Periodically, The Old Editor will attempt to address your entreaties for information and advice on grammar and usage, writing, writer-editor etiquette, and related subjects.
The Old Editor does not address marital and relationship matters, dietary questions, or automobile mechanics.
The question: Title question for you. I've always taught my composition students that a politician is given the title of their highest office. As such, Hillary Clinton would be referred to as Secretary Clinton after first mention. However, I've seen multiple articles from reputable organizations referring to her as Mrs. Clinton. Ruling?
The Old Editor answers: There are two issues here.
The first is the long-standing but informal custom in the United States that high officials and military officers retain their titles for life. That would be the highest rank attained. For example, Walter Annenberg, publisher of one of the most disgracefully bad newspapers in the United States, The Philadelphia Inquirer, until Knight-Ridder bought it and made it respectable, was named ambassador to the Court of St. James’s by Richard Nixon. He was referred to ever after, particularly by sycophants, as “Ambassador Annenberg.”
Hillary Clinton is both a former United States senator and secretary of state. She could reasonably be referred to as “Senator Clinton” or “Secretary Clinton.” By the informal courtesy, she would be “Secretary Clinton,” an office in the presidential succession outranking a senator.
The second issue, one that has bedeviled journalists, is which of the ordinary courtesy titles to use for a woman: Miss, Mrs., Ms. Journalists are expected to ask women which form they prefer and to honor the individual preference. Long since, The New York Times asked Hillary Clinton for her preference, and she said Mrs. The Times and the Associated Press have since honored that preference.
I saw some quibbling online during the presidential campaign whether it was disrespectful to refer to Mrs. Clinton rather than Secretary Clinton. (Mark it under trivial first-world issues.) Either title reflects courtesy and respect for the individual; neither is wrong or offensive. Killery is both.
Got a question for The Old Editor? Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your name will not be used unless you specifically authorize it.