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I've heard some names pronounced with an added さん such as 佐々木さん and some without. I believe it is related to respect or the age of the person named. What would be the guidelines or general principles to follow regarding さん?

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7 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

"-さん" is an honorific suffix added to give respect. It can be used either with males and females, and also with given names and family names, not to your own name, though.

It can be even used attached to the name of the occupation and titles.

It's ok to use it with people that you are familiar with, but it's kind of mandatory when you are talking to people you aren't familiar with or people that are not close.

Finally, as stated in this page about the "Proper use of "-san"", don't drop the -さん suffix unless you're being specifically invited to. You can see further info in that link I just gave you.

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Thanks for the info, chose your answer because of the link. Thanks to everyone for the Hiragana translation as well. –  pwny May 31 '11 at 20:44
    
No problem, I'm glad I was helpful! –  Alenanno May 31 '11 at 20:46
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It is very important to always double check that you didn't put -san to your own name by accident, otherwise your coworkers will start laughing at you. (Did you just put -san to your own name?) –  wallyqs May 31 '11 at 22:42
    
@wallyqs: are you talking to me? :D –  Alenanno May 31 '11 at 23:50
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Although this is veering into intermediate/expert level (and possibly more cultural than language) issues, 'dropping the -san when referring to yourself' also extends to the notion of social groups. For example when mentioning a close family member to a stranger, or a coworker to a client etc. –  Dave Jun 17 '11 at 3:17
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Also, while さん is right for almost all cases, [先]{せん}[生]{せい} should be used for:

Doctors, lawyers, politicians, professors, of course teachers, or anyone else that's (a) a direct mentor or (b) has some serious professional qualifications (ala a professor).

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Yep, it would indeed feel unnatural to refer to a doctor as 田中さん instead of 田中先生. –  Ali Jun 2 '11 at 13:03
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The general guideline is to use さん whenever you're unsure. As a learner, you cannot really go wrong with it.

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I would only use a persons name without suffixing さん if I knew them very well and they were at the same social standing (in whatever given context) as me.

In fact, scratch that, it would feel wierd not using -さん in any given situation unless it was referring to family.

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If you're talking with someone you don't really know, you definitely want to add さん. If you add it for friends and family, it might upset them as it may make the two of you seem a little distant with one another.

As to your age/respect thing, if you're below them, then just add さん. Like Matti said above, if you're just starting, you can't really go wrong with appending the さん after the name.

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If you're talking to somebody who is not an extremely good friend, use さん, but if you're about to start a fight with someone, you should drop the さん. If you're a foreigner and are on good terms with someone, you can often use their first name without さん, but using their family name like that will sound rude and abrasive. If you need to attract someone's attention in an emergency situation, you can drop the さん too, as well as adding an imperitive (おい、山田!速く逃げろ!).

One of the exceptions is when talking about someone in your group (company or friends) to someone outside your group. In that case, even when talking about your boss, you drop the さん (or 社長, 部長, etc.) and just refer to them by their name. So if I'm talking to 鈴木さん (a person at another company) about my boss, Yamada, I would say "山田", not "山田さん". (I'm not certain about this rule, so correct me if I'm wrong).

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would be glad if someone could confirm this rule.. –  Pacerier Jun 17 '11 at 15:01
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I confirm this rule. If you answer the phone at your job, and someone asks for your colleague Mr. Yamada, you would say something like "あぁ,すみません、今、山田が席を外してるようですが" to say that Yamada's not here right now. –  Axioplase Jun 20 '11 at 7:35
    
That doesn't sound very correct... –  repecmps Jun 20 '11 at 11:54
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San, always a sign of respect, is used in a few other situations such as 象さん, the elephant, precisely the kind of animal you do not want to make angry :-)

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