Tips for Treating Titles of People

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Civil titles (Mr., Mrs., and Ms.) — have become largely archaic and superfluous in written communication, and Dr. is usually unnecessary, too — and, in the case of someone who earned a doctorate, is often seen as a disingenuous affectation. (When necessary, follow the person’s name with PhD instead).

A doctor with a medical degree is better identified by a brief reference to his or her specialty or the specific medical degree earned (“cardiologist Thomas Johnson” or “Thomas Johnson, MD”). Even in fiction, civil titles are of questionable value except in dialogue or in a narrative reference — for example, when conversationally referring to the town general practitioner in a novel with a rural setting.

People with professional titles by virtue of affiliation with politics, education, religion, the military, and such may be identified as such on first reference (“President Linda Thompson,” “Professor John O’Brien,” “Reverend Andrew Morris,” “Captain Jane Long”), but, as with civil titles, there’s no reason to subsequently use the title before the name, unless, like the rural doctor, the person is a character being mentioned or hailed in a story.

Most titles have an abbreviated form, but though these are commonly used in journalistic contexts, they’re generally unnecessary (except, perhaps, when space is at a minimum, such as in a table with narrow columns). Military abbreviations consist of all capital letters, but references in civilian contexts need not follow suit.

In the case of members of legislative bodies, it is sometimes necessary to identify the level of office, such as when mentioning politicians from various countries or comparing state and federal governance. In such cases, Senator James Smith should be referred to as “US senator James Smith”; note how senator is lowercased because it is now part of the epithet “US senator” and is not an official title.

This transformation is also applicable when referring to, for example, “state senator Mary Jones” or “California senator Mary Jones,” even though, under different circumstances, she would be identified simply as “Senator Mary Jones.”

This style variation should be used consistently in a given publication but need not be maintained in every issue of a periodical or every update to a Web site, unless it’s necessary to do so to perpetuate the distinction.

Ultimately, when deciding whether to precede names with titles, let common sense be your guide; it is a courtesy to include them on first reference, but it is superfluous do so in every instance.

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5 thoughts on “Tips for Treating Titles of People”

  1. I thought the title Reverend was like Honorable in that it requires an article (e.g. the Reverend Andrew Morris).

  2. J Edward:

    That’s correct. Both titles should be preceded by the. Thanks for catching that omission.

  3. MD may be acceptable in the US but a General Practitioner in the UK whilst referring to himself as a GP would still expect to be referred to as Dr xxxx.

  4. I think (??) the referrence was to writing, not verbal address. In the US a physician would be addressed as “Doctor Smith”, too. Likewise, in a professional setting, at least, PhDs are called “Doctor Jones”, etc.

    To be a bit of a PITA, though, “reverend” is not really a title (as noted above) and at least some Protestant clergy don’t like being addressed as “Reverend Lovejoy” or “Reverend”. Especially when they have a doctorate (they also get addressed as “Doctor”).

    I’m not sure what is meant by, “Military abbreviations consist of all capital letters”. If that means abbreviated rank titles before names, then that varies by branch of serives. In the US military, the Army and Navy use all-caps rank abbreviations. The Air Force and the Marines do not. So a staff sergeant named Baker would be SSG Baker in the Army, SSgt. Baker in the AF or MC (with the period at the end).

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