19 Apr 2023

A history of the Handbook

Debrett’s first published Correct Form in 1976; it has been in print ever since and repeatedly revised and updated. It forms a major part of our Handbook, and we are pleased to announce that we are bringing out a new, revised ‘Coronation’ edition in April 2023.

An earlier edition of Correct Form promises ‘An Inclusive Guide to Everything from Drafting Wedding Invitations to Addressing an Archbishop’. That seemingly straightforward strapline speaks volumes. Society has changed so much over the last fifty years and the old certainties and assumptions have been steadily eroded. Our latest edition discusses the correct form for situations that would have been quite unthinkable in 1976: the possibility that an Archbishop of Canterbury might be a woman; and the fact that our advice on wedding invitations has now been expanded to include same-sex marriages, civil partnerships and a whole host of other non-conventional family set-ups.

Earlier editions of Correct Form reflect a world of social certainty. Society was hierarchical and this was reflected in strict notions of the ‘correct’ way of acknowledging every person’s status, from addressing a letter and making an introduction, to drawing up a seating plan or delivering a speech. It was essential to adhere to these social niceties and finely graduated distinctions and any deviation from these meticulously chronicled practices was considered disrespectful and discourteous.

Even so, there was an acknowledgment that certain modes of address and formal phrases were becoming obsolete in the rapidly changing world of 1970s Britain. For example, early editors of Correct Form note that ending a letter to a duke with the phrase “I have the honour to be, My Lord Duke, Your Grace’s obedient servant” was a formal style that was becoming increasingly less common, although they point out that earlier generations had deployed a much more elaborate dance of obeisance, littering their letters with phrases such as “most devoted and most obedient”, “most humble and devoted” and so on. Even the recommended formal sign-off when writing to an untitled man of “I have the honour to be, Sir, Your obedient servant” sound impossibly unctuous to 21st-century ears.

Early editions of Correct Form emanate from a world where women were still defined by their marital status. They state categorically that “It is incorrect for a widow to be addressed by her own forename or initials, as this implies that her marriage was dissolved” adding darkly that “This mistake is frequently made”. Only divorced ladies were recommended to use their forenames, which clearly marked them out. ‘Ms’ was only just being introduced as an alternative, and it was firmly insisted that unmarried ladies should be addressed as “Miss”.

Yet society was about to undergo a seismic change. Women, already well established in the legal, academic and medical professions, were making a growing impact in local and national politics (Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, just three years after the first edition of Correct Form), as well as the police, diplomatic service and, eventually the Church and Armed Forces. The tendency, however, was always to default to male forms of address when giving examples of the correct forms of address, reflecting contemporary attitudes.

Our new edition places correct form firmly in the 21st century. While we appreciate that there are long-established formalities and conventions, which may be usefully deployed in certain traditional situations, we also understand that these forms of address have very little to do with most people’s lives and sound impossibly archaic in an age of texting and social media. We have chosen to retain our customary formal advice, but always to give a pragmatic, contemporary alternative. We have, for example, acknowledged throughout the new edition, that most married women these days do not want to be named as an appendage of their husband, and are determined to retain their own forename, continue to use their maiden name, or create a new double-barrelled surname.

We have also striven to reflect the new world of work, where women are now holding key roles that in the 1970s would still have been seen as a masculine preserve (Brigadier, Bishop, Chief Constable, Home Secretary). We hope that, by exemplifying how women in these roles should be addressed professionally, we are beginning to redress the imbalance.

Finally, our new edition introduces, or elaborates upon, means of communication that were undreamt of in the 1970s. The first editions of Correct Form reside in a world of visiting cards, At Home cards, engraved invitations and handwritten letters on personal stationery. Births, marriages and deaths were announced in the broadsheets; presumably the telephone was a useful short cut, though its use is never mentioned in the pages of the book. Surely, our predecessors can scarcely have dreamt of the world of faxes (the first innovation), emails, texts and social media. In this respect, the transformations of the last fifty years have been extraordinary, allowing us to communicate instantaneously in a wide variety of ways, to cut through the stately old formalities, and circumvent the cumbersome role of conventional correspondence.

Of course, these time-honoured means of communication have not gone away, and we have had to think carefully about their continued importance – most notably on big occasions, such as weddings, births or formal parties. People will continue to enjoy the arrival of the stiff formal card with its engraved copperplate script, or the handwritten thank-you letter sent on the finest quality stationery, and we have therefore continued to give advice about all forms of written communication. But, for a 21st-century audience, we have also turned our attention to more everyday messages and have evolved some simple and practical advice about email and texting etiquette, which we hope will prove both useful and contemporary.

Revising the Handbook for the coronation year of 2023 has been a fascinating exercise, which has vividly demonstrated the speed with which society changes. Egalitarian attitudes and a refusal to accept traditional gender stereotypes, assisted by rapid innovations in media and technology, are forging a new informality. But we are also reminded that we British, no matter how progressive our demeanour, are stalwart guardians of our own history and remain consistently respectful of well-documented traditions and ancient rituals.


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