Copy-editing with a twist

The ins and outs of being a copy editor

If you’re wondering, it’s Miss Sanchez

Posted by Noel Sanchez on September 30, 2008

Ah, courtesy titles. They’re one of the most noticeable stylistic differences that vary from paper to paper. For the record, I don’t really understand the use of courtesy titles. I suppose it sounds nicer to refer to someone in this more “polite” manner, but using a person’s last name sans title on second reference doesn’t seem all that disrespectful to me. Personally, I think that newspapers that use courtesy titles are just asking for inconsistencies.

Politeness seems to be the overarching argument for using the titles, but the folks at Language Log recently questioned that reasoning.

“Courtesy title” is an odd nomenclature in this context. It suggests that the Times is being respectful, but its policy of using the titles for all non-athlete adults — even crazed killers and monstrous dictators — doesn’t end up conveying respect. When Robert Mugabe is referred to, in non-first mentions, as “Mr. Mugabe” or “President Mugabe”, I cringe at the idea that the Times is showing respect for the man.

It’s just following a style sheet, not showing respect. But how are its readers supposed to know this? The style sheet might warm the hearts of the NYT staff, but what the readers see is inexplicable variation in the use of titles.

Language Log goes on to say that outdated conventions like courtesy titles can end up confusing readers.

… The Times staff is failing to do something all writing teachers tell their students to do: take your readers’ viewpoint. Instead, they’re looking at things from their viewpoint (including following the newsroom “rules”.)

Luckily, I work at a newspaper that doesn’t use courtesy titles, which is great because I know the Miss/Ms./Mrs. triangle would provide a nightly headache. We’d have to rely on the writer having asked a source about her preferred title. And what about a person in the story who the writer didn’t interview? Is the writer to guess if the person is married? And what happens when the writer can’t figure it out? The burden would probably fall on the copy desk, with the editor consulting with the writer to come up with an educated guess.

I can just imagine how that conversation would go. “Um, I didn’t see a ring on her finger, I guess I should go with ‘Miss’? Oh wait, she’s a career woman, maybe ‘Ms.’ would be more appropriate.”

And I don’t even want to attempt to figure out how a married woman who has kept her maiden name wants to be addressed.

This might just seem like the rant of a lazy writer or editor who didn’t bother to do a thorough enough interview or research, but I could see this being a commonly occurring problem. And one that isn’t easy to avoid. Because once you’ve committed to the courtesy title, you have to use it throughout the entire story on every subsequent reference.

If those potential hiccups aren’t bad enough, newsrooms that use courtesy titles often have other little rules regarding their use. The New York Times doesn’t use them for athletes, and back when The Boston Globe used courtesy titles, they didn’t extend the titles to convicted criminals or historical figures. All these little cracks lead to arbitrary decisions (when does someone become historical?) and, inevitably, inconsistencies.

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