On the name desk

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My posting on Clark Hoyt's column on the NYT's practices in referring to people by name has elicited interesting commentary, some of which I'll talk about here.

There were two sets of Times practices Hoyt discussed: the use of "courtesy titles" (that is, Title + LN [last name], in Mrs. Clinton or Senator Clinton, rather than LN alone — or, of course FN [first name] alone) in non-first mentions of someone; and the use of middle names, as in Barack Hussein Obama.

The Times practices on the second point are complex, and it's no surprise readers don't get what the paper is doing, or that the paper gets tripped up on occasion. Many of the reactions I've seen have been to flatly reject Hoyt's account of the affair and to connect the Times's use of Hussein on occasion to other people's use of the middle name to slur Obama. These critics note — as did Hoyt in his column — that when John McCain was nominated, the Times did not refer to him as John Sidney McCain III. But Hoyt also noted that the paper has been inconsistent in its treatment of names in stories announcing presidential nominations:

Richard Milhous Nixon was nominated in 1968, but it was Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980, Ronald Wilson Reagan in 1984, George Walker Bush in 2000, and George W. Bush in 2004.

… Given the sensitivity surrounding Obama's middle name, I thought The Times would take extra pains to be sure that John Sidney McCain III was nominated the following week by the Republicans. It didn't happen. News, in the form of Sarah Palin, intervened. On the night McCain was nominated, she stole the show with a speech watched by nearly 40 million Americans and became the top of the news story. By the time McCain was introduced in the second paragraph, a drumroll [in the form of a full name] would have seemed "misplaced," [editor Chuck] Strum said.

But many readers found Hoyt's tortured explanation for Hussein but not Sidney unconvincing. Barbara Pleskow asked in a letter to the public editor published yesterday (Week in Review, p. 10),

Is it possible that editors at The Times were so unaware of the paranoia of those opposed to Barack Obama that they did not see that they were feeding this sickness?

I think it's time to silence the drumrolls at the paper.

The first point of newsroom style, the use of courtesy titles in non-first mentions, has lots of intriguing wrinkles to it. In the earlier posting, I pointed out that the policy requires writers to find out which title a woman prefers, and observed some restrictions on the titles: they are used only for adults, and they aren't used in the sports pages. I realized — though I didn't note this in my first posting — that historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson don't get courtesy titles. And I assumed that people who use only a single name, like Dylan, Madonna, Prince, and Christo, don't get courtesy titles.

Since then I have discovered that the paper apparently allows columnists to follow whatever practices they prefer. You can see from the passage from Hoyt quoted above that he doesn't use courtesy titles (even in a column about the Times's insistence on courtesy titles!). William Safire doesn't use the "prefixes" Mr., Miss, Ms., Mrs. in his "On Language" columns, though he occasionally uses one of the other titles; mostly, he uses LN, or FN for people he knows personally. In yesterday's editorial pages, the columns by Maureen Dowd, Frank Rich, and Thomas L. Friedman are free of courtesy titles in non-first mentions, while Nicholas D. Kristof's column uses courtesy titles consistently. Outside of news reporting, then, courtesy titles are a matter of personal, rather than general newsroom, style.

But there's more. John McIntyre blogged recently on the practice, in an entertaining piece entitled "Misplaced courtesy", which reports that the Baltimore Sun used to use courtesy titles "everywhere but in the sports section", but then "after a minor revolt on the copy desk against the practice", it "abandoned courtesy titles, except in obituaries" (note: there's still a special case). But McIntyre's personal style on his blog is to use the titles, so that after a first mention of me as Arnold Zwicky, I'm Professor Zwicky throughout.

(My own practice is much like Safire's. In the previous paragraph, my second mention of John McIntyre was by LN, McIntyre. In an earlier posting, second and later mentions of Ben Zimmer and John McIntyre were by FN, Ben and John. But this time around, since McIntyre was using Title + LN for me, it seemed awkward to me to use FN in return, though I'm not willing to go all the way to Mr. McIntyre. Sigh. There is, by the way, a huge literature on the choice of names used to and about people in various social situations.)

McIntyre reported that before the change,

The need on The Sun's copy desk to address every contingency led to a virtually Talmudic intricacy in interpreting the policy.

Two cases: historical figures and criminals, neither of which merited a courtesy title. But when does a figure become historical? McIntyre eventually ruled "that they become historical by the time the flesh falls from the bones". As for criminals, when does someone count as a criminal? Well, U.S. jurisprudence presumes innocence, so the Sun used a title until conviction, then went for plain LN — and restored the title after the criminal had served out the sentence and was off probation. Oh my.

No surprise that the staff rebelled. And, of course, ordinary readers would have had no clue as to the code.

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