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Don't call me Editor McIntyre

The linguist Dennis Baron, tweeting as @DrGrammar, complained yesterday, “One thing I never get used to, working with lawyers: they always call me Doctor. Not ‘Dr. Who’ ‘Dr. No,’ or ‘Dr. Grammar.’ Just ‘Doctor.’”

I suggested that he address the lawyers as “Counselor,” but his complaint got me to thinking about titles and the tangle of using them.

Titles of nobility or military rank, for example, are easy, as are the common courtesy titles Miss, Mr., Mrs., and Ms. We capitalize them, treating them as parts of a person’s name.

But there is also a tendency in journalism to capitalize occupational titles. For this, as for many other ill-advised things, such as treating kudos as a plural, I blame publisher Henry Luce. Time was much given to using false titles, and the practice was contagious.

The guideline is that you call it a title and capitalize it if you would use it with the person’s name in direct address: President Bartlet, Dr. Strangelove, etc. Chief executive officer, secretary-treasurer, principal, and superintendent are not in that sense titles.*

The Chicago Manual of Style, which is more thoughtful than The Associated Press Stylebook, and written for people who have more of a grasp of nuance than journalists, makes that point about corporate and organizational titles, and it goes beyond AP over titles used in apposition. AP prescribes “former President Jimmy Carter,” but in that case it is a descriptive phrase rather than a title; president belongs with former, not with the name. Chicago recognizes this.

I suppose we could resolve this by capitalizing all nouns, like the Germans, or writing everything in all caps, like the ancient Romans and the people who think that President Obama is not a native-born American citizen.

Or I suppose I could try to bring the sanity of Chicago to the paragraph factory, but the struggle for intelligibility takes up so much time ...


*Yes, I know about Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers. Don’t start with me; you know how I get.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:29 AM | | Comments (20)


That aspect AP's style never sat well with me when I used to edit my college paper. We extended AP's rules to include "Professor" and "Coach" as titles, which I had no problem with, except that it had a constant side effect similar to the "former President Jimmy Carter" case. We'd write about "football Coach Barry Alvarez," and I always wished that Alvarez would write us a letter to complain that we kept calling him a football.

Here's a question. Would you treat the multipurpose business title "vice president" as a formal title and capitalize it in a direct address? Most writers reflexively do, but I would argue it's really more a description than an actual formal title and should therefore be lowercased.

"President Bartlett," for example, is conceivable as an address that would be used, but "Vice President Jones" is an address I've never heard in 15 years in the corporate world. "Vice president" is really being used as a catchall business description meaning "senior position" in this case, but it doesn't actually pertain to any specific scope of authority.

The nice thing about capitalising proper names (only) is that it distinguishes between people's names and common nouns:

I've been trying to read Premchand's novel "Godan" in Hindi --and the script used for Hindi doesn't have "capital letters" , nor Hindi does have definite articles or indefinite articles -- and many of the characters in t definite articles he novel have names which are identical to common nouns. The mother is named Dhaniyaa which means "cilantro", the one son is named Gobar, which means "cow dung". And in the same paragraph where the character Gobar is mentioned, the mother is also making cakes out of gobar "cow dung". It's rather confusing for a non-native speaker.

English, I suppose, wouldn't really have the same problem, because of its use of (in)definite articles. So the proper name "Stone" wouldn't be confused with the common noun "stone" (even setting capitalisation aside) since the latter would always be "a stone" or "the stone".

I'm not sure titles of nobility can be that easy, or we wouldn't find quite so many people getting them quite so wrong quite so often.

This is one of many reasons I'm glad my current employer uses the Chicago Manual of Style (I escaped from the world of newspapers a decade ago). Though even with Chicago at my back, I run into confrontations with people (especially marketing and HR folks) who think all job titles should be capitalized everywhere. A bio for a speaker at a conference might read "He started out as a Junior Sales Associate and within two years was promoted to Senior Sales Manager. Today he is the Lead Senior Sales Consultant for XYZ Co." It looks like a bit of a massacre once I get my red pen out and slash all the caps down to lowercase.

I've noticed that people seem to take personal offense at their title being lowercased, as if I'm somehow taking away their responsibilities or mocking their role. I promise, I'm not trying to belittle all that a lead senior sales consultant does--I'm just trying to make the text as legible and logical as possible.

Be_slayed: Mark Twain was there first in "The Awful German Language":

"I translated a passage one day, which said that ‘the infuriated tigress broke loose and utterly ate up the unfortunate fir forest’ (Tannenwald). When I was girding up my loins to doubt this, I found out that Tannenwald in this instance was a man’s name."

German, like English, has definite and indefinite articles.

Ornithologists and birders also use all-titlecase style for the common names of species: there may be many red-winged black birds, or even red-winged blackbirds, but a Red-winged Blackbird is specifically Agelaius phoeniceus.

@John Cowan: It's true that German has definite & indefinite articles, but German, unlike English, optionally uses definitive articles even with (personal) proper names, e.g. Ich bin der Hans; Ich bin die Maria. So I'm guessing Twain's passage actually ended "...den Tannenwald."

When my sons were still in need of childcare I had an older woman who filled in on occasion. She always addressed me as "Mother." I figured she couldn't remember my name, but now I think I will consider it a title of nobility.

Hey, Dahlink! When we lived, briefly, in the state just to the north, my kids' pediatrician always addressed me "Mother". I did, once, tell him that I was NOT his mother. No sense of humor, that man.

Eve, I hope you changed pediatricians!

At least everybody knows what "vice-president" means. My son works for a computer company, and if you ask him what he does there, and he says "member of the technical staff," you are likely to misunderstand (unless you work for a computer company too). That's a rank, not a description. Like "vice president" it is a job you are specifically promoted to, and it would be capitalized before his name. (I think.)

Well I don't (know what v-p means).

@Picky, old lad, just what part of "v-p" don't you understand? HA!

Frankly, I believe this particular corporate title is handed out far too frequently, particularly in bank management circles, where v-ps appear to be almost as ubiquitous as the lowly tellers. It gets me to pondering, if this is supposed to be such a prestigious, and exalted post, then why do most bank headquarters have passels of them floating around; half the time seemingly trying to figure out what exactly their task at hand might be? A veritable dime-a-dozen, as it were.

Oh, the glories of inflated bureaucracies run amok!

Ducky "Direct Deposit" isaksson............. could I have that in dollar bills, s'il vous plait?

Well, Alex, we tend not to have them over here, in business as in politics. I've never been too sure where they sit in the corporate hierarchy and why.


This is no April Fool's Day joke, old lad.

Seems Scottish-born mega-star chanteuse, 2009's 'Britain's Got Talent' runner-up, Susan Boyle, is celebrating her 50th birthday, today.

Hardly a mere one-hit-wonder w/ her mesmerizing number (and eponymously named debut album), "I Dreamed a Dream", her compelling, sweet voice continues to captivate millions of fans around the globe......... particularly our 'boomer' generation, and beyond.

Jolly good for the super-gifted, down-to-earth Ms Boyle!

Talk about the quintessential Cinderella story. She really DID dreamed a dream, and by gum, it all came true. After an ofttimes rough period of adjustment to the almost immediate fame, and mounting media hoopla, w/ a few tough emotional patches along the way, she seems to have settled into, and owned her celebrity, and new public persona, but still manages to retain that down-home, unpretentious natural authenticity, sweetness, and honesty that so endeared her to her earliest fans. Clearly, what you see, (and hear), is what you get.

Happy Fool's Day and Happy B-Day, Susan!

Happy April Fool's Day to you, as well, Picky.

Ducky "Sings in the Tub" Isaksson................. so there, Simon Cowell. HA!

I'm not sure that style (which is very colloquial) existed in Twain's day. However, in both German and English, a proper name gets an article if it's modified by an adjective, so "die unglückliche Tannenwald." = "the unfortunate Tannenwald".

Picky: "Vice President" is more or less a corporate knighthood: it doesn't specify any particular role, unlike "President". At one of my former employers, the only way to get a private office was to both be a VP and have a subordinate who was also a VP. At another employer, no less than one out of five employees was a VP, Associate VP, or Assistant VP. Most of the rest seemed to be Assistant Treasurers, a title having nothing to do with the corporate treasury.

Very odd.

@John Cowan: At least for English, that's not always true, e.g. Bad: "The tigress ate up the poor Bill.", Good: "The tigress ate up poor Bill." Also, "old Bill", "ugly old Bill", etc.

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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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