3 Nov 2023

The Trouble with Titles

We all agree that society is becoming much less deferential, and that acute social anxiety when it comes to protocol, precedence and titles is diminishing.

But people still have titles, whether they are inherited or bestowed, and it is still a mark of respect and consideration to go to the trouble of using them correctly. Making mistakes may not be an act of social suicide, as it once was, but it can look slapdash and over-casual. Using the correct title gets you off on the right foot and is an easy way to ensure that you are taken seriously, especially when you are writing to strangers.

British titles can appear confusing and contradictory, and it is hardly surprising that people frequently make the following common mistakes:

Hierarchy Errors

•All ranks below duke are called Lord or Lady TITLE in conversation. Do not address them as, for example, earl or baroness except on an envelope or a public list, such as list of patrons or directors, for example at a formal charity event.

•This means that, when you meet a titled person, you should say, for example “Good morning, Lord Debrett” not “Good morning earl.” Dukes are the exception, and you would address a duke as follows: “Good morning, duke”.

Forename Errors

•The most common confusion is first and last names. Knights, baronets and dames are formally addressed as follows: title-first name-last name, for example Dame Maggie Smith. If you were to meet her in person, you would address her as follows: “Good morning, Dame Maggie”.

•Daughters and younger sons of dukes and marquesses and daughters of earls are addressed as follows: Lord/Lady-first name-last name, for example the fictional Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey, the daughter of an earl, is informally and verbally addressed as Lady Mary.

•Sons of earls and sons and daughters of viscounts and barons are called the Honourable, shortened to the Hon, but always referred to (other than on envelopes and official lists) as Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms.

•All life peers are barons or baronesses, and some female life peers have chosen to use the title ‘Baroness’, rather than ‘Lady’. If they choose this style, then it should be respected even though it is technically incorrect. For example, Baroness Garden (title-surname), but some famous life peeresses are commonly, and erroneously, addressed as, for example, “Baroness Margaret Thatcher” (ie their forename is included).

Problems with Joint Forms of Address

•People often tend to think the wife of a baronet (for example Sir John Debrett), is called Lady Jane Debrett. She is only Lady Jane if she is the daughter of a duke, marquess or earl. To be correct, she is Lady Debrett. It is obviously tempting to call her Lady Jane because her husband is Sir John, but that would be incorrect.

•It works the other way round as well. If daughter of a duke, marquess or earl is married to a plain mister she is called, for example, Lady Charlotte Berkeley (or, informally, “Lady Charlotte”) and he stays Mr James Berkeley. It would be wrong to call her Lady Berkeley.

•Daughters and sons of a viscount or baron have the courtesy title of “The Hon” (though they are addressed verbally in conversation as “Miss”, “Mrs” or “Ms”). If someone with the courtesy title of “The Hon” is married to a plain Mr or Mrs, they take their spouse’s surname and add their courtesy prefix: “The Hon Roger and Mrs Jane Maddox or “Mr Roger and The Hon Jane Maddox”.

Getting it Wrong

Some titles are frequently misused, and the erroneous use has become normalised, for example:

•A very a typical mistake is Diana, Lady Berkeley, the former wife of the 18th Baron Berkeley. As an environmental campaigner, she was frequently in the news and incorrectly named as Lady Dido Berkeley.

• When the composer and impresario Andrew Lloyd Webber was given a life peerage in 1997 his surname was hyphenated to distinguish him from appearing to be a son of a duke or marquess with Lloyd as a first name. Realistically this was never very likely to have happened. However, he is often incorrectly referred to in the media as Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber.

• Perhaps the most common mistakes people make is when referring to members of the Royal family. We frequently see examples of people calling The Duchess of Sussex “Duchess Meghan” or “Princess Meghan”, and The Princess of Wales, “Princess Kate”. Both of these are incorrect. Referring to them by their birth names is also erroneous, although as The Duchess of Sussex was well-known before her marriage, it is acceptable to still refer to her as Meghan Markle.

If you want to find out more about the wonderful world of titles, why not become a member of Debrett's, which will give you access to our comprehensive Etiquette library and to our Peerage & Baronetage digital database.


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