About the Use of Honorifics in News Stories

From a Wall Street Journal story about the use of Honorifics:

This is a special edition of Style & Substance, to discuss the just-announced decision on honorifics.

Last name only

The first edition of The Wall Street Journal in July 1889 used them, to be polite. So did the 100th edition in 1989, and every other right up until this week.

But as of Wednesday, you will no longer be seeing Mr. before a man’s name in Journal news articles. Nor will you see a Ms., Mrs., Miss or Mx.—the gender-neutral honorific that first appeared in the Journal in 2019.

That is because, as announced by Editor in Chief Emma Tucker, the Journal has eliminated the routine use of honorifics, or courtesy titles, in its news pages. It is a step that has been discussed by Journal editors for several years, as we balance being “polite” in our writing with being easy to read and attuned to current sensibilities.

This is how Emma’s note to staff explained the decision to finally drop most courtesy titles (with important exceptions as explained afterward):

Dear all,

The Wall Street Journal is eliminating the routine use of honorifics, or courtesy titles, in its news pages.

The Journal has been one of the few news organizations to continue to use the titles, under our long-held belief that Mr., Ms. and so forth help us to maintain a polite tone. However, the trend among almost all newspapers and magazines has been to go without, as editors have concluded that the titles in news articles are becoming a vestige of a more-formal past, and that the flood of Mr., Ms., Mx. or Mrs. in sentences can slow down readers’ enjoyment of our writing.

In addition, dropping courtesy titles is more in line with the way people communicate their identities. It puts everyone on a more-equal footing.

This isn’t totally new ground. We currently don’t use honorifics in WSJ. Magazine, in podcasts or videos. Nor do we use them in sports coverage, to avoid stilted phrases such as, “Mr. Curry made seven 3-pointers.”

The Journal also recently dropped the routine use of corporate designations (Co., Inc., Corp.) to similarly keep our writing more streamlined, approachable and lively.

This will come into effect at midnight tonight, New York time. The WSJ Stylebook is being updated in dozens of places to reflect this change.


As with this month’s corporate-suffix decision, the Journal’s courtesy-title pullback has nuances and exceptions. Among them:

Under the new policy, the news pages won’t use honorifics except if used in people’s quotations, in occasional wordplay or someone’s nickname (basketball’s Dr. J), or of course in a movie, play or book title that uses them (“Mrs. Doubtfire”).

We will continue to use occupational and nobility titles on first reference, and then drop them for the rest of the article, including for politicians, clergy and judges. So: Gen. Mark Milley / Milley. For clergy including priests: the Rev. Al Sharpton / Sharpton. Pope Francis / Francis. King Charles III / Charles. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman/ Mohammed. Dr. Mary Chapel / Chapel (if a medical doctor). President Biden / Biden. Sen. Ted Cruz / Cruz. Rep. Nancy Pelosi / Pelosi. Chief Justice John Roberts / Roberts. For academics, we can use a Prof. on first reference only, if it is useful for context, but that isn’t required.

Note that in a change from current style, only medical doctors will get the Dr. title, not Ph.D.s, and the title will be only on first reference. That’s because a first-reference use of Dr. for a Ph.D. can make the person seem to be a medical doctor. Instead, when relevant, mention the person’s academic degree. For example, Carolyn Bertozzi isn’t a medical doctor, so we will no longer call her Dr. Bertozzi. But we could write: Bertozzi, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry, is known for her Nobel Prize-winning work spanning chemistry and biology.

Historical figures have usually received no courtesy title already. Exception: For Martin Luther King Jr., it is Dr. King one time on second reference, to reflect his familiar name, and simply King after that.

When there are two adults with the same last name, writers will seek to use descriptive language to distinguish between people, or use the first and last name. For example: the president, the elder Biden, or a descriptive phrase such as the younger Biden said of his father. (Children already are generally identified by first name, under Journal style.) Also be conscious of cases in which there are similar-sounding names in an article (Lee Smith and Samantha Lee). In such cases, a writer might choose to repeat the full names, or use another way to provide clarity without using courtesy titles.

Honorifics have dishonorable aspects in history. At the worst, some newspapers had a practice to use courtesy titles for white people only. There were also courtesy-title policies that were sexist: Some newspapers in the past gave courtesy titles only to women, which had the effect of identifying women as either a Mrs. or Miss; meanwhile, the format for couples was Mr. and Mrs. John Smith. That changed, of course, and the Associated Press in 2000 all but abandoned courtesy titles, reflecting what many news organizations were doing.

The Journal’s new policy applies to news pages; the editorial pages set their own policy. It is anticipated that letters to the editor that are forwarded to the edit pages from the news side will maintain courtesy titles if the letter writer used them. It’s the polite thing to do.

Speak Your Mind