Blogger Ben Yagoda on False Titles

henry luce

Time founder Henry Luce, friend to false titles.


A few years back, linguist and Lingua Franca contributor Geoffrey Pullum wrote a post on Language Log where he set out the first sentences of two books by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons:

Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.

Geoff went on to observe:

This use of a person’s name preceded by the name of a job, without a preceding article (an anarthrous NP [nominal premodifier], as we grammarians say when chatting with our own kind in the secretive cabals that we sometimes hold), is odd because occupational descriptions like “fertilizer salesman” aren’t normally used as titles. “Cardinal” is a title; selling fertilizer is merely a job. It is true that noun phrases like “fertilizer salesman Scott Peterson” are found in newspaper articles … but I have never yet found anyone but Dan Brown using this construction to open a work of fiction. The construction sounds to me like the opening of an obituary rather than an action sequence. It’s not ungrammatical; it just has the wrong feel and style for a novel.

He also observed that in Brown’s books, this construction — also known as a “false title” — is a grisly tell:

The simple fact is that if you are ever mentioned on Page 1 of a Dan Brown novel you will be mentioned with an anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier (“Renowned linguist Geoff Pullum staggered across the savage splendor of the forsaken Santa Cruz campus, struggling to remove the knife plunged unnaturally into his back by a barbarous millionaire novelist”), and you will have died a painful and horrible death by Page 2, along with several curiously ill-chosen clichés and mangled idioms.

I used one of these deals on Geoff in the opening line of this post, so I hope he’s not dead meat.

As Geoff suggests, false titles are the province of journalism, but even in journalism circles, they’re controversial, in part because Time magazine, from its founding in the 1920s till about 1960, was so notorious for abusing (and capitalizing) them. In his 1936 New Yorker profile of Time founder Henry Luce, Wolcott Gibbs had great sport with the convention, along with the magazine’s piquant coinages  (among the more successful ones were pollster, racketeer, socialite, and televangelist) and odd habit of inverting sentences. Here Gibbs lists some of Time‘s top executives:

• Heir apparent to mantle of Luce is dapper, tennis-playing, $35,000-a-year Roy Larsen, nimble in Radio- & Cinemarch, vice-president & second largest stockholder in Time, Inc. …

• Looming behind him is burly, able, tumbledown Yaleman Ralph McAllister Ingersoll, former Fortuneditor, now general manager of all Timenterprises, descendant of 400-famed Ward McAllister. Littered his desk with pills, unguents, Kleenex, Socialite Ingersoll is Time’s No.1 hypochondriac, introduced ant palaces for study & emulation of employees, writes copious memoranda about filing systems, other trivia, seldom misses a Yale football game. …

• Early in life Timeditor John Stuart Martin lost his left arm in an accident. Unhandicapped he, resentful of sympathy, Martin played par golf at Princeton, is a crack shot with a rifle or shotgun, holds a telephone with no hands, using shoulder & chin, chews paperclips. First cousin of Cofounder Hadden, joined in second marriage to daughter of Cunard Tycoon Sir Ashley Sparks, Martin is managing editor of newsmagazine, has been nimble in Cinemarch, other Timenterprises.

Time has dialed way back on the practice, but it’s still frowned on in many newsrooms, including that of The New York Times. In 2012, the paper’s standards editor, Philip B. Corbett wrote in a blog post, “We try to avoid the unnatural journalistic mannerism of the ‘false title’ – that is, using a description or job designation with someone’s name as if it were a formal title. So we don’t refer to ‘novelist Zadie Smith’ or ‘cellist Yo-Yo Ma.” The paper’s manual of style offers a clever way of smoking out these bad boys:

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.

Whether one is partial to false titles or not, I think we can agree that they should be punctuated correctly. And here there is a problem. When using this construction, my (journalism) students have a deuce of a time avoiding superfluous commas before and after the person’s name. And so they’ll write sentences like:

Cellist, Yo Yo Ma, gave a concert.

Sophomore, Tiffany Jones, has the highest GPA at the university.

It’s one thing for students to make the mistake. But I’ve seen it show up in more and more grown-up places, including the website of a person offering his services as a style and writing guru. And, on May 1, this headline appeared in The New York Times:

Screen Shot 2017-05-05 at 4.07.29 PM

In a Facebook post, I noted the problem of the two rum commas, and got a lot of comments, including one whose superciliousness matched its wrongness:  “There is more than one Fox News executive, so you need commas. ‘My brother, Ben,’ if you have another brother, or ‘My brother Ben’, if Ben is your only brother. Pretty basic English.”

One lesson here is that if you find yourself correcting a “basic” error, you should think long and hard before pressing “send.” The commenter got the “my brother” comma rule completely backwards. And in fact neither false title nor true titles are ever followed by a comma. The comma issue comes in when there is an article or determiner before the title. In these cases one indeed decides whether to use a comma based on whether the title is restrictive (no comma) or nonrestrictive (comma). Hence: “The Fox news executive Bill Shine … ” “The composer Jimmy Webb … ” “The composer of ‘Walk on By,’ Burt Bacharach … ” (And just to make things more complicated, the article a always calls for a comma: “A sophomore, Tiffany Jones … “)

In any case, within a few hours, the Times had corrected the headline, to “With Fox News in Tumult, Another Executive, Bill Shine, Is Ousted.”

I’m not sure if my Facebook thread prompted the change. But isn’t it pretty to think so?

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