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I am not a doctor

Much as I hesitate to disagree with Bill Walsh, valued colleague, pioneer of blogging on the copy editor’s role, and panjandrum of the copy desk at a newspaper 40 miles to the south, I can’t endorse his latest stricture on usage: “If you can't fix a broken leg, I'm not calling you ‘doctor.’"

Brother Walsh takes the hard-line view that only people with medical degrees get to be called “doctor.” That is largely in keeping with the emphasis in the Associated Press Stylebook, which says that Dr. in first reference should be limited to people with degrees in dental surgery, medicine, optometry, osteopathy or podiatric medicine. Its reasoning is that the public tends to identify the title only with physicians.

But then the AP gets weasely, saying that if it is “appropriate within the context,” the title may be used with the names of people who hold other doctoral degrees — but not honorary doctorates.

The New York Times has essayed further on that slippery slope, saying in its stylebook: “Others with earned doctorates, like Ph.D. degrees, may choose to use the title or not; follow their preference.” Perhaps The Times writes about, and is read by, more people with earned doctorates.

The major point, and it is a difficult one for some copy editors, is that house style follows usage. Newspapers, for example, put in a long resistance to the use of gay as a synonym for homosexual. That resistance is over, because the usage has become established.

And the multiplication of people with advanced degrees since the university boom days of the 1950s and 1960s means that there are a lot more non-physicians out there who like the sound of doctor before their names. A friend who worked at the Harvard Coop years ago while completing his own dissertation was quietly amused at the pathetic vanity of the customers who had insisted on having “Ph.D.” appended to their names on their charge cards.

I did know a member of the Syracuse faculty, Paul Theiner, a Chaucerian, who disdained being called doctor. Doctors, he said, were people who probed into other people’s orifices for a living. He was Professor Theiner.

We may have thrown over British rule and rejected hereditary aristocracy, but as Americans we have never shed a love of titles and minor distinctions. The lurid and flamboyant titles that members of lodges and fraternal orders bestow upon one another come to mind. The tendency of retired military officers and public officials to hold on to General, Colonel, Senator, Governor and Ambassador is another mark of our non-egalitarian tendencies. Keep in mind as well the procession of notables who harvest honorary degrees by the bushel in exchange for numbingly platitudinous commencement speeches.

H.L. Mencken wrote in 1946: “I simply can't imagine any man of dignity accepting Pulitzer Prizes, honorary degrees or other such fripperies. Nine-tenths of them go to obvious quacks. Getting one is like being elected to the Elks.”

But since people do earn doctorates, and like to use doctor with their names, and circulate among people who also like the sound of titles, the reasonable course is to follow the practice that The Times recommends: Use the title when the person has an earned degree and the holding of that degree is relevant to the context of the article.


For the record: I was a graduate student at Syracuse, 1973-1979, leaving without completing a Ph.D. in English. I am also one of the few living Kentuckians who is not a Kentucky Colonel.




Posted by John McIntyre at 12:00 PM | | Comments (8)


Does this practice extend to those who would traditionally hold the title of "doctor" but prefer not to use that title outside of the professional context? (A rare case, I realize, but it does happen...)

A humble doctor?

Q. What is the difference between God and a doctor?

A. God doesn't think he's a doctor.

Actually, you're right. If the article is about, say, gardening, you might describe the gardener as a physician, but the context would not require the application of the title.

Doctoral degrees are taken _very_ seriously in Germany. Holders of an American, or, for that matter, any non-EU doctorate had better not try to pass themselves off as doctors of anything when in the Federal Republic.
See this article from Friday's Washington Post.

My father, who held a doctorate in soil physics (!) said he was the kind of doctor who didn't do anyone any good.

Interesting post. The usage argument is pretty convincing. Damn evolving language.

Who said anything about humility? Think of it as an abnegation of greater social responsibility.

Another, more on-topic comment: for some women, the choice to use a title or emphasize the letters after their name is born out of a frustration with continually being assumed to be less educated than they actually are simply because they are women. Some take it to an extreme, I freely admit, but there are times when the choice to put "Dr." in front of one's name is made only to avoid confusion and would not be necessary if one was male.

Here in New Zealand, with some allowance for individual preference, professional context is all. I have a PhD in English Literature. So when I give the occasional university lecture in that field I am introduced as Dr, but in my regular employment as an editor I don't put PhD on my business card, or use the title in any other way.

Two belated thoughts:

You'll probably never hear the holder of a Juris Doctor refer to them self as doctor.

Our low middle (third of four) son is surely anticipating the day when the prefix Dr. appends to his name in recognition of his efforts earning a D.V.M. degree.

An interesting take on this arguably debatable subject.

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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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