Honorific Titles and Personal Names

Word Choice

Honorific titles are words like doctor, miss, professor, etc., that we put in front of someone’s name. Several rules have to be observed, and they depend on the situation.

Rule 1: You may place a title in front of someone’s last name only, if you are addressing them directly (i.e., in the “second person”) in a spoken or written communication. And if you are addressing them by last name, you must use a title.

Rule 2: You may place a title in front of someone’s full name, if you are referring to them in the third person (i.e., talking about them to someone else, not addressing them directly). This is typical in spoken English, and in some personal written communications. However, in written English it will depend on the particular style that pertains to where you are writing. If someone’s name appears as a source in an academic paper, you should use the name only, without any title attached.

Rule 3: Do not use a person’s full name when addressing that person in the second person (i.e., speaking in that person’s direction). Instead, you may use an honorific title with the last name, or you may use the first name (without the honorific) for a less formal situation or relationship.

Rule 4: Don’t place a title before someone’s first name if you are omitting their last name, i.e., when you are being casual or familiar.

Rule 5: Don’t use the in front of a personal name, including when an honorific title precedes it. So although we might say the doctor will see you now, we can’t say the Doctor Smith will see you now.

Rule 6: Always capitalize titles.

Rule 7: When writing titles before names, it is standard to abbreviate, even in the most formal writing. Put a period at the end of such abbreviations in American English (although the rule is different in British English).

Rule 8: Be careful not to refer to someone as “Dr.” unless you are certain the person has attained a doctorate degree.

Rule 9: Use only one title in front of a name. In cases where an individual has attained multiple titles, they are ordinarily referred to by the one that describes their current position or the highest position attained. For example, Ms. Hilary Clinton became Senator Hilary Clinton when she was elected Senator in New York, and later she became Secretary Clinton when she was appointed as Secretary of State in the Obama administration. When she retired from that office, she continued to be called Secretary Clinton, her last and highest position.

Rule 10: Although you will sometimes see titles spelled out (Doctor, Professor), you must not spell out the full forms of Mr., Mrs., and Ms.

Rule 11: Some titles also occur as terms of direct address, i.e., without a name attached. Mister,  Missus, and Miss are sometimes used this way, although the terms Sir and Ma’am are more polite and more common. Doctor is commonly used as a term of address with medical doctors, dentists and other health care professionals who have a doctorate degree, but not with professors and other academic people. When writing these terms, they are always capitalized.

Rule 12: The title Miss was formerly used for any unmarried female, but nowadays it should be reserved for young girls. To use it with an adult woman would be considered a reference to her marital status, which nowadays is unprofessional or even rude. According to Marc Grinker of Chicago-Kent College of Law, “If you know that a person refers to herself as ‘Mrs.’ or ‘Miss,’ you should respect that choice. However, if you don’t know the individual’s preference, you should use ‘Ms.'” Grinker goes on to say that “women should not be required to reveal their marital status by the use of ‘Mrs.’ or ‘Miss.'” This is only fair because, as Grinker continues,  “the use of the term ‘Mr.’ in referring to a man does not reveal his marital status.”

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English Titles

Gender Neutral Language