The things they ask me

A professorial colleague wrote earlier today about a construction that he thinks has become increasingly frequent: Firstname Lastname, professor at State rather than Firstname Lastname, a professor at State. He wonders what I think of this.

My first reaction was that the staccato prose that Time indulged in so freely has bled into writing more generally, abetted by the elliptical style of Twitter and text messages. And there may be something to that.

I lack data to form a better-established conclusion, but I suspect that a diligent search through texts of the past century or so might well show that such a construction is merely a stylistic variant. After all, I don’t think that anyone would misunderstand the omission of the indefinite article as implying that Professor Lastname is the professor at State. Anyone care to chime in? With examples?

Then, after I arrived at the paragraph factory, a colleague asked which of these constructions is preferable: Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. or former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. I chose the first, because it indicates that Mr. Ehrlich is a former governor, not a former Republican—not that any of our readers are apt to be misled by the second version.

I recommended, however, to use Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Republican former governor, to avoid an awkward pileup of nouns before the name.

That suggestion also gets around the touchy point of whether governor should be capitalized and abbreviated, The Chicago Manual of Style says that a title used in apposition before a name, as in the Ehrlich examples, should be considered a descriptive phrase rather than a title and therefore spelled out and lowercased.

The Associated Press Stylebook, of course, says the reverse. AP apparently likes piling up capitalizations. It would love something like former President and Chief Justice of the United States William Howard Taft. And I am already embattled enough over nonsensical AP practices deeply embedded in journalistic convention that, recalling Napoleon’s ill-advised Russian campaign, I’m reluctant to open a second front.



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