Miss Mae and Mr. Mac?
One of the little decisions that cause copy editors to scratch their heads and worry is whether and when to use courtesy titles with names. Style uses the Associated Press Stylebook, and this gives us fairly clear directions: “Refer to men and women by first and last names: Susan Smith or Robert Smith. Use the courtesy titles Mr., Miss, Ms. or Mrs. only in direct quotations or in other special situations.”
The New York Times, on the other hand, is known among copy editors as very particular about the use of courtesy titles before proper names. The current Times Stylebook tells the writers to “Use Mr., Mrs., Miss or Ms. with surnames in the news columns for second and later references for people who do not bear specialized titles. …” This can lead to problems.
Those of us who have been working with words for a long time probably remember the wonderful usage the Times selected in 1962 when writing about the Malcolm X. The paper prissily called him Mr. X. It was funny to think of the questions that must have troubled the copy editors: Should they allow the writers to call him Malcolm? The article said he preferred that. But Heaven forbid! How about Mr. Malcolm? Inaccurate. How about X? Mr. X was chosen and remains in many readers' minds as a wonderfully funny choice.
A reader aware of this background has written for us an imaginary correction that the Times, assuming it was following the Mr. X rule, today should run:
“A front-page story in yesterday's New York Times discussed the solvency of two federally chartered private agencies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Subsequent references referred to the two companies as “Fannie” and “Freddie.” In keeping with The New York Times' style, the author should have referred to them as ‘Miss Mae’ and ‘Mr. Mac.’ The Times regrets the error.”
P.S. In all fairness I must report that the latest New York Times Manual of Style has given the poor copy editor an out: It tells us to “omit a courtesy title with a coined or fanciful stage name to avoid appearing overliteral. Meat Loaf and Little Richard, for example, keep their full names, without title, in all references.”
Let Rosie her from you by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, by mail at Apt. 1143, 1500 Westbrook Court, Richmond, 23227, or by phone at 200-1285.