September 29, 2011

Weekly Language Usage Tips: Should PhDs be called Doctor & Ms. or Ms

Posted in Ms/Ms., should PhDs be called Doctor at 6:41 am by dlseltzer

Tip 1: Should PhDs (and owners of other doctoral degrees) be called Doctor?

A reader writes:

The dust is kicking up again here about the Post-Gazette’s style rules about only referring to MDs as “Dr.” and referring to PhDs as “Ms.” or “Mr.” Any chance you are going to address this in a WLUT?

Oh, I hate this kind of thing—it stirs up feelings of resentment and creates tension where none should exist.

My immediate reaction is that I bet the Post-Gazette (our local newspaper) wants to make a distinction between physicians and others, but I wish they would find a better was to do this. Perhaps in the first mention of the name, they could cite the degree, and subsequently use just the surname in the article:

Jane Smith, MD, John Doe, PhD, and Mary Shelley, PhD have been researching the impact of rare antibiotic compounds on common bacterial infections. Shelley first discovered…

That style would be equitable to MDs and PhDs as well as to males and females. But I am not the editor of the Post-Gazette. I contacted a friend who used to work at the Post-Gazette to see if he could direct me to someone who knew why the Post-Gazette made this decision.

While I was waiting for a response, I did some searching on the Internet and found that this is not just a local controversy. There is much discussion on the topic and even some legal snafus.

A few years ago (2008 to be precise), some PhDs from Cal Tech, Stanford, Cornell,  and the like faced criminal charges for using Dr. on their websites and business cards in Germany. Evidently, German law forbade using that honorific unless the doctorate was from an institution in the European Union. There was quite a sizable brouhaha at the time. It turns out that the law was a relic of the Nazi era, and it has since been overturned.

[NOTE: I could not decide whether to use ‘brouhaha’ or ‘hullabaloo’ in the paragraph above, but evidently, a ‘hullabaloo’ involves a clamor or noise (a noisy brouhaha). You learn something new everyday.]

‘Doctor’ comes from the Latin docere which means ‘to teach.’ By all logic, someone with a  Doctor of Philosophy degree and those with other doctorates are entitled to the honorific. I think it could be argued. safely, that obtaining a PhD is an achievement at least equal to obtaining a Doctor of Medicine degree. It could even be argued that an MD degree is a professional degree, while a PhD represents being prepared to teach or perform scholarly activities. I believe that anyone with a doctoral degree has earned the right to be called ‘doctor,’ and it is needlessly insulting or, at the very least, exclusionary to reserve the title for physicians.

Historically, ‘doctor’ referred to someone with a PhD; the convention of using ‘doctor’ for an MD came later. I don’t think we should exclude one or the other: I think ‘doctor’ can be used for all. In academia, degrees and titles count a great deal, and to have the degree and title you worked so hard for revoked on a whim seems hardhearted and capricious.

Interestingly, here is what Pitt’s style guide has to say:

Within text, do not use courtesy titles such as Dr., Mr., Ms., Mrs., Miss, or Esq. In addition, it is preferred that references to degrees be omitted. In an academic environment, a person’s academic title is more descriptive than a degree abbreviation. If individuals’ degrees are listed, they must be used consistently for everyone throughout.

Not all that helpful to this discussion.

We finally found someone at the Post-Gazette who was involved in the revising the paper’s style guide. This is what he had to say:

Hi, Deb. I was in charge of the stylebook revision the Post-Gazette undertook a couple years ago. At that time, we decided to expand the use of Dr. to PhDs, and that was the practice we maintained through last year. Then, this year, the publisher decided that he wanted to restrict the use of the term Dr. to MDs only, and that has become the rule.

We have had many inquiries and complaints from the academic community over this since the change, but there is no indication that the style will be changed.

 If you wish to get more details on this or register your views, I would encourage  you to contact the editor, David Shribman, at

Hmm, did I mention before that this seemed capricious? The publisher decided? Just a whim? Gee. The Post-Gazette is still published by the Block family through the PG Publishing Co., Inc., just in case anyone is interested.

The bottom line is this: As far as I am concerned, PhDs are doctors and deserve the honorific, and it is only common courtesy to use the appropriate form of address. And to those who are upset about the way the Post-Gazette handles this, remember, your colleagues know and value you, even if the newspaper still has to learn some manners.

Tip 2: Ms or Ms.?

Ah, the age old question:

Should we use a period (full stop) after Ms or not?

The answer to this is simple: yes and no.

Let’s start with ‘yes.’

Yes, because it is a combination of Miss and Mrs.

Yes, because it is a combination of Miss and Mr.

Yes, because it is a combination of Mr. and Mrs. (?)

Yes, because it is a contraction of Mistress. (I thought that was ‘Mrs.’)

Yes, to be consistent with Mr. and Mrs. (What about ‘Miss’?)

Yes, because there is a period in Ms. Magazine.

Yes, because this is the American usage.

And here’s the reasoning for ‘no.’

No, because it is not a contraction of anything.

No, because it is not an abbreviation of anything.

No, because this is the British usage.

Frankly, I don’t find any of these arguments compelling, and there really is no consensus on this. I tend to write it without the period, but I have no strong feelings on the subject. Either way will do.



  1. Anonymous said,

    I use a . after Ms because Mr. and Mrs. use a period, and I use Ms. in the same way.

  2. My first time here. Awesome blog and great post. Well done.

  3. Dennis Komba said,

    A nice page,what about the politicians who are named to b Doctors as honorific to what they do? what is their doctrine?

    • dlseltzer said,

      I think it would be really tacky and tasteless to call yourself doctor when it is just an honorific. The title was not earned.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: