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What's this about Realtors?

A reader’s query.

In a … story about a Baltimore stream reclamation project, the reporter quoted a person whose field is real estate.

"This is our little spot of heaven. It's just gorgeous, and it's unbelievable the way they are destroying it," said Pat Perkins, a Realtor who lives next to the wooded park.

Whoa! Capital R? At a picnic today with an editor, I lamented that some sort of publicity push for the real estate industry has infiltrated the palace. He told me - immediately - that the AP stylebook has always capped the R.

1) isn't it sad that this came up at a picnic?

2) why would the AP cap the R in realtor and not, say, the L in linebacker?

That capital letter in Realtor has irked editors for decades, but there is a reason for it. Garner’s Modern American Usage explains that the word was invented and trademarked in 1916 by the National Association of Realtors. It is captialized because it is a trademark, and technically, it should be used only to refer to a member of the association. The term real estate agent is generic, and that is the usage we typically prefer.

If I wanted to dignify my work further, I presumably could make up a word, say Correctorificator, register it as a trademark, put it on business cards and demand that any who writes about me use that word, capitalized.

That would be silly.

We recently published articles about Dr. John Cameron, one of the foremost practitioners at Johns Hopkins, which is one of the nation’s pre-eminent teaching hospitals. He is called a surgeon, lowercase. Though some publications operate otherwise, The Sun calls George W. Bush, along with his predecessors, the president, lowercase. Benedict XVI is the pope, lowercase.

To get a capital letter for their job descriptions, they would have had to go into real estate.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:01 AM | | Comments (1)


You get complaints the other way sometimes, too, as when an actual member of the Board of Realtors wants to know why he wasn't identified as a REALTOR(tm).

Similarly, educators, social workers and psychologists sometimes take offense, in the most passionate terms imaginable, that style reserves "Dr." for health professonals. At times like these, it's good to remember that while the guy with the biggest title gets to make the rules on style, he also gets to field the phone calls. Pointing this out is a good way to escape the subject at picnics.

Personally, I learned decades ago not to say where I work on social occasions, lest I come to be the topic of the conversation.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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