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What is an Honorific?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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An honorific is an affix, a term which precedes someone's name in conversation, which is designed to confer honor and respect on the individual in question, as well as to define him or her. Honorifics vary widely, from a simple “Mrs.” when referring to a married woman to “His Holiness” when discussing the Pope. Honorifics which relate to religious offices and royalty are sometimes known as styles of office.

The use of honorifics varies from culture to culture. As a general rule, honorifics are always used in formal situations, unless someone specifically requests that an honorific not be used. For example, someone meeting the parents of a friend would address them as Mr. and Mrs. Lastname, unless they invited that person to be less formal. People are often taught from an early age that it is better to err on the side of formality than to cause offense by being too casual.

In some cultures, the use of honorifics is more widespread, and it can get very complicated. In Japan and some other Asian cultures, for example, honorifics are used on a daily basis, and people are expected to use the right form when addressing someone. Many languages even have honorifics built into them: French speakers, for example, can choose between the formal vous and the more casual tu when saying “you.”

Some honorifics refer to a profession, as in the case of honorifics like Chef, Doctor, Professor, Coach, or Teacher. Many professions have very specific honorifics: judges, senators, priests, presidents, and dignitaries, for example, all have very specific styles of office, like “The Right Reverend” and “Your Honor” which are used in all written correspondence and in spoken conversation unless people are directed otherwise.

Honorifics are also used to describe class and social status. A Queen, for example, might be referred to as Her Imperial Highness, and various styles of office are used to describe other royalty. At times, the use of search terms can come into dispute, especially in the case of marriages between social classes. A single woman is often referred to as Ms. or Ma'am, while a man would be addressed by the honorific of Mr. or Sir.

As a general rule, it is possible to pick up the correct honorific to use for someone from conversation and the people around him or her. Since most people meet dignitaries and members of royal families under controlled circumstances, it is highly probable that they will know which honorific to use, but if in doubt, it is a good idea to ask.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon218200 — On Sep 28, 2011

In what year was mrs. used for identifying a married woman? Would Mrs. or Mistress be used to address a woman in the 1770s? Or would they be known as the wife of Mr. or Master Seymour?

By anon144174 — On Jan 19, 2011

When to use 'Ms' and 'Mrs'? I would like to know the exact usage of the mentioned honorifics! Help me please.

By anon26003 — On Feb 06, 2009

What about double honorifics, especially in journalism? I constantly hear thing like "Surgeon Doctor Sam Jones" or Army Spokesman Captain Fred Smith". Isn't "Captain Fred Smith, an Army Spokesman" the correct form?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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