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.