Early bird tickets for Baltimore’s BEST party on sale now!

Doctor in the house

The Baltimore Sun

A British pediatrician in Cambridge, Dr. Louise Selby, discovers that the security code will not admit her to the women’s locker room at Pure Gym. The reason: The security system is set up to assume that all members with the title Dr. are men.

Dr. Selby is irate, is well she might be. Of course, one might also wonder why Dr. Selby thought it necessary to preface her name with her title on a gym membership.

The issue of how to use what the Associated Press Stylebook calls “courtesy titles” shows where house style intersects with a number of social and class values and expectations, like the assumption that if you are a doctor you are male.

The AP Stylebook likes to restrict the title doctor to people holding medical degrees: medicine, dental surgery, optometry, osteopathic medicine, podiatric medicine, veterinary medicine. (Not, I notice, chiropractic. Hmmm.) The stated reason is that “the public frequently identifies Dr. only with physicians.”

It will grudgingly allow you to use the title for someone who has an academic doctorate if you take care to identify the person’s specialty on first or second reference, so that the subject will not be confused with a real doctor. At The Sun, where courtesy titles enjoy a vestigial survival in obituaries, we allow the title doctor to anyone who possesses an earned doctorate of any kind. When we remember to.

Academics are aware of this social prejudice, even though professors are widely addressed as doctor. When you see someone append Ph.D. to his name as author of a book, or to his check-cashing card at the Safeway, you can be sure that he is trying too hard. (Paul Theiner, sometime chairman of the English Department at Syracuse, exemplified reverse snobbery, scorning the title because doctors are people who make a living poking into other people’s orifices.)

Despite our boasts of being an egalitarian society, we do love a title, much in the same way that we prize credentials above actual learning. Once you have that Ph.D. in education, every teacher in the school system will Doctor you till the cows come home. Once you have been a governor, a senator, or an ambassador, you can count on being perpetually addressed with the title. Once you have even a sketchy claim to a title—Kentucky colonels come to mind—you can count on its pleasant ring in your ears.

I’ve remarked before that disputes about grammar are never only about grammar. Neither are disputes about style. Listen, and you will hear those social and class overtones.


Disclosure: Though admitted to the Ph.D. program in English at Syracuse University all those years ago, I never completed the dissertation, freely admitting that I lacked the will and the self-discipline to finish it. Both academia and I are better off that I didn’t.



Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad