For many years, The Sun’s practice was to use courtesy titles* everywhere but in the sports section. The New York Times continues this practice, which got it challenged for referring to Sarah Palin as Ms. Palin and Hillary Clinton as Mrs. Clinton. Clark Hoyt, the public editor, explained that it was simple: The Times uses the title that each woman prefers. Such was the principle at The Sun in the era of courtesy titles: Use the title that the person prefers.
Posting at Language Log, Arnold Zwicky points out that while this makes perfect sense in the Times newsroom, it is a mistake to think that readers also know the code. I think that Professor Zwicky is right to point out this insularity, which I expect extends well beyond the Ms./Mrs./Miss tangle.
The need on The Sun’s copy desk to address every contingency led to a virtually Talmudic intricacy in interpreting the policy.
We did not use courtesy titles for historical figures. No Mr. Caesar but also no Mr. Stalin. But when did a figure become historical? The last time I was called upon to rule on this — a copy desk chief is like a justice of the peace in a speed trap town — I said that they become historical by the time the flesh falls from the bones.
We also did not use courtesy titles for criminals. So, given the presumption of innocence in U.S. jurisprudence, Carlo “Five Fingers” Prosecco would be Mr. Prosecco from the time of his arrest through his trial; upon conviction, he would become simply Prosecco. But wait — suppose he serves out his sentence and is returned to the civilian population. Does he get his mister back? Yes, once he is off probation. (A touchy point in Maryland, where so many public figures return to public life after an interval of incarceration.)
Despite the knots into which we twisted ourselves, I always favored the use of courtesy titles, as a mark of dignity and respect. (I still use them in this blog, not that anyone appears to care one way or the other.) I thought that particularly for a newspaper in Baltimore, a city that is majority African-American, a newspaper that for many years did not extend courtesy titles to black people, that respect was important to show.
But time and the increasing informality overtook that convention, and it has been a dozen years since, after a minor revolt on the copy desk against the practice, The Sun abandoned courtesy titles, except in obituaries, and no one seems to feel insulted.
To reinforce Professor Zwicky’s point, the results of these contortions on the copy desk to apply the policy consistently were almost certainly invisible to our readers. As the newspaper business struggles to reinvent itself, It is not a bad idea to take a fresh look at our practices and conventions to determine how much sense they make and how they do or do not benefit our readers.
* A term of art in journalism for the personal titles Mr., Mrs., Ms., Miss; military, academic and religious titles, Colonel, General, Professor, Sister, Bishop; and civil titles, Mayor, Governor, Senator, President.