can use boys or girls if the group is not mixed.
Come and meet our guest, kids.
Give Mr Hooper a chance, boys.
The use of children as a vocative is formal.

Vocatives showing dislike

People show dislike, contempt, or impatience using nouns and combinations of nouns and adjectives as vocatives, usually with you in front of them.
Shut your big mouth, you stupid idiot.
Give it to me, you silly girl.

Vocatives showing affection

Vocatives showing affection are usually used by themselves.
Goodbye, darling.
Come on, love.
Some people use my or the person's name in front of affectionate vocatives, but this usually sounds old-fashioned or humorous.
We've got to go, my dear.
Oh Harold darling, why did he die?

`sir', `madam', and `ma'am'

People who are serving in shops, or providing a service to the public, sometimes politely call male customers or clients sir and female ones madam.
In American English the abbreviation ma'am is used.
Are you read to order, sir?
`Thank you very much.' – `You're welcome, madam.'
In British English, `sir' or `madam' are normally only used to address customers or clients. However, in American English, some people use sir and ma'am when speaking politely to a man or woman whose name they do not know.
What does your father do, sir?
Do you need assistance getting that to your car, ma'am?
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