English English language Etymology Usage

How false are false titles?

Q: In your Lex Appeal post, you refer to “The linguist David Crystal ….” I often see this construction, but it strikes me as strange. Is “the” really needed here? An NPR book review last year referred to him simply as “Linguist David Crystal ….”

A: Our old boss, the New York Times, would call the word “Linguist” in that NPR example a “false title.” Here’s an explanation from the Times style manual:

“Do not make titles out of mere descriptions, as in harpsichordist Dale S. Yagyonak. If in doubt, try the ‘good morning’ test. If it is not possible to imagine saying, ‘Good morning, Harpsichordist Yagyonak,’ the title is false.”

The dropping of “the” in phrases like “convicted felon so-and-so” and “award-winning author what’s-his-name” is especially common in the news media, and the usage is often criticized as journalese.

The usage authority Theodore M. Bernstein says in The Careful Writer that these “coined titles” were apparently “inspired by Time magazine and abetted by news agencies.”

Bryan A. Garner, in the “Titular Tomfoolery” section of Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed.), says the acceptance of these article-free titles is “partly attributable to their sanction by the Associated Press.”

(The AP stylebook includes these examples of “titles serving as occupational descriptions: astronaut John Glenn, movie star John Wayne, peanut farmer Jimmy Carter.”)

Garner notes that the use of such descriptive titles “originated in the understandable desire for economy in both words and punctuation, since most appositives require articles (a or the) and commas.” (An appositive is a descriptive equivalent.)

However, Garner says “the result is often a breeziness that hardly seems worth the effort of repositioning the words from their traditional placement.”

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says “the practice seems to show no signs of waning,” though “it presents no problems of understanding to the reader.”

The linguist Charles F. Myer, in “Pseudo-Titles in the Press Genre of Various Components of the International Corpus of English Writing,” reports that descriptive titles are spreading to English-language news media outside the US.

Although the usage tends to be limited in Britain to tabloids, he writes, it’s more common in New Zealand and the Philippines. He also cites inroads in Jamaica, East Africa, and Singapore.

So what do we think of all this? As you’ve noticed, we add “the” to turn these descriptive titles into actual descriptions, but it’s a personal choice.

In other words, this is a matter of style, not grammar. If you’re not a journalist following Times style or the like, the choice is up to you.

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