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Misplaced courtesy

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.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:58 PM | | Comments (12)


We were talking about this and got to wondering whether the rules call for referring to "Mr. bin Laden." Couldn't decide, tho. Sure looks odd.

Not really such a hard case. Bin Laden has publicly professed his role in a crimnal conspiracy, so there is no hesitation in performing the misterectomy.

No Mr. Caesar ...

Really? Isn't Caesar already a title?

Now I flee.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has (or had; I don't read it anymore) what I consider to be the best solution to this problem: Men are Mr., and women are Ms. Period. I was working at University of Maryland when Len Bias died, and the Chronicle's (print) coverage was quite illustrative: John Slaughter, then the chancellor of the UMCP campus, was "Mr. Slaughter" rather than "Dr. Slaughter" or "Prof. Slaughter." Johnny Toll, then the president of the five campuses, was "Mr. Toll." The deceased was "Mr. Bias."

Of course, Mr. Bias' death predates the World Wide Web. Since the Chronicle's site is subscription-only, I cannot tell what their online policy is now.

I can remember the day when the Sun's crime reports refused to give a courtesy title to women convicted of prostitution. A prostitute was referred to "the Carney woman," or "the Shelton woman" in second reference. I somehow miss the day when the Sun reflected a moral high ground.

I use Mr. or Ms. in all cases where a honorific is necessary, except in the case of aristocrats. This is not snobbery but necessity. I know for example that the Thatcher's Foreign Minister, who resigned over the Malvinas affair, Lord Carrington, was called Smith and not Carringdon but without referring to an up-to-date copy of Debrett's I'd be at a loss for the other members of the House of Lords

Mr. Jones,

I do believe that Lord Carrington referred to the 1982 occurrence as the Falklands affair.

No Argie lover he!

The Annapolis Capital this week published an AP review of the most recent Tina Fey skewering of Sarah Palin with what may become my favorite use of courtesy titles:
"When Ms. Poehler's Ms. Couric pushed Ms. Fey's Ms. Palin to specifically discuss...." When I looked it up just now, I saw that the Washington Post had deleted the titles, thus depriving the fragment of much of its awkward charm.

When was the last time a US official resigned after accepting responsibility -- but never blame -- for a fiasco?

For his sins, Lord Carrington became Secretary-General of NATO soon after leaving the Mrs.Thatcher's Cabinet.

Also, Thatcher's first name was Prime Minister.

LC's family name was Smith but he followed custom in using his title. Sounds better, doncha know.

Folowing your current practice, shouldn't the last sentence of the second paragraph read "I think that Zwicky is right to point out this insularity, ..." and the beginning of the last paragraph read "To reinforce Zwicky’s point, ..."?

"I know for example that the Thatcher's Foreign Minister, who resigned over the Malvinas affair, Lord Carrington, was called Smith and not Carringdon "

Not so, that's a different batch of Car(r)ingtons. The former British foreign secretary and secretary-general of NATO is Peter Alexander Rupert Carington, 6th Baron Carrington and Baron Carington of Upton. His family dropped the 'Smith' in the 19th century.

When did it become proper to use two titles or discriptors before someone's name? When I was dragged through grammar and, later, Journalism 101, I was taught that it was wrong to write "Eye Surgeon Doctor Jane Jones" or "Spokesman Captain Sam Smith." Isn't "Doctor Jane Jones, an eye surgeon', or "Captain Sam Smith, an Army spokesman," more proper? If not, when did the rules change?

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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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