It puzzled a reader to see Richard Pryor referred to as “Mr. Pryor” in the obituary that ran on Page One of The Sun. His perplexity is understandable, because The Sun, like most newspapers that follow Associated Press style, does not give courtesy titles — Mr., Ms., Mrs., Miss, military ranks, clerical titles, etc. — on second and subsequent reference.
The major exception we make, and it is a common one, is in obituaries, out of respect for the dead. That holds for obituaries that run outside the obituary page. We “mistered” Dennis Weaver, Darrin McGavin and Don Knotts in the news section during the past few weeks.
The matter of courtesy titles has a tangled history. The Sun used them for years, but The Evening Sun scorned them. A unified house style promulgated in 1991 retained courtesy titles, but that decision was reversed in 1996 — with obituaries and direct quotations excepted.
The major arguments for and against courtesy titles are simple to articulate. Advocates of courtesy titles say that they give a respect, dignity and gravity to the text. Opponents say that they look stuffy and dated in a culture that is increasingly informal.
The minor arguments get more complicated.
Even some opponents of the use of courtesy titles feel uneasy about referring to Sister Maria Celeste Gamba as “Gamba” or an 84-year-old grandmother as “Smith.” And how to differentiate between people who share a surname? The Associated Press style was to use courtesy titles only to identify a woman who uses her husband’s surname, which was widely found to be unsatisfactory. And further, people do still use courtesy titles. There are academics who have “Dr.” printed with their names on credit cards. (I did, however, know a teacher in graduate school who insisted on being addressed as “Professor.” “Doctor,” he explained, was a title for people whose job was to probe into other people’s orifices.)
Proponents of courtesy titles have no easier time of it. It is simple enough to dismiss the titles for historical figures — no “Mr. Caesar” — but at what point does a deceased notable become historical? Titles look odd in many columns and light features. And there are the felons. The Sun did not use courtesy titles for notorious criminals, which led to endless exegetical discussions. Use the title of someone charged with a crime until he is convicted; then withhold it. Does he get it back after he has completed his sentence and is off probation? What is a serious crime, anyhow?
As much trouble as they were — copy editors had to insert them laboriously in wire service articles — I regret their loss. They established a tone of respect for our subjects, particularly African-Americans, who were denied courtesy titles in American newspapers for decades. But I concede that they can look stuffy and that no reversal of the preference for the casual in American society seems imminent.
But for the dead there remains a degree of dignity.