Paging Mr Rhetoric

23 Jun

When do you call someone Mr or Ms? Until encouraged to do otherwise, probably. But newspapers have always approached the matter slightly differently.

Some papers are careful to affix an honorific every time, others very clear that everyone, no matter how eminent, will be known by just their surnames. But they all largely agree on one journalistic tradition: that convicted criminals never deserve any kind of courtesy title, even if style would normally dictate that they get one. As a Telegraph leader a little while ago put it:

“According to this newspaper’s style guide, a criminal loses something more than simply his liberty: he loses his good name. From the moment of conviction until the moment of release, a Mr or Mrs Big becomes, in our reporting, simply “Big”. We do this because the honorific is a matter not just of courtesy, but of respect.”

A matter of courtesy and respect, but also a matter of effective rhetoric. A criminal, shorn of his honorific, is an instantly recognisable figure in any sentence containing victims, witnesses, neighbours and police officers, all with their titles: the retraction of the courtesy is always pointed.

And the reverse can be rhetorically effective too. The Guardian operates a strict non-honorific policy normally – “Use just surname after first mention”, says the style guide – but the rules all change for leaders:

“Follow traditional Guardian style in leading articles (but not other comment pieces and columns on leader pages): use honorifics after first mention, unless writing about an artist, author, journalist, musician, criminal or dead person; use Ms for women on second mention unless they have expressed a preference for Miss or Mrs.

So: at first mention David Cameron, Harriet Harman, Sir Richard Branson, Lady Warsi, Prof John Wells, Dr Bill Bailey, the Rev George Herbert; thereafter Mr Cameron, Ms Harman, Sir Richard, Lady Warsi, Prof Wells, Dr Bailey, Mr Herbert, etc.”

The effect, in a paper where honorifics are scarce, is strikingly formal, and deliberately so. Formality is the currency of the leader: it represents the soberest and weightiest form of address to – you hope – the soberest and weightiest eminences in the country. And that means that it is the place in newspapers where the largest number of implicit concessions to traditional English are made – because sticklerism, if nothing else, reeks of formality.

Here, and perhaps nowhere else in the paper, you might deliberately unsplit an infinitive or change “…that Britain cannot thrive without” to  “…without which Britain cannot thrive”. Adopting sticklers’ superstitions is, for once, not just a way of avoiding trouble but also a rhetorical device that magically conjures up authority,  even next to a ribald editorial cartoon.

It’s also the only place in the paper where periphrasis is something to leave in, rather than take out. Another Telegraph leader on the same page concludes:

 “Sometimes, if something looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, even the loftiest legal personage should be able to identify it.”

5 Responses to “Paging Mr Rhetoric”

  1. mindshoot June 24, 2013 at 1:51 pm #

    I look forward to your blog posts; it is such a pleasure to be able to relax the controls on my anal-retentive, in-built grammar check! 😉

    • edlatham June 24, 2013 at 3:16 pm #

      Thanks Tim! If only I could do the same!

  2. Garrett Wollman June 25, 2013 at 3:08 am #

    On this side of the pond, the honorific policies of The New York Times (sports pages excepted) and The Wall Street Journal are seen as quite stuffy in contrast with other major journalistic enterprises which generally eschew honorifics.

    • edlatham June 25, 2013 at 1:30 pm #

      And, I guess, they don’t re-introduce the honorifics for editorials, or anything like that?


  1. The surnames flowchart | Ten minutes past deadline - April 30, 2015

    […] and circumstances; for real and assumed names; for before and after criminal convictions; and even for different sections of the newspaper. And so the question of how to refer to someone in a news article isn’t easy to sum up in a […]

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