What Does “Ms.” Stand For?

Updated: Jul. 12, 2022

What does Ms. stand for? Despite the period, it's not an abbreviation! Here's the real answer, and why it's important in women's history.

Miss, Mrs., or Ms.?

You’ve probably seen it on a form, or maybe even used it yourself, but you may still be wondering: What does Ms. stand for? Without context, grouping the letters “MS” have a variety of meanings. As a choice acronym example, they show that someone completed a Master of Science degree. When written after a place name or on the front of an envelope, the two letters become an abbreviation for the state of Mississippi. All you have to do is remember the differences between an acronym vs. abbreviation. Simple!

But with just the “M” capitalized, and a period after the “s,” this word becomes a title for women. Specifically, it’s the title used to address a woman without referring to her marital status. Pleasingly modern and neutral, it’s increasingly used by women of all ages and domestic situations. Fortunately, we no longer live in a world where a woman’s worth is defined by her husband or lack thereof. But how exactly did this title arise, and what does Ms. stand for?

What’s in a title?

A quick recap on titles: Miss, used to address all the single ladies, stands on its own as a word, albeit an old-fashioned one that’s most often applied to children or very young women nowadays.

The title for married women, especially those who’ve chosen to share a name with their husband, is “Mrs.,” which is an abbreviation. Both Miss and Mrs. are actually related to the word “mistress,” which used to be used to refer to all women. By the way, here’s the reason why there’s an “r” in “Mrs.”

But the answer to “What does Ms. stand for?” is a different story. Despite that period, “Ms.” is not an abbreviation for anything; the period is simply there to indicate that it is a valid title for adults to use, like Mr. or Mrs. In fact, “Ms.” evolved out of a need for a polite way to address a woman without having knowledge of whether or not she was married.

Ms.: A history

Ms. was first proposed as a title in 1901. An article in the Springfield Sunday Republican advocated for the creation of a way to address a lady without bringing up her “domestic situation.” According to the article, the word was simple, easy to write, and “the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstance.” Apparently, people were already saying “Mizz,” an intentional slurring-together of “Miss” and “Mrs.” for that very purpose. This was just the written form.

Considering the usefulness of the title, it’s a bit bizarre that “Ms.” didn’t gain widespread popularity among English-speakers until the 1980s, decades after it was first proposed. In this, as in so many things, we have our feminist foremothers of the past to thank for another small step toward equality. “Ms.” is a neutral, yet respectful way to refer to women without somehow bringing men into their identity as individuals. After all, men get to be “Mr.” from babyhood onwards, and nothing changes whether they ever marry or not. With the advent of “Ms.,” women are afforded the same privilege of individuality. And now when you can answer the question “what does Ms. stand for?” for all your friends, they’ll know exactly why they get to call you “Ms. Smarty-Pants.” Now, for even more grammar knowledge, take a look at these most confusing rules in the grammar world.