« Surely you jest: The dead lawyer | Main | The birthday boys: Darwin and Lincoln »

Tell me where it hurts

Q. what’s the difference between God and a doctor?

A. God doesn’t think he’s a doctor.

This ancient wheeze came to mind this afternoon when a reader’s letter was turned over to me. Not a letter, actually, but a clipping with 12 “errors” marked in red ink, accompanied by an index card with a commentary.

The clipping was an obituary. The “errors” were the attachment of the title “Dr.” to the subject’s name. The commentary on the index card contrasted the years of study, state boards and other requirements for the M.D. with the “OLD BOYS CLUB,” “DIPLOMA MILLS” and “PHD BY RETURN MAIL” associated with the Ph.D. “NOT A MEDICAL DEGREE THEREFORE NOT A DOCTOR,” was the summary comment.

It was, you may have guessed, an anonymous mailing, with one nice touch: a return-address label from which the name had been snipped off.

For the record, The Sun’s house style grants the title of “Dr.” to anyone who has an earned doctoral degree. This reflects common practice. (I did have one professor in graduate school who insisted on “Professor” rather than “Doctor,” because doctors are people who make a living by probing in people’s orifices.)

It also reflects our reluctance to make invidious distinctions. We recognize that anyone who has managed to claw into the upper middle class by earning a medical degree or academic doctorate is keen to keep from slipping back among the rabble, and we don’t begrudge a little indulgence in titles.

If you’re unhappy with this policy, perhaps you should take a pill.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:52 PM | | Comments (12)


Don't extend your policy to lawyers with a J.D. degree.

No fear. We don't.

A shame not to know whether the writer was offended that someone should be classified as his or her peer undeservedly (the "parvenu" theory), or whether the writer was offended that the deceased had accumulated respect that the writer had not succeeded in attracting (the "sour grapes" theory).

What about the docorate in education? That was an issue here:

Oh no. No, no. You're not going to trick me into expressing an opinion about schools of education.

If it's an earned doctorate, not an honorary degree, we allow the use of the title, regardless of the discipline.

"...a clipping with 12 “errors” marked in read ink,..."

I guess a note in any color ink, after you have perused it, can be considered "read" ink.

Oh, and I had some friends who had J.D. Cards when we were all teenagers, way back when. Didn't really brag about it though.

The PhD existed long before the MD. (I don't have a PhD, btw.) The MDs needed a name for their degree and borrowed from the PhDs. Over time, we came to think more highly of the MDs, although I don't know if that's the case these days.

So when Bill Cosby's name appears in the Sun, it's preceded by "Dr."?

Not exactly. House style is to use courtesy titles only in obituaries and direct quotations. We stopped using titles routinely in news stories in 1996.

Beyond that, there is also some latritude in referring to people as they chose to style themselves. Some people who hold doctoral degrees do not customarily use the title, and we would try to honor that personal preference whenever we can determine it.

But if we were publishing Bill Cosby's obituary, "Dr. Cosby" would be an acceptable option.

Incidentally, our house style is entirely consistent with the stylebooks of the Associated Press and The New York Times.

One more thing. If you want to criticize The Sun and get a more respectful response, use your name.

Last year, I ran across this article that you might find interesting. In Germany, a Ph.D. was accused of a crime for using the title Dr.

The Ph. D. in question, Ian Baldwin, is originally from Baltimore, by the way.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected