Say you have a person 'John Smith', If you were to address him formally you would call him 'John Smith', if you were his friend 'John', in an academic or military environment you would refer to him as 'Smith, John', but I've also seen instances where just the last name is used and he would simply be called 'Smith', what is the proper term and situation in which you would call someone by just their Family name?

  • I've seen this in a few contexts, and I have not got a word for it. When one person is very much senior to the other, the senior may call the junior by just family name. In some types of school for example, teachers might call students "Jones" or "Smith." It happened in Harry Potter, for example. I've seen some families in some cultures will call family members by their last name, though often first-and-last. My Chinese friend is Mr. Li. He calls his siblings "Li Qin" and "Li Xin" and "Li Zhin." And newlyweds may call each other "Mr. Smith" and "Mrs. Smith" until the new wears off.
    – Boba Fit
    Mar 2, 2023 at 21:03
  • Also, it's what the family and senior staff in Dalton Abbey called the various junior house staff. Jones the junior footman and Smith the junior upstairs maid.
    – Boba Fit
    Mar 2, 2023 at 21:09
  • Since the project is a game, and no one but a developer is going to see such a term, would 'Seniority' be a reasonable term to describe this?
    – RWolfe
    Mar 3, 2023 at 1:07
  • Or would the best options be Formal Equal (Given Family), Informal Equal (Given), Formal Superior (Family, Given) and Informal Superior (Family)?
    – RWolfe
    Mar 3, 2023 at 2:03
  • 1
    "Smith, John" would never be used as a form of address, only in a list of names filed alphabetically by surname (family name). Men are traditionally addressed by surname alone in the military, and boys in school. Generations ago, men used to address even close (male) friends by their surname. Mar 3, 2023 at 10:09

2 Answers 2


I feel your question is missing one of the most common forms of address: "Mr Smith." You wouldn't normally address someone as "John Smith". You might do so with a child, but certainly not with an adult. It would be considered odd or impolite.

As for your question, forms of address in spoken language are commonly named:

  • formal (Mr Smith, Your Majesty, Captain)

  • informal (John)

  • familiar [nickname] (Johnny, Jack, J, ...)

You can add further categories by describing the kind of usage or the context of their use:

  • military / rustic (Smith)

  • derogatory (Fuckhead)


From my experience, formal settings are varied, as you allude to in your question, and the form of address would differ accordingly.

  • Military: rank last name, i.e. Lieutenant Smith. In case of addressing higher ranking soldiers, "sir/ma'am" would be added at the end. I.e. a private addressing your Lieutenant Smith would say: "Lieutenant Smith, sir!" In most armed forces, this is detailed in regimenting documents.
  • Scientific: academic title last name, i.e., Dr Smith.
  • In business, political and other formal settings, "Mr", maybe position, and last name would be used, i.e., Mr Smith, Prime Minister Smith, ambassador Smith, etc.

In informal settings, first names and nicknames would be used most frequently, last names least frequently, and ranks and titles seldom.

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    Mar 3, 2023 at 8:37
  • Unfortunately, I have to keep the name system a lot simpler than having Titles, Ranks, Given names, Surnames, Positions, Nicknames etc. I was going to include a Title/Rank that would be added as necessary but I was referring specifically to a Given/Family only portion of a name, it's not unusual to call someone 'Mr John Smith', or 'Mr Smith' for example.
    – RWolfe
    Mar 4, 2023 at 4:35

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