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The things they ask me

A professorial colleague wrote earlier today about a construction that he thinks has become increasingly frequent: Firstname Lastname, professor at State rather than Firstname Lastname, a professor at State. He wonders what I think of this.

My first reaction was that the staccato prose that Time indulged in so freely has bled into writing more generally, abetted by the elliptical style of Twitter and text messages. And there may be something to that.

I lack data to form a better-established conclusion, but I suspect that a diligent search through texts of the past century or so might well show that such a construction is merely a stylistic variant. After all, I don’t think that anyone would misunderstand the omission of the indefinite article as implying that Professor Lastname is the professor at State. Anyone care to chime in? With examples?

Then, after I arrived at the paragraph factory, a colleague asked which of these constructions is preferable: Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. or former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. I chose the first, because it indicates that Mr. Ehrlich is a former governor, not a former Republican—not that any of our readers are apt to be misled by the second version.

I recommended, however, to use Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Republican former governor, to avoid an awkward pileup of nouns before the name.

That suggestion also gets around the touchy point of whether governor should be capitalized and abbreviated, The Chicago Manual of Style says that a title used in apposition before a name, as in the Ehrlich examples, should be considered a descriptive phrase rather than a title and therefore spelled out and lowercased.

The Associated Press Stylebook, of course, says the reverse. AP apparently likes piling up capitalizations. It would love something like former President and Chief Justice of the United States William Howard Taft. And I am already embattled enough over nonsensical AP practices deeply embedded in journalistic convention that, recalling Napoleon’s ill-advised Russian campaign, I’m reluctant to open a second front.



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:28 PM | | Comments (9)


Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Republican former governor seems a bit clunky to me.

How about Republican Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the former governor as an alternative? Or we could try Former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Republican. Both of these avoided putting "Republican" and "former governor" in the same clause, which is where the whole mess started in the first place.

I can't say exactly why, but for me Republican former governor sounds odd, in the same way that red big ball sounds odd. In any case, I think the natural meaning of former Republican governor is "that guy who used to be the Republican governor," not "the (possibly still in office) governor who used to be a Republican."

In short, I think the ambiguity you are trying avoid here is one that few readers are likely to fall into.

'Republican former governor' doesn't scan for me (50+ Irish) at all, but I can see the pitfall in 'former Republican governor' that should prompt re-writing it. I'd much prefer either of Tim's suggestions.

"...former governor, Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. (R, MD)..."

Apropos, the Johnson blog at The Economist used this construction:

"the Republican former senator from Wyoming".

What was interesting here was that Republican was more important in the context of the sentence than former senator, so it actually scanned properly and didn't sound clunky.

This could be a case where the usage is determined by the context.

Now that I think about this again: 'former Republican governor' means the person who used to be the Republican Governor, whereas 'formerly Republican Governor' means the governor who used to be Republican.

It's true that 'former Republican governor' does not specify whether the person in question is no longer Republican or no longer governor. But in practice -- and given that this is a Baltimore paper writing about Maryland politics -- I don't think the potential ambiguity is one to worry about.

My problem with both

Republican former Gov. Robert Ehrlich
former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich

may be too subtle for daily journalism. But I always feel that "Gov." is forced to play a dual role here, as descriptor and as formal title. With the lowercase version -- former Republican governor -- you know which it is. With Gov(ernor) capped, the word becomes a title, and belongs with the name -- it would take a different stress if spoken. Surely I'm not the only one who finds this construction uncomfortable?

Or--could be--the once and future Republican governor.

Spot on, anon. l/c g is oodles better.

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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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