Politeness in American English

Modern American English has few official rules for how politely you should address a given individual in a given situation. In French, Portuguese, and Spanish, for example, a second person singular pronoun takes different forms depending on who you are addressing. This formal/informal pronoun distinction is entirely absent in English, though there are some basic phrases that you should use consistently (please, thank you, you’re welcome, etc.).

In English, how one individual should address another depends almost entirely on the context of the conversation and the relationship between parties. In situations where the person you are addressing has an explicit level of authority, you should always err on the side of being overly formal.

Examples of formal address:

  • Is there a problem, officer?
  • Dr. Bell has been our family physician for almost twenty years.
  • Your Honor, the defendant enters a plea of not guilty.
  • It’s a pleasure to meet you, Senator Warren.

As American society becomes progressively less formal, the language that we use follows suit. This is especially true with interactions between and among younger Americans and in situations where the age gap between individuals is relatively small. American children are taught to address teachers by “Mr., Mrs., Ms., Dr, etc.” and their last names. However, high school and college students may find that some instructors will expect to be addressed by their professional titles while others may insist that students address them by their first names. 

Examples of addressing educators:

  • Ms. Anderson is our daughter’s first grade teacher.
  • Mr. B, did you hand back the quizzes from Friday already?
  • Professor Smith assigned the midterm paper in class yesterday.
  • Tim, can I ask you a question after class about the midterm paper?
  • Dr. Jones is strict, but her class is considered the best in the department.

Other situations where “title + surname” are traditionally used include addressing your boss and the parents of your significant other. Many (although not all) bosses now prefer that employees address them by their first names. Similarly, the parents of a person whom you are in a long-term relationship with may prefer that you use their first names.

The general rule is that if you’re unsure how someone wishes to be addressed, you should ask the person. If you struggle with forms of address or any other aspect of the English language, The English Island in Atlanta can provide you with customized, one-on-one classes. Our experienced, passionate teachers can help you master polite English phrases, grammar, and more.