Few news organizations still use courtesy titles these days and it appears the number that still does recently dropped by one.
Courtesy titles just got the boot at a Massachusetts newspaper.
Columnist George Barnes explains that The Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, Massachusetts, recently reverted to a previous style. That style bans courtesy titles.
So what are courtesy titles?
When we were kids, we learned to refer to our teachers as Mr. Jones or Mrs. Carter. We learned that adding those titles was the polite thing to do.
We also learned that when it was a young woman who was unmarried, we should use Miss before her name. And in the 1970s, the title Ms. came into fashion for women who didn’t want to be defined by their marital status. (It’s also the preferred choice when the marital status is unknown.)
Courtesy titles also apply to professional titles like Dr. and military ranks like Lt. or Sgt.
They come into play after ‘first reference’
In journalism circles and in other types of professional titles, the issue of courtesy titles comes up after the first time you refer to a person.
For example, if I’m writing about Dr. Sam Jones, I’ll refer to him exactly that way the first time I mention him by name. That’s first reference.
From there on out, every time I refer to him by name, I have to determine whether I’ll use his courtesy title. Do I call him “Dr. Jones” or just “Jones”?
For a doctor, dropping the Dr. may sound disrespectful.
But then you run across a character like the late Charles Manson. Some believe “Mr. Manson” sounds a bit inappropriate.
And therein lies the problem: Whether you use them or not, someone’s going to find fault. Someone is going to take offense.
As with many things, there’s no way to win.
From a grammatical standpoint, the best you can hope for is consistency.
Should Lt. Carol Jackson be “Lt. Jackson” or “Jackson” after her first reference in an article?
Should Fire Chief Dave James be “Chief James” or “James” from the second reference forward?
The New York Times prefers courtesy titles. You’ll see them throughout their articles. That’s their style. Like it or not, they’re consistent about it.
The Associated Press Style Book, on the other hand, bans them. Many news organizations use AP Style for consistency. That way, when AP members share stories, there’s a general consistency in the style in which the stories are written.
Changing styles isn’t always easy.
And that’s the quandary Barnes writes about in his column.
“My problem is that using courtesy titles has been hardwired to my brain over many years, and it will need a lot of reprogramming,” he writes.
When you’re used to writing in a certain style, it’s definitely difficult to make that mental adjustment.
That’s why you see journalists complaining whenever AP makes a change to its style guidelines. Something as simple, for instance, as allowing the use of the percent sign rather than the requirement that the word percent be spelled out can cause grumblings among journalists.
Most readers, of course, probably won’t notice the change. Unless, of course, they know someone who they feel is either being disrespected or given too much benefit of the doubt.
But writers pay attention to such details.
And hopefully, we get them right much more often than not.