The Grammarphobia Blog

His High Mightiness

Q: If the chief executive of a country is addressed as “Mr. (or “Madam”) President,” and the chief executive of a city is addressed as “Mr. Mayor,” why is the chief executive of a state addressed as “Governor” and not “Mr. Governor”?

A: This is a good question, and I’ve spent several days trying to find an answer – all to no avail. If you ever find out why, I hope you’ll let me in on the secret. I can tell you how, though, even if I can’t tell you why.

When we’re speaking to senators, governors, generals, judges, and justices and chief justices of the United States Supreme Court, we use their titles without “Mr.” or “Madam,” whether we use their names or not.

That’s why we address Dianne Feinstein, for example, as “Senator” or “Senator Feinstein” and not “Madam Senator,” and why Colin Powell is “General” or “General Powell” and not “Mr. General.” For the same reason, Arnold Schwarzenegger is properly addressed as “Governor” or “Governor Schwarzenegger” and not “Mr. Governor.”

In speaking to some other high-ranking government officials, on the other hand, we always use “Mr.” or “Madam” when we address them by their titles alone – that is, without their names. This is true for the titles President; Vice President; Attorney General; Secretary (for other Cabinet members); Under Secretary; Speaker (of the House); Ambassador, and Mayor.

A mayor, by the way, can be addressed in person in several ways: “Mayor Bloomberg,” “Mr. Mayor,” or “Your Honor.” A lower-court judge can be “Judge,” “Judge Crater,” or “Your Honor.”

There’s some disagreement about how to use the title of a chief justice or associate justice of the Supreme Court in conversation. It seems that many reference guides are out of date.

Here I’m following the recommendations of a book called Protocol: The Complete Handbook of Diplomatic, Official and Social Usage (25th ed.), by Mary Jane McCaffree, Pauline B. Innis, and Richard M. Sand.

The authors say that the etiquette changed when Sandra Day O’Connor was named to the Court. Today a chief justice should be addressed in conversation as “Chief Justice” or “Chief Justice Roberts,” and an associate justice as “Justice” or “Justice Ginsburg.”

Many reference guides can tell you which salutations to use when you write to government officials. For example, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) has a section at the back called “Forms of Address.” It’s a handy way to find out how (or whether) to preface a title when you’re sending a letter.

Unfortunately, not many reference guides tell you how to be correct when you speak to these people. The book I mentioned, Protocol, does both.

By the way, the first “Mr. President,” George Washington, narrowly missed being addressed as “Your Highness.”

In 1789, just before Washington took office, the Senate proposed that his official title should be “His Highness the President of the United States of America and the Protector of Their Liberties.”

John Adams, the vice president-elect, favored “His Majesty, the President.” Washington himself originally leaned toward “His High Mightiness,” but later thought better of it.

In the end, to Washington’s relief, the more democratic-minded House of Representatives prevailed, and Congress settled on the simple “Mr. President.”

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