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June 10, 2001 - Grammar Lady: Only One You - 2002-01-31

MUSIC: "Only You"/The Platters

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble. This week on Wordmaster -- what to do when there's only one "you."

RS: We're talking about forms of address. Speakers of other languages may be used to having two ways to address someone -- one formal, the other informal. In Spanish, for instance, there's the formal "usted" and the casual "tu." But in English it's "you" and only "you."

AA: So, you may ask yourself, does that mean English speakers have no way to differentiate between formal and informal situations? We asked this question to our friend Mary Newton Bruder, the linguist better known as Grammar Lady.


BRUDER: "We do it by using people's names. So if we want to be very formal with somebody that we've just met, we use a title plus last name. So 'Dr. Snow' or 'Mrs. Jones' or 'Miss Scafe,' for example. But if we wanted to be less formal and we know the people better, then we use their first names. And the rules for calling people by their first names, generally the older person will suggest, 'Oh, please call me Joe -- don't call me Dr. Smith, call me Joe,' or something like that."

AA: OK, let's say you've just met a person. Rosanne had this question for Grammar Lady: What happens when it's a situation where it's not immediately clear how formal you should be?


RS: "The reason I'm asking is because we have a young man living with us this summer. He's from Atlanta, and he's a college student. And, he calls me 'ma'am.' And that's not really something I'm used to."

BRUDER: "And does he call your husband 'sir'?"

RS: "Uh-huh."

BRUDER: "OK, I think Southerners tend to be more formal. He'll probably have to be there quite a long time before he'll call you by your first name."

RS: "Is this generally a big problem for people coming in from other cultures because in their own languages they have these two levels."

BRUDER: "I think it is a problem because the rules are not necessarily explicit, and people will not say to a non-English speaker, 'Don't call me Mary, call me Dr. Bruder,' for example. I would never say that. I would never correct someone even though I felt uncomfortable with the use of my first name."

AA: "And I guess one thing you never use as a form of address is to call someone 'mizz.' You never say that, 'Excuse me, mizz.' You'd say 'miss.'"

BRUDER: "And you wouldn't say 'missus' either."

RS: "Right."

BRUDER: "You would say 'miss' or 'ma'am.'"

AA: "So I suppose people, they've come over, they're meeting with a prospective employer or a prospective school, university, that they want to attend, your advice is to be formal, but if the other person, the person in authority, suggests that you loosen up, then you should."

BRUDER: "Then you should do that, yes."

AA: "But still refer to the person by last name, mister or miss or doctor or professor."

BRUDER: "Yes, unless specifically invited on more than one occasion, I would continue to use title, last name, continue to be formal for quite awhile."

RS: "Mary, I think it also has to do with how you feel, or how the person feels talking to you. I can tell someone not to call me 'ma'am' but I think they have to reach a certain comfort level before they're able to do that."

BRUDER: "That's right, because what happens if you ask them to do that before they're ready, what you get is avoidance. They don't call you anything."

AA: "What bugs me sometimes is when people use my name too much. It's usually salespeople, where they keep using your name. So I guess when you're talking in a situation like a job interview or speaking with a professor, how do you know how often to use the name -- or is it just better to avoid it."

BRUDER: "Use it at the beginning and at the end. There's no real need to use it in-between time because you know you're speaking to the person. I think that's what bothers you, Avi, is that the person who's trying to sell you something is trying to capture your attention. But he already has your attention and it annoys you to have him keep repeating your name."

AA: "And also when store clerks read your name off your credit card and start calling you by that."

BRUDER: "Especially by your first name. That drives me crazy, too. (laughter)"

RS: If things like forms of address are driving you crazy, you might want to look by Grammar Lady Mary Newton Bruder called "Speaking Naturally: Communication Skills in American English." You can also visit her Web site at

AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "Only You"/The Platters