An editor’s opinion about “Dr.” Biden
today at 9:12 am
Since I spent my entire working life adhering to editorial usage guides, I want to weigh in (a little late) on the Joseph Epstein brouhaha.
If Epstein’s December 11 Wall Street Journal op-ed deriding Jill Biden’s use of “Dr.” hadn’t been so condescending, maybe the topic could have been discussed without consideration of gender.
Epstein addressed Biden, who has a doctorate in education (EdD), as “kiddo” and said that her use of Dr. “feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.” Uproar understandably ensued.
I think Epstein had a point that was buried beneath his sexist language. Usage guides for editors and writers reserve Dr. for people in healthcare fields.
The newspaper journalist’s usage guide, the Associated Press Stylebook, says Dr. belongs only before the names of medical doctors, dentists, optometrists, osteopaths, podiatrists, and veterinarians.
Similarly, the Chicago Manual of Style, which is followed in the Northwestern University publications office from which I retired, does not use Dr. before the names of people with PhDs but does for medical doctors.
Why should medical people be privileged and not those who have achieved the highest level in other professions? Longtime convention has associated the title “Dr.” with health fields. Following the convention avoids confusion. If you collapse on the sidewalk and a passerby shouts, “Is there a doctor around?,” you wouldn’t want a PhD in history to come to your aid.
I do not believe, however, that medical doctors, dentists, et al should be called Dr. outside their professional capacity. An MD ought to be Mr. or Ms. everywhere else, just like the rest of us. A social invitation to a DDS should be addressed to Mr. or Ms.
While following established editorial style, the in-house style guide in the publications office at Northwestern offers a solution so that doctors of philosophy, who are the great majority of university professors, and doctors of medicine are treated similarly in print.
“To avoid offending people with PhDs, try to avoid using Dr. for MDs and DDSs,” the guide advises. “A way to do so is to identify a specialty after the name or use some other language that implies a medical degree (John Smith, an orthodontist; Mary Brown, a professor of pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine).”
In reality, I don’t remember any PhD whose nose was out of joint because he or she was not given the Dr. designation. It’s presumed that a university faculty member, especially one at an elite university like Northwestern, has a PhD.
Jill Biden teaches at a community college, where PhDs are less common than at four-year universities, so maybe that’s a reason she likes to use Dr. I think she should be called what she wants, but I also think Dr. Biden sounds snobby and status conscious.
Many people who labored long and hard to earn PhDs disagree, as was clear in their rebuttal to Epstein. They feel they deserve recognition as doctors. People work as hard in other areas, though, without earning an honorific. Think of someone who starts a small business and puts in years of struggle before making a profit. Or a carpenter, an artist, a mechanic, or anyone else whose skills attest to years of experience.
Uproar over Epstein’s op-ed prompted Northwestern University, where Epstein lectured years ago, to put out a statement calling the essay “misogynistic” and saying that “the designation of doctor is well deserved by anyone who has earned a PhD, an EdD, or an MD.”
Yes, the statement contradicts the style guide I mentioned. Lowly publications editors do not dictate to the powers-that-be. Actually, I’m glad that the university defended Biden against Epstein’s chauvinism. The topic of who should use Dr. is appropriate for discussion, but Epstein ensured that the discussion would instead focus on his misogyny.