June 07, 2004

Dear Dr Geoff

The journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences (BBS) publishes papers with accompanying peer commentary from other scholars. To acquaint potential commentators with new papers proposed for publication it mails out abstracts out to thousands of scientists around the world. The automated system that does this has some kind of error in either the database or the program, because it picks out the wrong part of my name. My automatically-generated message always begins with Dear Dr Geoff. It's funny how annoying this tiny slip is.

For some reason, titular prefixes like Dr and Professor go only with a surname (what Americans unwisely call a "last name" — i.e., the bit that comes first in Chinese and many other languages). The Sir to which knights are entitled, on the other hand, goes with the forename (the one Americans unwisely refer to as the first name, the one that is last if you're Chinese, and the British usually refer to, just as unwisely, as the Christian name).

The situation with Lord is much more complex, and I got it wrong here in the first version of this post. (I'm very grateful to Harold Hungerford and Jesse Sheidlower for helping me to get it right. For a really full and detailed technical discussion of correct forms of address in British English, click here. As Jesse points out, this is probably the only document you will ever see in which one of the subheadings reads "Marquess's Eldest Son's Daughter". I'll summarize only part, and very briefly.) There are two kinds of lord in the British peerage system: those who get the title as a courtesy (by being the younger son of a duke or a marquis), and those who actually get it conferred on them (whether by inheritance or direct conferring). A courtesy lord like the fictional Lord Peter Wimsey can be addressed by Lord plus first name; hence the Dorothy Sayers title Lord Peter Views the Body. But an actual recipient of a peerage is addressed by Lord plus whatever name he chooses at the time of receiving the status. (If it's a hereditary title, the lord's eldest son inherits both title and name.)

Let's take as an example the most distinguished and honored grammarian alive, the former Randolph Quirk, who rose through the ranks from ordinary Mr through doctor of philosophy, professor, vice chancellor, knight, and lord. From Mr Quirk he became Dr Quirk and Professor Quirk and Vice Chancellor Quirk. Then he was knighted, and became Sir Randolph Quirk, and at that time it would have been acceptable to address him in a letter with Dear Sir Randolph. Later he was elevated to a peerage (he was made a baron, in fact), and he chose to be known by the name Quirk. So now his legal signature is just "Quirk", and he is officially referred to as Professor the Lord Quirk). A shorter form would be Lord Quirk. Close buddies of his still call him Randolph, of course, and he can still publish as Randolph Quirk, but that isn't his legal name any more. His legal name is the new one he has been given by the Queen: he is the Lord Quirk.

In consequence, *Lord Randolph is not grammatical (or at least, not in accord with the social conventions, given that Randolph is classified as a forename) as a reference to Lord Quirk. (Many people make mistakes on this point, as did I.) Likewise, *Sir Quirk would have been completely ungrammatical as a reference to him when he was a knight; and back in the days when he was a mere PhD and Professor and Vice Chancellor of the University of London, *Dr Randolph and *Professor Randolph and *Vice Chancellor Randolph were completely ungrammatical as references to him (the correct forms would have been Dr Quirk, Professor Quirk, and Vice Chancellor Quirk).

There's no particular logic behind any of this; these are arbitrary facts of English grammar, like the fact that "Professor" and "Dr" can never co-occur with "Mr" (*Mr Professor Pullum is utterly ungrammatical in English, whereas the equivalent Herr Professor Pullum is grammatical in German).

Every time I see a message from BBS beginning "Dear Dr Geoff" it seems like a message from a very inexperienced foreign student who is trying to figure out the syntax of names and titles in English by guesswork. I want to reach out and help the poor student by explaining the syntax of Dr. But of course there's nobody back there, just a automated system incorporating an unimportant error in programming or data entry.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 7, 2004 06:26 PM