Courtesy Titles and Honorifics
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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