The Grammarphobia Blog

“Ma’am” is the word

Q: I serve with the US military and am constantly being corrected for using “Sirs/Madams” as a general greeting in emails to a group of men and women of higher rank. To pay proper respect to a higher-ranking individual, I would use the words “Sir” or “Ma’am.” But I was told by numerous English teachers that there is no plural of “Ma’am,” hence my use of “Madams.”

A: The word “ma’am,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), is an abbreviated form of “madam.” Although “ma’ams” is occasionally seen or heard, none of the dictionaries I consult the most consider the plural standard English.

I could find only a few published examples of “ma’ams” in the Oxford English Dictionary. One of them, a 1781 reference to “misses and ma’ams,” uses the word for a group of married women, not as a term of respect for high-ranking women.

The other citations refer to “thank-you-ma’ams,” hollows or ridges that makes for bumpy rides when vehicles pass over them. This colloquial expression refers to the involuntary nods of people in the vehicles.

The entry for “madam” in Merriam-Webster’s gives the ordinary plural as “madams.” But it notes that when the title “madam” is “used without a name as a form of respectful or polite address to a woman,” then the plural is “mesdames.”

So “Sirs/Mesdames” would be correct in salutations, though I would think “Dear Sir or Madam” would look better. (Another possibility might be “Ladies/Gentlemen.”)

As for “madams,” the Columbia Guide to Standard American Usage says this plural usually refers to women in charge of houses of prostitution. I guess that’s as good a reason as any for not using it to address superiors in the military.

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