Yes, sir! No, sir. Sorry, sir.

Yesterday at the gym, in sharp succession, was called “Sir” by two young men (probably high school age). One replied, “Yes, sir” when I asked if I was going in the direction of the change rooms. The other banged the door into me and gave me a curt, “Sorry, sir”.

When I’m called Sir, I’m always in shock and it got me thinking – how does it vary around the world, the use of this honorarium?

For me, it is a sign of getting old but also something much more. I get called “Sir” in all sorts of situations where I wouldn’t have thought it would be used. I had really thought that it was going out of fashion and actually remember telling students overseas that it was inappropriate to use. Ha, little I know! Seems well used in my part of the world – Central Canada. What about in your part of the world? Do you teach students that this is a “living form” of English.

I’m curious because forms of politeness are always changing and I had thought this one was being buried, it was supposed to be gone with the decline of the British Empire! Seems however, it has lexical endurance. I work with quite a few Filipinos as part of my tech work and they are always using “Sir”. I’m sure that it isn’t just with me!

Wikipedia curiously enough, says it is a term used with educators.

Sir is an honorific used as a title (see Knight), or as a courtesy title to address- a man without using his given or family name in many English speaking cultures. It is often used in formal correspondence (Dear Sir, Right Reverend Sir).
The term is often reserved for use only towards equals, one of superior rank or status, such as an educator or commanding officer, an elder (especially by a minor), or as a form of address from a merchant to a customer.

But I’m not so sure, how common it is in classrooms or with teachers. I do know though, it is used with anyone where there is a big age difference and a power difference. At least that is my experience.

But it still bothers me when used. Does it bother you? And what about “Ma’am”? How do females feel about that? Is it commonly used, is it “alive and well” in our descriptive lexicon?

Just some “wordy” thoughts this early Sunday morning as I drink my coffee and reflect on getting old……

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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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4 Responses

  1. teresa gomes de carvalho says:

    In Brazilian Portuguese we change pronouns depending on whom we address. You can be ‘você,’ an informal form, ‘tu,’ also informal, and ‘o senhor (masc) and ‘a senhora,’ (fem), which may be the closest to Sir and ma’am. Thus, ‘Yes, sir’ is equivalent to ‘Sim, senhor.’ However, we would not speak like that with a stranger as it sounds way too formal and it is a sign of obedience to someone of a superior rank
    rather than respect only. Besides, we hardly ever use the word ‘sim’ for ‘yes,’ except when we want to highlight an affirmative answer as it is the case of the fixed expression mentioned above. Some people (restaurant staff, for example) address me as ‘Senhora, pode vir por aqui’ (Ma’am, this way please) and I confess I feel the same way you do: I feel as if I was a disabled 98-year-old! I recently wrote a paper about polite language for speaking sills for my
    DELTA course and I included some samples with Sir/ma’am and I argued that people do use them —at least in the US, and teenage students should be acquainted with them as they are commonly used to address someone of a higher rank or position —or a stranger, and can be used as a sign of respect as well. But I confess I could live without these words.

  2. teresa gomes de carvalho says:

    Just to add that as a non-native speaker, my perception of the use of sir/ma’am may not be as accurate, but I think once you get to know someone you tend to drop sir/ma’am and start using Mr/Ms/etc.+last name or even the person’s first name. When I’m in the US I have the impression that women say it more often than men. Am I right?

  3. Alan Tait says:

    My life changed when some kids in the park called to me “Hey mister – that ball!”. And I thought – wait a minute, I’m only eighteen – am I suddenly old?

    BTW, you’d be lucky to get called Sir anywhere in Scotland. You might want to move here 🙂

  4. David says:


    I’m a big fan of Scottish films – I’d probably love it and do enjoy how Scots have a kind of “equality” in language and culture.


    Interesting comments and much of what you relate, jives with my own experiences (now that I’m back in Native speaker land). I think though, there is a lot of “comfort level” in how Sir is used. Meaning, it is kind of a personal form of language and those that use it were probably exposed to this language when growing up. So some use it, others from a different cultural subset probably don’t.

    I know that some teachers are called “sir” and some not, here in Canadian schools. I don’t know why but I think it has to do with “power” and the more authoritarian ones are called “sir”. My observations so far.

    Yes, fair to mention how languages that have polite forms but even still have further distinctions within that in terms of forms of address. I’m a big believer in the Brown and Levinson idea of “face” and that the use of “Sir” is a positive face mechanism in that the user wants to be seen positively by an elderly.

    About women – I would say the opposite. Here, I’m never ever called “sir” by a young woman. Always a young man/boy. Strange but that’s another distinction I’ve noticed in this part of the world.

    But I’m with you – don’t like “Sir” at all! Lets start a movement to ban it – facebook page maybe? 🙂

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