Why The Age is dropping honorifics

Every week, Age chief desk editor Jo Anderson publishes something called “Tuesday Tips”. Jo is our grammar and style guru, and she gently chides us for our regular transgressions. She does it with such charm it is difficult to take offence.

Here’s a recent one. “I admit to a slight narrowing of the eyes when I see people in trouble with the law described as fronting court. Appearing in or before a court is the way to go, not the slangy fronting, which leaves me with images of someone loping into the room, putting their feet up, pulling out a ciggie and waving to the judge. Way too casual. Next thing you know the accused will be declaring themselves not guilty and strolling off to a pub.”

And another: “Where we sin the most casually and frequently is in calling police ‘cops’ at way too many opportunities. Apart from being informal, ‘cop’ can also have negative connotations. I’m not suggesting it be banned. Sometimes there’s no option for tight headlines and ‘top cop’ is so wonderfully short. But ‘police’ is the word wanted in the body text of straight news stories and preferably the head. And they’re ‘police officers’, not ‘members’. Members is jargon, and you know what we think of jargon.”

Few of you will have heard of Jo Anderson, who has worked for The Age since 2004, but she is as important to what we do as our reporters, photographers and bloggers. Readers get furious with us for grammatical errors or clichéd expressions – I have banned “on the campaign trail” for this election, but I know it will slip in. And we use “massive” and “shock” far too often, but we are working on it, I promise. And don’t get me started with “is set to” – that is one Jo frowns upon, too.

Jo has been working with others on updating the style guide for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald for some years. You may not even know about it, but our style guide, A to Z, lays out the rules for punctuation, spelling and word usage. We are rather conservative at The Age on these matters – I am happy for us to be so – and we avoid picking the latest fad and adopting it. But language changes and expressions that once seemed fine can now be offensive.

I will let Jo tell you all about it below, but the main change you will notice is that, from Monday, we are dropping honorifics – although The Australian Financial Review, as is its wont, is keeping them. Until now, in our news and business sections, you would have seen “Mr Smith” and “Ms Jones” and you won’t see that any more.

It will be “Prime Minister Scott Morrison” and, thereafter, Morrison. Including Mr, Mrs and Ms seems old-fashioned, and many other media organisations have dropped them. As Jo points out, our opinion, sport and culture sections already contain no honorifics, so this brings consistency.

The style guide updates our common practice to always cap Indigenous in relation to Australian Indigenous people. First Nations and First People/s have been added, as has Indigenous Voice to parliament. The word Country in an Indigenous context takes a capital C.

These will now be one word: cyberspace, cybercrime, cybercriminal, cyberattack, cybersecurity, cyberterrorist, cyberbully, cyberwar.

Transgender and non-binary are new entries that stress the use of pronouns that a person wishes and states that they as a singular pronoun is acceptable.

I will leave the fuller explanation to the inestimable Jo (who really should write a book about all this).

A note from Jo Anderson

Eagle-eyed readers may notice a change in how we present many of our stories from now on as we move away from a practice followed since our earliest days.

As part of an updated version of the style guide we use to help our journalists produce engaging, clear and consistent copy, we’ve decided to no longer routinely give people honorifics.

Whether they be a prime minister, a president, a doctor or a professor, after initial use of their title in our news stories, their surname alone will follow. With a few exceptions for things such as clarity, no more “Mr”, “Ms” or anything else.

The shift comes with a recognition it may be controversial among some readers. We mean no disrespect to anyone but feel the time is right to make this move. For all its established standards, English is not static; new words appear, others die out, meanings and society’s expectations of how language is used alter.

Our approach is that while we don’t seek to be at the cutting edge, foisting on readers every trend appearing online in the past five seconds, there are well-established shifts it’s appropriate for us to acknowledge.

In a change no doubt sped up these days by the internet, English, not to mention society, has become less formal in many public spheres over many decades. With that has come reduced use of honorifics in everyday life.

Many news organisations have decided to streamline their copy by moving away from honorifics, even ones you might not expect, such as the London Times. The Guardian has long gone down this path, although honorifics do appear in its editorials. The Washington Post is another example.

It’s in our news and business stories that the change will be noticed. Honorifics are already absent in areas such as sport (“Mr Kennedy passed the ball to Mr Franklin” doesn’t cut it), opinion, analysis and features, and sections such as Good Food.

Our style has long been to not give honorifics to people such as celebrities, artists and adventurers. Oh, and convicted criminals and journalists. Yes, we have often tied ourselves in knots working out who does or doesn’t get what. Our world section dropped honorifics several years ago for practical reasons – international news agencies don’t use them. It makes sense to simplify things and bring all our sections into line.

It’s been about eight years since our style guide last had a substantial update. How times have changed. Among the hundreds of alterations in the latest version, we’ve also recognised the shift in spelling in the West from Kiev to Kyiv for Ukraine’s capital.

With flexibility depending on the story, we’ve opted for LGBTQ as our default for an abbreviation with many variations. We’ve added an entry on appropriate use of pronouns for trans people.

We have modified our use of capitals when it comes to the titles of people such as prime ministers, government ministers and other holders of high office. Their titles will now take a capital only when used next to their name.

As is common, we’ve opted for net zero emissions without a hyphen.

Gay Alcorn sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive her Note from the Editor.

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