Comrades in newspaper reading, ennobled or not: recently I described Guardian policy on use of honorifics and invited readers’ views. Diverse opinions arrived, many expressed strongly. I was not dissuaded from my support for the current minimalist approach – and any change in policy would be a matter for the editor-in-chief. However, as always, the readers gave the issues some fresh perspective. Their influence may spread.
Understandably, responses predominantly reflected UK culture, but some looked wider.
A matter of class
• “Deference is a pernicious influence on our society, as all-pervasive as the caste system in India. Using a title before a person’s name is a none too subtle way of saying to someone without a title that ‘I am superior to you’.”
“[It] is hard on people who have been awarded a title for years of genuinely hard and unpaid work for the community … [but] our honours system is so corrupt and so closely linked to our class system that for some people an honorific is nothing but a badge of shame … But while we allow this system to continue, newspapers like the Guardian should distance themselves from it by not using honorifics.”
Firmly in favour
• “I find the use of surnames only in news articles one of the most offputting features of your house style. To refer to, for example, a young woman who has been murdered as ‘Smith’ … sounds cruel and unfeeling. To refer, in a report of a court case, to Lord Justice Smith as ‘Smith’ sounds bizarre and doctrinaire. The only real-life contexts I can think of where people nowadays are habitually referred to by surname only are prisons, sports and academic articles. Given the choice between ‘May’, ‘Theresa May’ and ‘Mrs/Ms May’ … I think the last will usually sound most appropriate.”
• “Having obtained a PhD at the age of 75, I prefer to be referred to as Dr because finally, at least some of the time, it stops people making gender-based assumptions about me.”
• “‘Use just surname’ sounds simple, but is problematic. It works well enough for English/western names, but can look very odd when applied to other systems of nomenclature where the ‘surname’ as such is either nonexistent or doesn’t work in the way that westerners expect. This point … is regularly ignored in your newspaper for people (and especially women) of South Asian origin. A ‘last name’ such as Devi or Begum is not a ‘surname’, but precisely an honorific: the equivalent of Ms/Mrs. It is incorrect therefore to refer, for example, to the late Phoolan Devi as ‘Devi’, which could refer to any woman in numerous Hindu communities; she should be called Phoolan, which was her only name. It is still common in South Asia for people, male and female, to have only one name, and even where this is not the case the first name is felt to be primary and often used in the media. In western societies it is no doubt patronising and demeaning to refer in formal contexts to people – especially women – by their first name alone. But it is a subtly Eurocentric assumption that the same is true in the rest of the world, and I would like to think that the Guardian could do better.”
• “[T]he sort of honorifics I’m thinking of are closer to, say, Japanese usage … that sense that everyone deserves honorifics, all are worthy of respect … How to translate to English usage I must leave for wiser heads.”
• “I bristle each time I see or hear people being identified by their surname only. In relation to men it just seems archaic – something from the 50s and before – and for women it is just plain rude. Nor do I subscribe to the use of honorifics. People have names – a first name and surname, and they should be used. Would using a first name, after identifying someone by both names, be too familiar? I think not.”
• “… proper names should be highlighted (for example, printed in bold or possibly capitals) on their first appearance in a story. On that first appearance people’s names are printed together with their position. It is usually the position that is important, and the reader, very likely, will not register the name. Later the surname appears on its own, and the reader has to search back to find out who this person is. This would be made very much easier if the name was highlighted in some way.”
Meticulousness, with an agenda
• “Titles should always be used. And they should be used correctly (always Lord Archer, never Lord Jeffrey Archer, for example). Better still, you should use the fullest and most baroque version of the title possible (Baron Archer of Weston‑super‑Mare) on every mention. If people are vain enough to accept a title and enjoy the perks of status we shouldn’t let them pretend they’re just ordinary people by referring to them by their ‘common’ names. Maybe then people might realise how utterly ridiculous the whole thing is.”
• “Academic: OK to call oneself ‘Professor’ if writing as a specialist on the subject under discussion. Not if you are writing on a different matter unrelated to your expertise, for instance, Morris Minors reaching Marrakech. The epithet ‘Dr’ in particular grates. It usually implies the writer has a PhD – so OK if writing as a specialist but preferably amplified by, for instance, ‘Reader in Physics, X University’.
• “Occupational: most medical practitioners are bachelors rather than doctors of medicine. In their case Dr is an occupational title, so OK to use when writing on medical subjects but ideally followed by their job title. However whether in letters or elsewhere or on radio/TV, ‘Dr Liam Fox’ irritates … [H]e no longer practises, so drop the epithet!”
• “I have a strange forgiveness for the cloth. Somehow Rev, Canon, Bishop do not grate even if the subject is not clerical.”
Concise, even enigmatic
• “Honorific titles are useful, in that they can preserve nuance.” My thanks to all who responded.
• Paul Chadwick is the Guardian’s reader’s editor