After you’ve known your friend, colleague, coworker, classmate, acquaintance, or even a potential romantic partner for more than a little while, you’re probably going to start to care about them!
You’re likely going to feel affectionate towards them.
So how can you express this sentiment and show your affection in English without sounding awkward, uncomfortable, inappropriate, or even rude?
In this lesson, we’re going to talk about how to use terms of endearment in English.
Keep in mind that terms of endearment vary between countries.
If you’re just translating the same type of word you would use in your native language into English, there’s a chance that you may sound a little awkward or not quite appropriate for the situation.
Affection is very cultural, and what might sound okay in one language is not necessarily okay in English.
For this reason, we’ll explore the words and expressions you can use in order to show affection in English and talk about situations where they’re acceptable.
Pay Attention to Tone and Context
Before we get into the vocabulary that you can use to show affection in English, I want to talk about two key points.
First, tone matters. Your tone when showing affection in English is key to showing the person that you truly care about them.
Otherwise, you might sound like you’re being sarcastic, or that you don’t really mean what you say. You may sound a little insincere.
Tone is going to vary depending on your relationship with the person.
We tend to use a higher pitch when we’re showing affection towards somebody.
Think about “baby talk” – when you see a little baby, your voice rises when you say, “Oh my gosh you’re so cute.” We often use that type of pitch when showing affection.
And before you ask, this is also true for men. Men will also use a slightly higher pitch in order to show affection to someone they truly care about.
(And they may even use baby talk – don’t worry, I won’t tell anybody!)
The other thing to keep in mind is that context is key.
Consider these questions:
- How well do you know the person?
- Is it a professional environment?
- What’s your relationship with the person?
- Are they someone in a position of authority above you?
- Are they somebody you know well, or not so well?
- Are they someone that you trust, or simply somebody whose company you enjoy?
- How old is the person? How old are you?
- Where are you?
- Is the situation appropriate for this term of endearment?
All of these context questions are essential for understanding when to use particular words and expressions to show affection in English.
So let’s get started looking at the different terms of endearment you may choose to use!
When to Use the Word “Dear” in English
Let’s start with the word “dear.”
You may already be familiar with the word “dear” because it is often used in order to address a formal letter or even an email in English.
Many people know the term “dear” because a version of it is used in their native language.
But the thing I want you to understand about the word “dear” is that it’s a little bit old-fashioned.
That’s why it’s starting to fall out of favor in emails. Now people prefer to use “Hi” or “Hello” when writing emails.
“Dear” shows a level of familiarity that you may not have earned with the other person.
In formal letters, you will still see people use “dear” to address the recipient, but it in emails, it’s more and more common to choose “Hi” or “Hello” instead.
In American English, the word “dear” tends to be used by someone who is significantly older than you who wants to show kindness and affection towards you.
Think of when you help out a senior citizen or an elderly man or woman. They may say, “Thank you so much, dear. That was really helpful,” especially if they don’t know your name.
(You may also hear it in the American South, where people show a little more affection through their words and are even more polite.)
However, I don’t often hear people call me “dear” in everyday speech, unless they are a family member!
The reason I mention this is that I receive a lot of emails from non-native speakers where they say “Oh, thank you dear.”
This usually sounds awkward or uncomfortable and shows me they don’t know that much about how the word “dear” works in American English.
I encourage you to refrain from using the word “dear” with people you don’t know well.
“Dear” only really is used by someone significantly older than you who is speaking to you as if you are much younger (think of a parent or grandparent talking to a child, teenager, or young adult).
But let me be honest here – I do use “my dear” with friends I’ve known for quite a while.
When I send a text or WhatsApp message, I’ll write “Hello my dear!” I don’t usually say “my dear” out loud – it would probably sound weird!
You’ll hear people use “my dear,” but I would only say it to someone I know personally and consider a close friend.
When to Use “Darling” in English
Another related word that may come to mind is the word “darling.”
“Darling” is even more old-fashioned than “dear.”
You don’t really hear people using the word “darling” to show love and affection to their romantic partners these days.
(Honestly, it sounds a little bit weird!)
Instead, we tend to joke around with the word “darling.” We say “dahhh-ling that’s so sweet of you” with the pretentious accent you hear famous film stars use in Hollywood movies from the 1930s and 40s.
If someone does say “darling,” they’ll probably start putting on airs and fake an accent that shows a level of high class or high level of society from that era.
That said, you don’t hear “darling” that much in everyday life!
And you should definitely NOT use “darling” in a professional situation – it’s only used for family and romantic partners!
I wouldn’t use “my darling” either; it sounds just as old-fashioned!
Like I said earlier, “my darling” is only really heard in older movies and books that are nearly a century old.
In general, Americans don’t use “my darling” or “darling,” so I suggest you avoid these words too.
How to Use “Honey” or “Hon” to Show Affection in English
“Honey” and “Hon” are slightly more common.
They’re most commonly used by middle-aged parents talking to their children.
It can also be used to show affection to a friend or family member.
At times, you’ll hear the word “hon” used by a sales attendant in a store when they don’t know the person’s name.
When I was in college, I went through a phase where I used “honey” with all of my friends.
“Honey” is often used in an expression like “Oh, honey, what did you do?” or “Oh, honey, don’t do that.”
In this case, the phrase “Oh honey” is a soft way to give someone a little bit of criticism or feedback, or acknowledge an embarrassing situation or action that they might not want to talk about.
That said, I would only use “honey” or “hon” with someone I’m close with, such as a good friend, family member, or romantic partner.
Using the word comfortably depends on your relationship with the person and how you usually show affection and the words you use with each other.
Some people may use “honey,” but others won’t; it really depends on your personality and style of speech.
As with “dear,” you might hear “honey” more frequently in the American South, for the reasons I mentioned above.
People tend to be a little kinder and a little sweeter towards strangers.
Since I’m not from the South and I’ve only traveled there, I’m not an expert on how to use “honey” and “sugar” with people you don’t know, but I’ve noticed it’s common when saying “thanks.”
Personally, I would avoid using “honey,” “hon,” and “sugar” with strangers because it might sound weird with my accent from the Northeast of the United States!
How to use “Sweetie” and “Sweetheart” in English
So now let’s talk about “sweetie” and “sweetheart.” In my opinion, “sweetie” is more common these days (it’s the abbreviation of “sweetheart”).
You’re most likely to hear parents and grandparents calling their kids or grandkids “sweetie” or “sweetheart.”
However, grandchildren or kids would not call their grandparents or parents “sweetie” or “sweetheart.”
“Sweetie” and “sweetheart” show affection in a family relationship.
Like with “dear,” older people, senior citizens, or the elderly might call a younger person “sweetie” or “sweetheart.” This is a way to show love, affection, and caring towards kids.
Personally, I wouldn’t use these words between adults of the same age.
At times, salespeople or people in the service industry might use it after interacting with a customer for a long time. It’s a kind word to use when they don’t know the person’s name.
Although you might hear “sweetie” occasionally, I don’t encourage you to use it unless you’re 100% sure you can show affection towards that person.
As for romantic relationships, I don’t think people use “sweetie” or “sweetheart” these days. There are other words that are now more common. which we’ll discuss next.
When to Use “Babe” or “Baby” in English
In a romantic relationship, people are much more likely to use the words “babe” or “baby.” Today, “babe” or the slang term “bae” are more common. You’ll occasionally hear people use “boo.”
Whether you decide to use “babe,” “baby,” “bae,” or “boo” with your partner will really depend on the dynamics of your relationship.
You may use one word with your ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend, but you’ll use a different one with your current partner.
You should definitely avoid using these terms of endearment with people you don’t know well!
At times, female friends will use “hey baby” to show affection or support another woman. It can be used jokingly to compliment someone’s appearance.
It’s less common for a male friend to compliment a female friend in this way unless they have that kind of relationship where the meaning is understood.
For this reason, I’d say that using “babe” with your friends is at your own risk.
Just remember not to use these words with anyone in a position of authority because it’s not professional whatsoever, and it is a little weird.
Other Ways to Show Familiarity and Affection
As I mentioned in the video on How to Politely Address People in American English, we don’t use “my lady.” That makes me think of the British royal family.
However, I often say “hey lady” to my female friends when sending emails, texts, or messages on WhatsApp.
Similarly, people will say “hey guys,” “hey man,” “hey dude,” “hey buddy,” “hey girl,” “hey bro” or “hey friends” to show familiarity or affection towards their friends.
All of these forms of address are very common in American English with people around your same age and people you feel comfortable with.
Surprisingly, you may hear people use swears or curse words with their friends when they feel very comfortable with them and know them well.
This is where tone really matters, and you need to know how the other person will react!
You have to have earned a certain degree of trust with your friends to use a swear term and not sound offensive!
You might hear women say “hey beautiful” or “hey gorgeous” to their female friends in order to encourage them and increase their self-confidence.
If you say this to your friend and she looks at you funny, that’s a good indication that you don’t have that type of relationship and you shouldn’t say it!
In general, affectionate phrases that point out someone’s attractiveness are used between friends or in romantic relationships.
That’s why it’s weird, uncomfortable, and even rude when strangers say “hey beautiful” to women. I only expect to hear “hey beautiful” or “hey gorgeous” from a romantic partner or someone that I trust.
In American culture, these expressions are only used between people in close relationships.
How to Use “Love” and “Doll” to Show Affection in English
Because I have several friends from the UK, I’ve heard them use the word “love” to show affection.
Just like I would say “hey lady,” they might say, “hey love.”
Similarly, the word “doll” is sometimes used in British English, but it’s not that common in American English.
We do have an expression “You’re a doll” that is used to thank someone for their kindness, especially in the American South.
Since these words aren’t that common, I don’t suggest including them in your vocabulary.
As you can see, there are many ways to show affection in English, as well as some subtle rules for when you should and shouldn’t use certain terms or expressions.
Let’s move on to other ways that you can show affection in English that are a little simpler than terms of endearment.
Using the Diminutive to Show Affection in English
In English, the diminutive is when you add the “ee” sound, spelled -ie or -y, to the end of someone’s name.
This works best for names like mine that end in a consonant.
When someone wants to show me affection, they can call me “Kimmy” or “Kimmie.”
I want to warn you that using the diminutive is only acceptable when they’re a close friend or a family member.
For example, it would be weird if my colleague or coworker started calling me “Kimmy” and we hadn’t moved to that level of friendship.
You can be closer friends with your coworkers, but not everyone will comfortably use the diminutive with you!
As you can see, adding the “ee” sound or the diminutive to someone’s name is much more common in American English, as long as it sounds right on the name.
That said, not everyone wants you to use the diminutive when addressing them.
I had a friend named “Katie” who decided she preferred to be called “Kate” because it sounded more mature. As she got older, “Katie” sounded too young for her and she wanted to sound a little bit more refined.
For this reason, it’s a good idea to check with the other person to see if they feel comfortable referring to them with this level of affection.
Using Nicknames to Show Affection in English
Last but not least, let’s talk about using nicknames.
The most comfortable way to refer to someone you care about and show affection is to use a nickname.
While not everybody has a nickname, if you start to develop a nickname with someone it can feel very comfortable and close.
To be honest, Kim is actually my nickname; my full name is Kimberly.
Like in many cultures, the most common nickname is a shortened or abbreviated version of your full name.
When somebody calls me Kimberly, it shows me that they don’t really know me. They have just seen my name on an official document.
I had some managers who called me Kimberly for the three years I worked at the office.
That showed me that they didn’t know me at all – they had no personal relationship with me. Everyone who worked closely with me called me “Kim.”
So that’s something to keep in mind – you want to make sure you ask the person what they want to be called!
Nicknames are also special names or pet names.
For example, I have a friend named “Claire” who I call “Clairebear” because it rhymes so it sounds cute.
You may create names with your college friends or high school friends where you have cute nicknames.
You may use their last name or an inside joke, a nickname related to a shared experience.
Some people have nicknames from when they were young kids that stick their whole adult lives!
With so many possible ways to get a nickname, they really vary based on the person.
If you hear someone being called by a term that seems unfamiliar to you, ask them if there’s a story behind their nickname.
It’s common for men to refer to other men by their last name. My brother usually goes by his last name with a lot of his college friends.
As always, it really depends on the person and the relationship he or she has with his friends.
As you can see, there are a lot of ways to show affection in English.
As I mentioned earlier, you should think about the situation, the person, and the relationship you have.
Like I said, it’s not that common to use terms of endearment with someone you don’t know well.
If you have any questions, please be sure to leave a comment below and ask for clarification, as terms of endearment require cultural sensitivity and can vary widely between regions.
Over time, you’ll learn even more terms than I’ve mentioned here! As always, consider your relationship with the other person and what’s appropriate in American culture.
Because these terms don’t always translate directly from one language to another, I encourage you to be cautious to avoid an uncomfortable situation.
Now it’s your turn! In the comments below, let me know which terms of endearment you feel more comfortable using in English.
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