Thursday, March 13, 2008

When Style Gets Serious

If you can't fix a broken leg, I'm not calling you "doctor."

For many years that was the smart-aleck, in-a-nutshell version of my honorifics policy when it comes to Ph.D.s. In "Lapsing Into a Comma," I got more precise:

Doctors are doctors. People with doctorates are people with doctorates.

It's best to avoid the issue altogether, and unless your publication routinely uses courtesy titles (Mr. Clinton met with Mr. Kohl), it's a pretty easy issue to avoid. If Marcus Welby is a physician, say physician Marcus Welby. Otherwise you have to make tough decisions on where to draw the Dr. line. Dentists? Veterinarians? Chiropractors?

If you think I'm being a Nazi about this . . .

At least seven U.S. citizens working as researchers in Germany have faced criminal probes in recent months for using the title "Dr." on their business cards, Web sites and resumes. They all hold doctoral degrees from elite universities back home.


vtuss said...

Glad to see Drs. Rice and Kissinger were called out. A lesson worth remembering, for all those who didn't make it to the second page of the article.

Frolic said...

Crazy article, but it's got nothing to do with your point. German (and now European) Ph.D.'s can call themselves Dr. in Germany. It's just the foreigners who get into trouble.

In fact, I've been told that German academics often write two dissertations and then get to use Dr. Dr. as their title. Seriously. (Maybe that's what the Thompson Twins were singing about so many years ago.)

Bill said...

Yes, unfortunately there is an asterisk there.

Frolic said...

In a more serious vein, the affliction for using Dr. is a marker of class in the academy. A Cornell professor once explained that only authors of self-help books think that a Ph.D. entitles them to be called doctor. On an academic discussion board, someone once said that Rice probably uses Dr. because she didn't go to a top school.

To add a little more to this, a friend who recently starting practicing medicine said that young doctors (I'm talking early 30s here) snicker at the older docs who are pretentious enough to use the "Dr." title on their checks and such. At least among his peers of medical doctors, the Dr. title was reserved for on the job.

Bill said...

I like that development. I'm flashing back to old TV shows and movies in which physicians and their wives are always "Dr. and Mrs." for restaurant reservations and such.

Anonymous said...

I too have a few young doctor friends, also earlier 30's (yet older than me), and I don't think any of them find it particularly cool to use "Dr." in front of everything. They'd laugh each other out the door for doing so.
I also agree with Frolic's first point--three people in my immediate family are professors, and I have yet to see one of them ask to be referred to as "Dr. Stanton."

Fab said...

In Germany if a woman is married to a MD she is Frau Dokter (Mrs Doctor) , not sure what happens to him if she is the MD

Nonplussed2 said...


Sorry to post off-topic but I have a question: What's with the inundation of headlines in the Post lately with this structure:

In Hillary's Datebook, a Shift
In something something, something
For someone, something

If I had my dead-tree archive from home (i.e. recycling pile) I could list the dozens of examples I've seen just since I noticed the patter a couple of weeks ago. There were two on A1 alone one day. It's unreal -- like there's a contest to see how many make it in.

(See: Malcolm Gladwell in "This American Life" episode 348, "Tough Room." I'm sure you've heard it.)

Are you guys just particularly fond of this construction or what? Personally, I find them to be stilted and hard to read. Info at the beginning, I say...action rules!

Thanks. Love the blog.

Bill said...

Oh, are we overusing that device? The Hillary Clinton headline was mine, albeit mine in desperation on a tough count with deadline approaching.

Sometimes the actor is more important than the action, and that places the actor first in what I consider a sophisticated fashion.

Nonplussed2 said...

Oh I wouldn't say overusing; I'm just hyper-aware since I noticed the two on A1 a few weeks back.

Mostly just wondering if you've talked about that device on the desk and have a preference for it, or whether it's just coincidence.

It does seem to span the sections but I'm an A-section kinda guy, which where I see it most.

rknil said...

There are too many question headlines in papers these days.

Apparently in addition to not reading the articles, the "copy editors" have decided to take the slugline and stick a question mark after it.

Example: The budget refers to the city council discussing a pay raise.

Headline: Pay raise for council?

And so on. These tell the reader NOTHING.

Janet S. said...

"Men of letters" were called "doctor" long before those upstart physicians came along and hijacked the title to get the prestige it had already accrued.

That said, in my personal experience, anyone, of any education, who insists on being called "Doctor", comes across as insecure.

Terry Murray said...

Sorry to be commenting so long after the original post. I'm the clinical editor of a paper for Canadian physicians and our style - breaking with Canadian Press style - is to call everyone who has a doctorate or equivalent "Dr." on first and subsequent reference. To make the distinction clear between "real" doctors and the others, we let physicians' and surgeons' "Dr." honorific stand unqualified, whereas everyone else gets their degree in parens (e.g., PhD, ScD, DVM, DDS, JD) after their name on first reference.

DrBMBridge said...

"Doctors are doctors. People with doctorates are people with doctorates." - not actually true.

Doesn't the actual definition of the word mean something?

I'm from the UK. Full disclosure, I have a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Durham. Back home if you've earned a doctorate you earned the right to be called a doctor, per the definition. Medical doctors don't have a doctorate, they have a Bachelor's degree in medicine, admittedly not true in the US, but are called doctors because to be " a person skilled or specializing in healing arts" is also another, equally valid, definition of doctor.

If I choose to go by "Dr." that's my business, and a right I worked hard for. To tell me I can't, or shouldn't or that you are going to play fast and loose with the definition of a word to suit your beliefs is, frankly, insulting.

Lori said...

I second DrBMBridge actually. The true problem is with usage of the word "doctor" to mean "physician" or "medical doctor," when in actuality it really refers to anyone who has received a doctoral-level degree. In the U.S. at least, a physician has an M.D., which is a Doctor of Medicine. A dentist has a D.D.S., which is a Doctor of Dental Surgery. A Ph.D. is a Doctor of Philosophy, which is further modified with the inclusion of a specific subject area. They are all doctors, just in different subject areas. Proper usage of the title "Dr." is for anyone who has received a doctoral-level degree, which includes medical doctors, dentists, and Ph.D.s. Best practice would probably be to include both the title and the degree: Dr. Smith, M.D., or Dr. Smith, Ph.D., or Dr. Smith, D.V.M (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine).