Title Search

Descriptions that deserve respect, or not

We love to modify things, to make them as descriptive or as recognizable as possible. It’s not just a house, it’s a “blue house.” Microsoft isn’t just Microsoft, it’s “software giant Microsoft” (or, more recently, “search engine behemoth Google”).

But the The New York Times calls it “the search behemoth Google,” adding an article before those modifiers. Without that article, “search behemoth” becomes what The Times calls a “false title.”

A title, The Times and other style guides believe, should be limited to formal offices, like president, queen, military ranks and the like. The Times uses what it calls “the good morning test.” You would say “Good morning, President Obama,” or “Good morning, Queen Elizabeth,” or “Good morning, Captain Queeg,” so those are not “false titles.” But you would not say “Good morning, search behemoth Google.” (OK, maybe not the best example, but read on …)

That’s why The Times says “the actress Frances McDormand won a Tony” instead of “actress Frances McDormand won a Tony.” You would not say “Good morning, actress McDormand,” so “actress” is a false title.

Here’s another explanation. The Chicago Manual of Style, in its extensive section on titles, says, “When a title is used in apposition before a personal name, not as part of the name but as a descriptive tag, and often with the, it is lowercased.”

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about appositives, those phrases that provide extra descriptions of things already named. Chicago permits some appositive descriptions, like “chief operating officer Susan Raymond,” but The Times is a strict practitioner of the non-appositive description, which is why it eschews false titles and adds “the” before those descriptions.

Some styles allow capitalization of “real” titles, which is another clue. She might be “Chief Operating Officer Susan Raymond,” but the Tony winner would not be called “Actress Frances McDormand.”

Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell when a descriptive phrase before a noun is acting as a title rather than as just an adjective or adjectives. It’s clear in “blue house” that “blue” is an adjective, not a title; it’s even clear that “rambling, gingerbreaded, blue house” is a series of adjectives modifying “house.” But many of us would say “the [or a] rambling, gingerbreaded, blue house.” There’s an unrecognized point where something becomes not a description but so specific as to become sort of like, well, a title. “Chief operating officer,” though, is clearly a title as much as it is an adjectival description.

We often allow adjectives/titles to run wild, particularly in sports or in tabloids, where “fellow international man of mystery Assange” is just a throat-clearing description. (Can you imagine saying to Julian Assange “Good morning, fellow international man of mystery Assange”?) There’s no title there; it’s all description.

These are the equivalent of fifty-car pileups on a highway, though, unlike the vehicular kind, adjectival pileups result in fog, and are not caused by it. Try to limit descriptive adjectives/appositives to just a couple, or you could be known as “adjective-loving overreaching obfuscating news writer Your Name Here.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,