I am writing a part where the sixteen-year-old protagonist meets a male character who is eighteen-years-old. I am not sure how to refer to him - boy or man.

The male character is legally an adult, he has a job and makes his own money. The chapter is written from the protagonist's perspective, third-person narrative, and while she is notified of the male character's job, she doesn't know how old he is. She simply takes a wild guess that he is eighteen at most. What would make more sense: her referring to him as a boy or a man?

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    What about 'guy'? Commented Feb 15, 2021 at 14:16
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    @DM_with_secrets My instinct is that "guy" would work in a first-person narrative, but would be a tad too informal for third-person.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Feb 15, 2021 at 18:49
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    Surely he's a lad.
    – Will
    Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 5:46
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    @DarkMalthorp - much less because women idealise youth while men idealise masculinity/maturity. Women often call each other "girl" even if they are 50 and have 4 children, but for men (especially young men insecure of themselves) the implication that they are a child to you would be much more offensive. Of course, men will still say things like "that's my boy", but context is king. If you stop a 60 year old to ask a question and he says "yes, boy, how can I help you?", well, that's because he's 60 and he probably calls everyone under 40 a boy :D
    – Davor
    Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 11:57
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    The title of the question asks about how you, the author, should refer to him, while the body asks about how your character should refer to him. Those are 2 largely distinct questions. It is perfectly acceptable (and not uncommon) for an author to not speak (write) in the same way as their characters do, if this makes sense in the context of their story.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 12:19

6 Answers 6


Make it ambiguous:

If the woman can't tell how old he is, she may refer to him either way. If your point of view allows it, show her having an internal debate about it. If she's not sure, make a bit of a game of it. This, BTW is a great opportunity to add a description of him, and also reveal your MC's thinking and frame of reference. She obliquely tries to find out how old he is. She refers to him by his full name (possibly awkwardly). Once she knows he has a regular job and isn't in high school, the proper character would refer to him as a man or possibly a young man. But even calling someone a young man can convey childhood ("Excuse me young man,") if she was both older, or in this case if she views his actions as being childish.

It doesn't REALLY matter which she decides to use, but I agree that if your MC's voice is well established, you'll be able to tell how she would give the usage. My characters start sounding a certain way. If she was significantly older (I know, you said 16; just being thorough), EVERY male is "young man." If she's snarky and sarcastic, she might refer to him as "Babyface" or "boy" (in THAT tone). If she's insecure or attracted to him, she'll waffle around a lot. A respectful voice will mean she calls him "Sir" regardless of age.

So do what works best to convey information about both characters. This can be a good way to show not tell.


There's no definitive answer to this question, because it depends entirely on the POV character, who exists only in your mind. How would she refer to him?

My own instincts align with those of @DM_with_secrets (from the comments) --an American teenager would probably describe another teenager neither as a "boy" or a "man" but as a "guy."

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    Exactly. From an older adult POV, "youth" is often used as a noun that includes both older boys and younger men, especially in news reporting. But it would be unusual for a young person to use this term this way.
    – barbecue
    Commented Feb 15, 2021 at 22:12
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    How would she refer to him...Does she want him to be a "man" or "boy" or "guy"? A 16 yo girl addressing some as a boy would be either to be coy, or rarely on first meet, derogatory. Sir could be used if she is a bit taken aback.
    – paulj
    Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 18:27

You could call him a teen or a teenager, if the protagonist thinks from his appearance that he is over 13 and under 20, but doesn't know if he is a legal adult or a legal minor.

You could look up definitions and synonyms of "boy" and "man" to find words which are synonyms of both.

Here is a link to about two dozen synonyms for boy:


And here is a link to a list of synonyms for man:


Words which are on both lists include fellow, and guy. Other lists may have more words used for both "boy" and "man".

If the protagonists dislikes him a first sight she might think of him as a "jerk". If she thinks he is really good looking she might think of him as a "hunk" or a "dreamboat" or other slang term with the same meaning.

Maybe she thinks of him as a 'boy" sometimes and a "man" other times.

I note that in Star Trek: The Original Series the main characters who were in their thirties and forties sometimes called other adult characters "boys" or "girls". They called several adult women "girls", and in "Shore Leave" Yeoman Tonia Barrows calls herself a "girl" at least once, despite the actress being 33 years and 9 months old when her scenes were filmed. In "Balance of Terror" Dr. McCoy calls Lt. Robert Tomlinson a "boy" despite him being portrayed by an actor 26 years old.

  • Lad can be used for any male from adolescence to mid-thirties. likewise lass can be used for any female in the same age-range
    – CSM
    Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 15:02
  • I know a book where the old folks (70+ or even 80+) talk about their husbands as 'the boys' and their wives as 'the girls'. And it does fit in the story.
    – Willeke
    Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 17:52

Young man

There is no need to use only one word.


It is unusual to refer to any one person as "boy" or "man".

It is common to refer to groups like this. For example "Most construction workers are men" or "There is a group of boys coming over for my son's birthday party".

This emphasizes the speaker is unfamiliar with the group. Likewise if you refer to one person as a "man" then it emphasizes unfamiliarness. For example "There are two men ahead of me in the queue" implies the two men are strangers.

To answer your question, at the very start your protagonist should only call him a boy/man at the very beginning, assuming she meets him as a complete stranger, and then based on how old/mature he appears to her at the time. Of course "teenager" and "young man" also work here.

If they do not meet as strangers then she should refer to him by their relationship. For example if he works as a butcher and they meet at the meat counter she calls him the "butcher" or perhaps "butcher's assistant" since he looks fairly young.

Shortly afterwards they learn each others' names and this problem goes away. From then on boy/man should only be used to emphasize matureness. For example "Derek isn't like the other boys I've gone out with. He's not a boy, he's a man".


It is up to you how you want to refer to him as.
I simply describe the character age the first time I introduce them, and then call them by the name from there on.

The reason is that I use the Biblical definition of Man
Male - someone who is born with the plumbing

Boy - someone who is still reliant and dependent on someone else to take care of them
Seriously... I've met 17 year old MEN who work to take care of their single mother... and I've met 39 year old boys who still trying to play gangster

Man - someone who can take care of themselves as well as taking care of someone else

  • 6
    So a male with a disability who needs lifelong assistance will always be a boy and can never be a man?
    – nanoman
    Commented Feb 15, 2021 at 22:19
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    I am a little lost on this answer, why did you mention marriages at the end? The OP didn't ask for love advice. Commented Feb 15, 2021 at 22:27
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    Why are you bringing the bible into this?
    – forest
    Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 2:09
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    Going along with other commenters, "boy" and "man" are age-based labels. They have nothing to do with ability. While using "man" for a young person is ok and is used in terms of endearment (e.g. "little man"), using "boy" for an adult is demeaning and should be avoided.
    – bob
    Commented Feb 16, 2021 at 17:23
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    @WriterGeek1 I deleted your earlier comment as I felt it was unnecessarily confrontational. forest isn't saying that they have a problem with the Bible, or that they don't have a problem with the other books you listed; they're merely questioning why you chose that particular example.
    – F1Krazy
    Commented Feb 17, 2021 at 8:03

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