Consistent Style Sheet Eliminates Value Judgments

By Maeve Maddox

One of our readers, Pankaj, has asked for clarification on the posting called “The Gentleman Fled on Foot.” Was I addressing a matter of diction, or was I advocating the denial of respect for persons in unfortunate circumstances?

Some publications and newsrooms have a policy of referring to people by surname only, once the full name has been mentioned.

Others have a policy of adding the honorific to the surname every time–or for a set number of times–after the full name has been mentioned.

In either case, I see no problem. When a policy is in place, the writer knows whether to use “Mr/Ms/Rev/Dr with the surname, or to go with plain “Jones.”

My post was concerned with a practice that I’ve observed often enough to regard it as a trend. Apparently many news sources have no set policy because they sometimes refer to people by surname only, and sometimes with the honorific plus surname.

I first became aware of this strange practice several years ago when my dissertation adviser was murdered in his campus office. I’ll call the professor “Jones,” and the man who killed him “Smith.” One of the articles published in a local paper, having named both men in the lead, went on for several columns to refer to the professor, who had a Ph.D. and was usually called “Dr. Jones,” as “Jones,” but referred to the other man as “Mr. Smith” each time he was mentioned.

It could be that the tendency to be super-polite when talking about criminals grows from the knowledge that anyone who has yet to be convicted must be referred to as an “alleged” whatever. Perhaps writers who call bank robbers “gentlemen” are just being cautious. I don’t know.

In any case, the question forced me to look at why this inconsistency of diction bothers me. I’ve had to conclude that Mr. Pankaj is a more accepting person than I am. In the absence of a style sheet rule, I’d be inclined to leave off the “Mr.” when it comes to perpetrators of the more horrid crimes.

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4 Responses to “Consistent Style Sheet Eliminates Value Judgments”

  • pkchukiss

    For my local newspapers, they tend to leave out the honorific for alleged criminals. I disagree with this practice, since it always gives me the impression that the paper has already convicted the person even before a hearing.

    That sounds very rude, especially if the person is later acquitted.

    On the other hand, printing the honorific and surname of a person who is being charged sounds a little awkward, and may appear weird to someone looking through the archives if the person is later convicted.

    A possible compromise might be to print the person’s first name while he is not convicted.

  • Donna

    I agree with you, but you reversed yourself with Pankaj’s name by adding the honorific only after the first usage. Can your readers have an explanation?

    How do you know “Pankaj” is a male’s last name?

    I was hoping you would say, “. . . I’d be inclined to leave off the honorific when it comes to perpetrators of the more horrific crimes.”

  • Maeve

    Donna,
    I didn’t know what kind of name “Pankaj” is. I thought the “Mr.” fit the context of my article.

    As for horrid/horrific — why were you hoping for horrific?

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