33

I've lived in the US for a couple of years and ended up using "Sir" when addressing "regular" men in a large range of situations (in which I would use "Ma'am" if I was addressing a woman):

[on the phone]
— Hello, Sir (Ma'am), I'd like to speak to…

[when someone holds the door / when cashier returns the money]
— Thank you, Sir (Ma'am), have a good day.

[when passing someone in the street (when relevant)]
— Good morning, Sir (Ma'am)!

etc.

However, Sir has in the UK another meaning: being the masculine equivalent of the Dame title.

I am thus wondering whether the previous example would sound idiomatic in the UK, or if, in the case it sounds weird, I should use "Mister"/something else instead (when the person is a commoner)?

(Reason for this is that my mother always told me that, in French, one shouldn't simply say « Bonjour », but « Bonjour Monsieur/Madame » instead — for it is more polite.)

  • 13
    N.B. The female version of the Sir that goes in front of the first name is "Dame", not "Lady" – Haem Nov 16 '18 at 14:06
  • 7
    @Haem Yes, the male equivalent of "Lady" is "Lord". – wjandrea Nov 16 '18 at 14:18
  • 4
    Where in the US have you lived? Your usage of 'sir' would certainly seem out of place in my area (NortEastern US). All your examples would sound much more natural just by omitting 'sir'. – Eternal21 Nov 16 '18 at 16:08
  • 5
    @Eternal21 It’s fairly common in the South(east) and Midwest. I agree it would be seen as unusual in the Northeast. – alex_d Nov 16 '18 at 17:11
  • 8
    Sir and Ma'am are very common in the South, particularly in Texas where I live. If someone holds the door open for me (which is common here), they'll get a "Why thank you sir (ma'am)!" in response. – Flydog57 Nov 16 '18 at 17:15
38

First, no, there is no confusion with the title. Addressing somebody as "Sir John" is entirely different from "Sir". (It's actually the equivalent to "Mr Smith")

My observation is that we address people as "Sir" (or Madam, or Miss) a good deal less in the UK than the Americans do. Here these are used mostly by people serving (for example in a restaurant or a shop). Otherwise only in very formal situations.

If I want to attract somebody's attention, I'm much more likely to say "Excuse me!" than "Sir!"

  • 8
    The US is a lot more enthusiastic about titles in general in my current experience as a Brit living in the US my historic experience of editing American material while still resident in the UK; it's always 'the Judge said X' regardless of the fact that judge is not a proper noun, if you ever have reason to interact with uniformed police then make sure you refer to them as 'Officer', etc, or you can come across as antagonistic. It seems to be about explicitly acknowledging your relationship with the other person. – Tommy Nov 16 '18 at 14:47
  • 8
    @DavidZ it's standard practice in US legal reporting. As a British publication, we always used to correct it for our audience. Then send the edited draft back to the original author. Then see that they want to capitalise it all again. Then put our collective foot down as editors. This was basically guaranteed to happen with every American submission. – Tommy Nov 16 '18 at 15:27
  • 8
    There's another exception, which is in very informal situations. Meeting a close friend, it's not unusual to greet them with "hello sir". You may well also greet your friend with "hello you mad bastard" or "ah, they'll let anyone in here". This is understood by everyone to be ironic banter between friends, and is not to be taken seriously. Be warned though - don't try to do this yourself until you've got a feel for how British irony works and how far is appropriate for any given friend. – Graham Nov 16 '18 at 16:23
  • 7
    In the US, the use of "sir" and "ma'am" in everyday conversation is very regional. The distinction correlates roughly to the Mason/Dixon line, with southern states "sir and ma'aming" much more than the northern/west coast states. Where I live, roughly in the middle of the country, the pattern is almost exactly as you describe in the UK, though I might tack on "sir/ma'am" to an "excuse me" if I have to repeat myself several times. There might be pockets of higher sir/ma'am usage in the north (especially around military bases), but I don't think it's a general US phenomenon. – 1006a Nov 16 '18 at 17:08
  • 6
    @MontyHarder There is no character, that I'm aware of, named "Dr. Who" on British television. The main character of the show titled Doctor Who uses "The Doctor" as their proper name, not as a title, and there's no "Who" to be found in their actual name, so this is not an instance of the phenomenon you describe and is instead standard English capitalization practice. – Sparksbet Nov 16 '18 at 17:50
16

If you knew that somebody had a knighthood, you would address them as "Sir Firstname", not just "sir".

"Sir" is still quite common as a term of address in the UK, but it would mostly only be used by an employee of a company to address a customer who's just some random member of the public. For example, a sales assistant at a shop or a hotel receptionist might address a male customer as "sir", but it would be unusual in, say,a business meeting.

It's not generally used between people of equal status in the situation. For example, if somebody drops something in the street and you want to attract their attention, it would (I think) be quite normal in the US to shout "Sir! You dropped your hat!", which would sound unusual in the UK. To use the terminology in the question title, if you're a regular man or woman, you probably wouldn't address another regular man as "sir".

For women, "ma'am" would be unusual in the UK (it's used to address the queen). The analogue to the American "ma'am" would be "madam". I have a feeling that it's less common than "sir" but I'm a guy so I'm not very confident about that assertion.

  • 3
    In the UK, "Ma'am" is unusual but it's not uncommon for women to be addressed as "Madam" under the circumstances where a man would be called "Sir". – chasly from UK Nov 16 '18 at 15:15
  • 3
    The crucial part of this is the comment on 'status'. You tend only to use 'sir' here when you're trying to enforce a particular dynamic. I live in the North of England, and the usual term of address we would use in these situations would be 'mate' or 'pal'. "Excuse me, pal. You dropped this." – Easy Tiger Nov 16 '18 at 15:55
  • 5
    @NeilMeyer Even among prostitutes madam implies status: a madam is the proprietor of a bordello, not your common two-bit whore. See sense 1.3! – tmgr Nov 16 '18 at 16:15
  • 5
    "Sir! You dropped your hat!" is unusual in the UK but I would say more specifically it sounds old-fashioned. I believe "sir" used to be a normal way to address an unknown gentleman in the street, at least back in the time when it would be normal for said unknown gentleman to be wearing a hat in the first place. – Especially Lime Nov 16 '18 at 16:35
  • 6
    Stranegly enough I did come across an instance of "Sir, you dropped your ticket" (not hat but close enough) in the UK recently. It nicely illustrates the usage: A member of the public was first to spot it, and called out "Excuse me, your ticket". When the ticket-dropper didn't notice, a member of staff standing nearby called out "Sir, you dropped your ticket" (and then had to chase him, ticket in hand as he was completely oblivious). Another passenger also called out, adressing him as "mate" . – Chris H Nov 16 '18 at 16:43
8

A warning: this answer refers to a regional dialect and definitely not to standard English. You're not likely to hear it as a learner as most people have manners and education enough not to speak in heavy dialect to outsiders, and it wouldn't be wise to try it out as it would probably be perceived as an error.

Colloquially, in parts of Ireland (including bits under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom - for the nonce), it is definitely acceptable, even normal, to call 'regular men' sir.

In rural Ulster, one can call any man (and sometimes woman) of age sir and it carries with it no connotation of deference; it's used much as other regional Englishes use mate.

Due to the ethnic cleansing of the native Irish people and their culture from much of Ulster, and the settler colonisation of the north of Ireland with English-speaking Scottish lowlanders, to this day the English spoken in the north of Ireland is heavily influenced by the Scots dialect, and this sense of sir can be found in a Scots dictionary:

Scottish National Dictionary (1700–)

SIR, n. Also shir (Cai. 1891 D. Stephen Gleanings 82). Sc. usages:

  1. As a common form of address between men of equal rank, esp. freq. among miners (Slg., Fif., Clc., Ayr. 1970).

  2. Used in addressing a lady. Obs. in Eng. exc. dial. since 17th c. “The Highlanders use this term of respect indifferently to both sexes” (Sc. 1904 E.D.D.).

...

I presume this usage is also still current in parts of Scotland too (especially as the reference for the first sense in the above dictionary entry is dated 1970), although I couldn't actually say so myself.


Other than this very limited dialectal sense, in standard British English, putting knights aside (who, in any case, deserve no deference, in my opinion!), sir implies deference, status and hierarchy: it's used by shop attendants to customers, by pupils to teachers etc.

See, for example, the Oxford Living Dictionaries definition, a British English dictionary:

sir (also Sir)

noun

1 Used as a polite or respectful way of addressing a man, especially one in a position of authority.

...

5

The existing answers do a good job of addressing the general case, but there's a particular situation which they don't mention and which is quite illuminating. When I was at school* in the UK in the '90s the standard forms of address for a pupil speaking to a teacher were "Sir" and "Miss". Some male teachers, particularly the younger ones, disliked being addressed as "Sir", although I don't recall that any of them came up with a suitable alternative.

To emphasise the point for clarity, even in a setting in which "Sir" was acknowledged as the correct form of address, it made some recipients uncomfortable. By extrapolation, in settings where there isn't a clear standard form of address it is likely to come across as overly formal.

(Some female teachers, particularly the married ones, also disliked being addressed as "Miss", but that's a separate issue).


* NB it was an independent school in Kent, England; experiences in other schools, particularly in other sectors or regions, may vary.

  • Sir is also used for students to address teachers, while Miss is used for female teachers. – Daniel Cooper Nov 18 '18 at 17:01
  • Can also confirm this answer at least for secondary (12-16 years) school from the 90's to early 00's. Sir was a standard address, especially with a teacher you didn't know, most teachers though would prefer title and surname, especially female teachers, as they got to know you. First names were never used. Even to the point even once you finished school and ran in to them on the street, you'd have the awkward and funny exchange of not knowing their first name or still calling them 'Sir'. – Nidonocu Nov 19 '18 at 9:37
  • 2
    @Nidonocu, I played bridge with one of my maths teachers at a local club, but I can't remember now how I addressed him in that setting. I knew the first names of most of my teachers, but I agree that it would feel awkward to use them. Perhaps I just avoided the vocative entirely, which is my general preference because it makes it harder for people to work out when I've forgotten their name. – Peter Taylor Nov 19 '18 at 10:58
  • 1
    @Nidonocu. I became friends with a young teacher at my school. I spent 1976 and 1977 not using his name to his face in order to avoid having to commit to "John" or "Mr Smith". – Martin Bonner supports Monica Nov 19 '18 at 12:15
  • Can confirm this is still true in private schools. – Lightness Races with Monica Nov 19 '18 at 13:11
5

In the UK you should normally avoid using "sir" to address regular people. The use of "sir" tends to indicate that you serve someone (though there is no connection in meaning or etymology with serve and sir).

In British English men are not generally addressed as "sir". In the three examples you give it would be normal simply to omit the word "sir".

Hello, I'd like to speak to...
Thank you. Have a good day.
Good morning!

In none of these cases does adding "sir" make the expression more polite.

If you know someone's name you should use that in preference to "sir". Using "Sir" when you are on first-name-terms sounds particularly odd.

Thank you John. Have a good day.

If you don't know someone's name it is rare to address them at all. In a company, or at a social event, if you meet someone new, you can always ask for their name. If you are (for example) buying train tickets, you don't need to use the person's name, title or form of address at all. In 99% of normal interactions "don't use sir".

There are exceptions to the "don't use sir" rule: In many schools, and when speaking to a retail customer for example. In these situations there is a real sense of superiority (the teacher is superior to the student; the customer is superior to the shop-assistant). However many English Learners come from cultures in which not using the equivalent of "sir" is considered rude, and so tend to overuse "sir" when speaking in English.

  • 2
    Note that "thank you" isn't hyphenated, except when it's a noun (meaning an act of thanking somebody). "Thank you for the thank-you card." – David Richerby Nov 19 '18 at 10:38
  • please edit, or suggest an edit – James K Nov 19 '18 at 17:25
  • Done, though it would have been much quicker for you to do it yourself... I didn't want to just make the edit as that wouldn't have been very educational. – David Richerby Nov 19 '18 at 17:53
1

There can be a class-based element to this, or at least there was, at one time. In Mary Crockett’s 1977 novel As Big as the Ark, a working class boy addresses an upper class man as “Mister”, and immediately apologises. The man was not knighted, he had no title. He was Mr Smith, not Sir John*. But still, the correct term of address for an upper class man when you don’t know his actual name is “Sir”; “Mister” would be appropriate for a man of the boy’s own social class.

This is less true these days; in fact it’s barely true at all any more, but vestiges of it can be seen when shop employees address customers as “Sir”.


* I cannot remember his actual name.

  • 2
    I got "chief" at a petrol station not too long ago. Would have preferred "sir" or perhaps "captain" but no honourific at all would have been better. I do dislike "mate" though. – Lightness Races with Monica Nov 19 '18 at 13:12
1

I for one address gentlemen as "Sir" when I wish to convey respect. Either the person has done me a favour, performed a task that I myself were not suited to perform or the person is simply older than I (or at least presents themselves that way).

It is a dying tradition and many stop addressing others in that way once they have left education. It is something that I do on a regular basis, but I rarely hear others do the same.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.