Barbara Wallraff

What Do You Want to Be Called?

Blog Post created by Barbara Wallraff Expert on Dec 20, 2017


The principle is: Refer to people the way they want to be referred to.

Admittedly, special situations come up that test the principle—as when Prince changed his stage name to a symbol that none of us have on our keyboards and that is said to be unpronounceable. But Prince’s fans went along with it, mostly calling him “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince.” Seven years or so later when he changed his name back to Prince, they went along with that too.

Then again, some special situations lurch over the line between showing respect and acquiescing in puffery. Maybe a senior employee likes to be introduced by his title, Chief Knowledge Officer So-and-So, or a group wants its name written in all capitals and never mind that the name isn’t an acronym. Marketers and publicists and so on may not fully understand the implications of terminology they ask for. We have to think for ourselves.

And yet the general principle holds: Refer to people the way they want to be referred to. It applies when writing or speaking to or about individuals in academic, workplace, and social settings. It applies to pronouns (“a transgender man … he”). It applies to groups (“people with autism,” “Rohingya”). In many cases, we can’t truly know what most members of groups, or what particular atypical individuals, prefer. But since the principle we’re discussing is fairly commonly understood, we can rely on sources such as reputable media online to have done that part of our homework for us, and we just need to see how they refer to the people we’re writing about.

The principle also applies to you—even if you’re not particular about how your students refer to you. It may be useful to remember that students are negotiating the transition from treating adults with deference, as they were probably brought up to do, to treating them mainly as peers. In my opinion, you’ll be doing students a favor if you make some preference or other about how to refer to you clear as early as possible in your interactions with them. Various choices can be valid in a student-instructor relationship (Dr. Baker, Professor Baker, Ms. Baker, Victoria, Vickie), so why make them guess which you’d like? More important, this situation is about respect, and it offers you a nonconfrontational opportunity to indicate what you find respectful to the right degree.

In addition to the question of how to address someone is how to refer to someone in writing. When students cite sources in papers, the style they’re following (MLA, APA, Chicago, CSE) tells them the forms to use. Most styles call for citing last names only, and never mind the advanced and honorary degrees, the lofty titles that many of the sources they’re citing worked so hard to earn. For instance, in academic text and bibliographies alike, the cosmologist, when he’s a source, is simply “Hawking.”

But what if the assignment is to write a brief biography of Stephen Hawking? On first reference he’s probably “Stephen Hawking.” After that, though, is he “Hawking” or “Dr. Hawking” or “Stephen”? Is his first wife “Jane” or “Mrs. Hawking”? Is his second wife “Elaine” or “Ms. Mason”? These options are either more or less appropriate in different contexts, for different audiences; they set different tones. Similarly, calling Hillary Clinton “Mrs. Clinton” sets a different tone from calling her “Secretary Clinton.”

To be sure, these are trivial choices. But they also signal to readers, possibly several times per page, such things as how familiar the writer is with the genre in which she is writing. If students can keep half an eye on how their sources refer to people, even as they keep their other eye and a half on what the sources are saying about them, it can only work to their advantage.


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Barbara Wallraff is a professional writer and editor. She spent 25 years at the Atlantic Monthly, where she was the language columnist and an editor. The author of three books on language and style—the national bestseller Word Court, Your Own Words, and Word Fugitives—Wallraff has lectured at the Columbia School of Journalism, the Council of Science Editors, Microsoft, the International Education of Students organization, and the Radcliffe Publishing Program. Her writing about English usage has appeared in national publications including the American Scholar, the Wilson Quarterly, the Harvard Business Review blog, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times Magazine. She is coauthor of In Conversation: A Writer's Guidebook, which will be published in December 2017.


Credit: Pixaby Image 2849602 by surdumihail, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License