Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Titular Tomfoolery.

Titular Tomfoolery. Nowadays almost any appositive is likely to be treated as if it were a title. This trend is primarily the fault of newspapers and magazines, which create descriptive titles for people on the fly. So instead of “Timothy McVeigh, the convicted bomber,” journalists want to say “convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh.” Worse yet, some writers would even capitalize the descriptor, further elevating the common noun to title status — e.g.: “Convicted Bomber Timothy McVeigh.” Acceptance of these false titles (though never the capitalized form) is partly attributable to their sanction by the Associated Press: “Other titles serve primarily as occupational descriptions: ‘astronaut John Glenn,’ ‘movie star John Wayne,’ ‘peanut farmer Jimmy Carter.'” Associated Press Stylebook 251 (Norm Goldstein ed., 2002). But The New York Times gives better advice: “Only official titles — not mere descriptions — should be affixed to names. Do not, for example, write ‘pianist Lynn C. Arniotis’ or ‘political scientist Tracy F. Baranek.’ But in a reference to someone well known, a descriptive phrase preceded by ‘the’ is acceptable: ‘the sociologist Merrill H. Cordero.'” The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage 334 (Allan M. Siegal & William G. Connolly eds., 1999). This trend resulted from an understandable desire for economy in both words and punctuation, since most appositives require articles (“a” or “the”) and commas. Yet the result is often a breeziness that hardly seems worth the effort of repositioning the words from their traditional placement — e.g.: “They played eventual champion Arkansas in the opening round last year.” “Familiar Role for A&T,” Asheville Citizen-Times (N.C.), 15 Mar. 1995, at D3. (Insert “the” before “eventual champion,” and put commas before and after “Arkansas.”) True titles of authority, such as “general” or “mayor,” are properly capitalized before a person’s name {General Tommy Franks} {Mayor Willie Brown}. Job descriptions are not {flutist Ian Anderson}. Just where to draw the line can be an exercise in frustration. But even titles of authority are not capitalized when used as appositives following the name {George Pataki, governor of New York}. For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “Writing draws together an astonishing number of mental and physical actions, many of them going on simultaneously as the process unfolds. It is one of the most complicated things we do, and that is why it is always difficult.” Richard Marius, A Writers Companion 3 (1985).
Scroll to Top