Courtesy Titles and Honorifics

By Mark Nichol

There was a time when it was considered proper form to refer indirectly to people in writing with a courtesy title or an honorific — a designation that identifies gender, profession, or title of nobility. That time, to the great relief of writers everywhere, has passed.

Of course, in direct address — in a salutation, or when otherwise referring to someone in writing (as in a transcription) — it is and perhaps always will be proper to identify people with such markers: “Mr. Smith,” “Captain Jones,” “Doctor Williams,” “Reverend Taylor,” and so on. But with few exceptions, such terms are obsolete when referring to people in the third person.

The custom was cumbersome, requiring writers to be sure they knew more about a person that was perhaps necessary (or relevant): Is Mr. Smith a mere “John Smith,” or is he “Colonel John Smith (ret.)”? And is a woman a “Mrs.,” a “Ms.,” or a “Miss” — and why does it matter?

Likewise, does Captain Jones hold that specific naval rank, or is she commander of a naval vessel or installation and therefore called “Captain” in recognition of her status as a commanding officer even though her actual rank is different, or is she the owner of a sailboat? Is Doctor Williams a medical doctor, or did he earn a doctorate? Is Reverend Taylor’s status as a member of the clergy relevant to that person’s mention in an article or a book?

Though the New York Times persists in using courtesy titles (except in editorials and feature articles), this is a rare quirk bordering on obsolete affectation. Of course, courtesy titles are appropriate on first reference to a person: “The Reverend Robert Taylor” (or, in newspaper style, “Rev. Robert Taylor”) should be identified as such when introduced. (Alternatively, the introduction may be more relaxed: “Robert Taylor, pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church.”)

But the crux of this post is that on second reference — that’s editor-speak for any reference beyond the first one — no courtesy title or honorific is necessary, and it’s simpler to avoid using one. A few examples follow:

“John Smith was present at the meeting, she said. . . . Smith [not “Mr. Smith”] spoke on the topic during the public-comment period.”

“Captain Mary Jones took command of the ship in 2010. . . . Jones [not “Captain Jones”] is a twenty-five year navy veteran.”

“She appealed to Doctor James Williams. . . . Williams [not “Doctor Williams”] responded encouragingly.”

“The Reverend Robert Taylor officiated at the wedding. . . . Taylor [not “Reverend Taylor”] reminded the bride that he had baptized her.”

In narrative nonfiction or in fiction, of course, a subject or character might be referred to habitually as “Captain Jones” because that is how people actually refer to her, as when the owner of a fishing trawler is widely known in a community — perhaps few even know her first name — or in the case of a naval officer always so addressed by crew members. The same exception applies to other courtesy titles, even “Mr.” and “Mrs.” or “Ms.,” which, unlike the others, are always abbreviated. Ultimately, however, the burden of proof is on whether a courtesy title should appear on second reference — and the answer is usually no.

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11 Responses to “Courtesy Titles and Honorifics”

  • Melissa

    Even in speech, it still is never correct to refer to someone as “Reverend Taylor.” “Reverend” is comparable to “Honorable” as used for various dignitaries, and must be preceded by “the” when the full name and title are used, as in some of the examples (The Rev. Robert Taylor). I agree with Nichol’s point that it’s best to dispense with honorifics on second reference, but if a publication’s style demands them, the second reference honorific for the clergy should be Mr., Ms., Mrs., or Dr., as appropriate–or in some denominations, Father, Pastor, etc.–never Reverend.

  • Barbara

    What about titles in business minutes? We have used Mr. Jones and Chair Smith (the committee chair can be male or female).

  • (The Rev.) Barry M. Signorelli

    You do not address the issue directly, so it bears repeating that the form “Reverend Taylor” is incorrect in any circumstance, despite its common usage by the media and many Protestant denominations. As any Episcopalian should know, “Reverend” is used in exactly the same way as “Honorable;” just as one would not would not address Judge John Smith as “Honorable Smith,” so should one not address Father/Pastor Jim Green as “Reverend Green.” I realize this incorrect form is reinforced in the public mind every time an interviewer poses a question for Jesse Jackson to “Reverend Jackson,” but speaking as an Episcopal priest, I would much rather answer to “Father Signorelli” or “Pastor Signorelli” (or even “Father/Pastor Barry” or just “Barry”) than be addressed as “Reverend.”

    Oh, and while I have everyone’s attention, “Episcopal” is the adjective, “Episcopalian” is the noun.

  • (The Rev.) Barry M. Signorelli

    Exactly, Melissa, I didn’t see your post until after I wrote mine, but you are spot-on.

  • Sally

    When writing a non-personal letter or e-mail to someone whose name I know, I still write “Dear Ms/Mr/Appropriate Title + Surname”.

    Unfortunately English does not have a non-gendered non-specific salutation, so I must write “Dear Madam/Sir” (reversing the normal sexist order).

  • Curtis

    While he was at it, Mr. Nichol should have addressed the matter of capitalization.

    Titles are only capitalized in direct address, whether the person’s name is included or not; e.g.:

    “That’s correct, Captain.”
    “That’s correct, Captain Reynolds.”

    Titles are not capitalized when speaking generally:

    “The commander went to fetch more coffee for the captain.”

  • Sven R. Kunze

    @Sally
    Why on earth is “Dear Sir or Madam” a sexist order?

  • Lallarn

    What of when you don’t know whether she is a Mrs. or Ms.? I tend to write Mrs. if I am uncertain, but is that customary? Any way of getting around this problem?

  • Cayetana

    Lallarn, it’s always best to use Ms. unless you know the person prefers a different title. Also, you should not use Mrs. with a woman’s name; it is properly only used in the form “Mrs. John Doe”. So to use Mrs. you not only need to know if she’s married, but what her husband’s full name is.

  • Dean Kutzler

    What about when writing a fiction novel. Do you capitalize father, when referring to a priest. Eg. “The hour hand struck noon, when Father Jones realized he’d missed sermon.”

  • Mark Nichol

    Dean:

    Yes, any religious honorific preceding a person’s name should be capitalized.

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