20 Jun 2024

Address to Impress

In his introduction to the 1976 Edition of Debrett’s Correct Form, Sir Ian Moncreiffe of that Ilk (a fine example of a British title) states that

This invaluable guide to usage combines a sense of historic names and styles with a helpful understanding of the practical need of courteous people to find a guide to present-day usage through our fascinating Hampton Court maze of precedence, lettering, and modes of address.”

He also points out

The custom of putting letters after people’s names has only arisen in comparatively modern times but has proliferated as our enormous increase of population – and the rewarding of service to the economy and not just to the State – has led to a great expansion of our Orders of Chivalry and higher honours, together with the multiplication of degrees and appointees. Since these letters are but abbreviations, we can write them as we please. However, custom has evolved certain standard abbreviations, and most people seek guidance about present conventions. Officially and in business it’s polite to get all that lettering right; for what’s the use of earning all those gongs if the poor fellow can’t use them?

Debrett’s has always believed that the correct form of address is a vitally important pillar of politeness, and that it is always going to reflect well on you if you take the trouble to get it right. Whether someone is the proud bearer of a historic title or a life peerage, or can boast a hard-earned professional title and qualifications, it is only respectful to pay them their dues and acknowledge the title. Crown honours, and the letters after the name that accompany them, are marks of distinction – they recognise people who have made an outstanding contribution to society and they are something to be proud of, not disregarded.

We recognise that strict social norms have relaxed considerably since the first appearance of Correct Form. First names are widely used, titles and surnames are not much used in the world of digital communication. But there are still many occasions when we revert to formality, and we still advise that, if in doubt, it is always sensible to revert to formal titles and surnames until told not to do so.

At Debrett’s we have long prided ourselves on providing general guidance to ‘Styles by Office’, allowing readers to dig deep into the various strata of the main professions to understand the naming conventions that are used within each particular field. Similarly, we have listed Crown Orders and Decorations and explained the hierarchy in which they are listed as letters after the name. These general principles have proved to be an invaluable guide to Forms of Address over the past fifty years.

When writing to someone in their professional capacity, it is a gratifying sign of respect to get their title and any postnominals right. It shows that you have gone to trouble to do so and that you recognise the importance of these qualifications and their significance to the individual. We also appreciate that it can be hard to establish the correct nomenclature when writing a formal letter. In the professions, people move around, gain new qualifications, are promoted, and their titles reflect these changes. Each year the Birthday Honours and the New Year’s Honours are announced and a fresh crop of postnominals are appended to the names of worthy recipients. Some people are knighted, become Dames, or are elevated to the Peerage, and all these changes can be hard to monitor.

So, we are launching a unique free-to-use service, the Debrett’s Directory, which takes the major professions (Law, Diplomacy, Religion, Public Servants, Politics) and provides a listing of individual office holders. Not only do we give the full name of each current office holder, we also list any postnominal letters or titles. Most importantly of all, we give a clear instruction for each named individual on how to address them in writing and on an envelope.

We are confident that our new Directory will provide an invaluable checklist for the public, giving them easy access to the names of office holders and their forms of address. It is an ongoing project, and further Professions (eg the Civil Service and the Armed Forces) will be added in due course. We are constantly monitoring our entrants, ensuring that new appointments and departures are promptly recorded and checking that post-nominals are up to date.

There is nothing more personal to us than our own name. We’ve all experienced a mild stab of irritation when we receive letters with our name misspelt, or when someone abbreviates our name in a way we do not like. Our advice is to immediately and firmly point out these errors. If you are guilty of misnaming, you should apologise profusely, take note and not do it again. It is a social faux pas that can be forgiven.

However, getting names wrong in a professional setting is more troubling. It immediately communicates carelessness, laziness and disrespect and can start a professional relationship off on the wrong footing. By using our Directory, you will be ensuring that small errors are not blown up into significant missteps.


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