Author Topic: A curious encounter about the use of position titles  (Read 9730 times)

Joe Carillo

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A curious encounter about the use of position titles
« on: September 17, 2020, 09:15:18 AM »
Owing to the Covid-19 pandemic that’s raging in the Philippines and in other developed countries for almost 10 months now, the adoption of distance or e-learning by schools this October would mean that there would hardly be any direct, face-to-face classroom interactions between students and teachers from then and in the foreseeable future.


Reflecting on such a conflict-free and unstressful learning situation, I’m reminded of a very curious college classroom dispute over a professor’s position title that was related to me by a Tanzania-based Forum member more than seven years ago. I won’t mention his name anymore because by this time, he must now be a medical doctor or a journalist whose privacy obviously needs to be respected for professional reasons.

Here’s what he wrote about the incident:   

“The other day I had a fierce argument with my Australian professor, who apparently felt demeaned that I wrote her title as ‘dean of faculty’ rather than as ‘Dean of Faculty’ in my letter asking for permission to attend the wedding ceremony of a relative in a distant town. She refused to approve the letter unless I modified the phrase.

“But confident that I hadn’t committed any grammar mistake, I wasn’t comfortable about the change she wanted. I challenged her to show me one grammar rule demanding that all job titles be capitalized. Reddened and shaking with rage, she crumpled the letter and tossed it in a dustbin. She forced me out of her office, shouting ‘I am not available to disputant students.’

“Do we really have to capitalize every job title in sight as my professor suggested?”

To the beleaguered Tanzanian student, I replied that there really are no hard-and-fast grammar rules for capitalizing the first letters of job titles, but in formal written communication, the astute communicator does it as a matter of elementary courtesy. In a well-established social or academic hierarchy, not to observe this formality could be taken as a sign of disrespect—even contempt—for the holder of the position being addressed.

I then said that it wasn’t surprising that his Australian professor hadn’t taken so kindly to the way he addressed her in that letter. In a very real sense, he had demeaned her, so her outrage towards him, while probably excessive, wasn’t at all unexpected.

                                       IMAGE CREDIT: PINTEREST.CA

We need to clearly distinguish between a position and the formal job title for it. From a purely grammar standpoint, we can routinely use lower-case characters for the first letters of a position held by a particular person, as in “Joanna Smith is the dean of faculty of X University.” But in her formal capacity, protocol demands that she be formally addressed this way: “Prof. Joanna Smith, Ph.D, Dean of Faculty, X University.” All the more so is capitalization of the first letters of the title required when it’s used ahead of the name: “Dean of Faculty Joanna Smith.”

But do we really need to capitalize every job title in sight as his professor suggested?

I don’t think so, but to get the results we want from the people we are formally writing to, we need to be sensitive to their temperament and emotional needs; if they are known to have big egos, we should as a matter of course capitalize their job titles. To quibble about the grammatical correctness of doing so would really be counterproductive and, in extreme cases, thoroughly disastrous. The lesson to be learned here is that in formal communication, whether written or spoken, etiquette and precedence should trump grammar correctness at all times.

                          IMAGE CREDIT: FELCO AT SLIDEPLAYER.COM

As a cautionary note, though, I must hasten to add that the unbridled use of upper-case letters can be very distracting; indeed, unless needed or deserved, upper-case letters are telltale signs of exaggeration—the prose equivalent of screaming.

(Next: A letter from a bereaved German widower)      September 24, 2020

This essay, 2,011th of the series, appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the Campus Press section of the September 17, 2020 Internet edition of The Manila Times,© 2020 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

Read this online in The Manila Times:
“A curious encounter about the use of position titles”

« Last Edit: September 17, 2020, 10:50:18 AM by Joe Carillo »