Monday, January 28, 2013

Apple #622: Referring to Former Governors and Presidents

This is another topic that came up in conversation.  A group of us were sitting around, talking about the news of the day, when someone mentioned someone who used to be governor.  "Here's a Daily Apple question for you," my friend Carmela said.  "When you're talking about somebody who used to be governor, do you call them Governor, or since they're not governor anymore, what do you call them?"

Her husband Carlyle said, "I think if it's an office that only one person can hold at a time, only the current governor is called governor.  Otherwise, they're a former governor."  But Carlyle said he wasn't sure, he'd only heard that through the grapevine, so could I confirm that.

It turns out, Carlyle is exactly right.

Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is now just Mr. Schwarzenegger. Or perhaps the Terminator.
(Photo from

Used to Hold an Office Occupied by Only one Person

  • If you're referring to a person who used to hold an office that only one person can have at a time -- mayor, governor, president, vice president, etc -- you no longer refer to that person as Mayor Whosit or Governor Whatsit or President Lollygag or Vice President Codswallop.  Only the current officeholder is Mayor Bobolink or Governor Titmouse or President Mudskipper, etc.
  • Exactly how you designate a former single-person officeholder depends on your situation.
  • If you're talking about them in conversation or in a paper or a news article, you refer to them as former governor So-and-so.
  • If you're speaking to the former one-person-officeholder, you use the title indicating the highest previous hierarchical level that person has achieved.  
    • When you speak to former Vice President Al Gore, call him "Senator Gore" (see below).
    • Former President Bill Clinton's previous highest position was governor, but somebody else is governor of Arkansas now so you can't call him that anymore. Before that, he was just a Mr., so you would call him "Mr. Clinton."  
    • Similarly, former President George W. Bush was governor of Texas, but you can't call him governor anymore, so you would call him "Mr. Bush."  
    • If you were to speak to former President Dwight Eisenhower, you would call him "General Eisenhower." 
  • If you are formally addressing or announcing a former officeholder, you refer to them as The Honorable So-and-So.
    • If you were having a party where a butler was announcing the arrival of each guest, when former President Bill Clinton arrived, the butler would say, "The Honorable William Clinton." (He'd probably say William because butlers like to be formal.)
    • If you were going to send an invitation to George W. Bush to come to your party, you would address it to "The Honorable George W. Bush." 

Jimmy Carter will always be Jimmy, even with "The Honorable" in front of his name.
(Photo from the Huffington Post)

Used to Hold an Office that Many People Could Hold

  • In the case of positions where there are lots of them at one time--Senators or Congressmen or Trustees, etc.--they retain the title even after they have left office.
    • You would still refer to Elizabeth Dole as Senator Elizabeth Dole (especially to distinguish her from Senator Bob Dole).
    • Bill Frist was a doctor before he became a Senator, but US Senator is considered a higher position than Dr., so you would still refer to him as Senator Bill Frist.
    • Speaking to multi-person officeholders, you use the same title: "Hello, Senator Dole."
    • When formally addressing or writing an invitation to a former multi-person officeholder, you also use The Honorable So-and So.

Even if Senator Dole had gone back to being president of the American Red Cross after having been Senator, she would still be Senator, since the US Senate trumps the Red Cross.
(Photo from EHS Today)

Some Exceptions

  • Sometimes journalists will change up these rules within an article just to avoid sounding overly formal or redundant.  For example, a journalist might refer to President Obama as "President Obama" on the first occurrence, and then on subsequent mentions in the same article, even though grammar and etiquette says he should be called "President Obama," they will switch to "Mr. Obama."
    • Side note: after much debate and consideration, NPR has decided to stop calling him "Mr. Obama" on second mentions now that he has entered his second term.  NPR's managing editor has decided that "Mr. [Last Name]" is now an antiquated form, and that Mr. Obama has become so familiar to us, the Mr. seems too overly deferential.  So once they've refer to "President Obama" the first time in a piece, after that he will simply be "Obama."
  • Some journalists keep using "Governor" even after he or she has left that office.  During Mr. Romney's Presidential campaign, for example, he was often referred to as Governor Romney, even though he no longer occupied that office.  
  • Some political pundits still refer to Mrs. Sarah Palin as Governor Palin, even though she is no longer Governor. The appropriate title for her now is Mrs. Palin.


  • When the office is used as a title preceding someone's name, it is capitalized:
    • President Barack Obama
    • Senator John Boehner
    • Governor John Hickenlooper
  • When the office is used as a title following someone's name, it is capitalized:
    • Sincerely, Marjorie Woolgatherer, Doyenne Extraordinaire
    • Warm regards, Lucius Malfoy, Death Eater
  • When referring to the office in general, or to the officeholder by title only, do not capitalize it:
    • I'm thinking of running for president.*
    • Why not just run for governor?
    • Because the state attorney general will beat me. 
    • *(Some people do capitalize President only when it means President of the United States [POTUS]). 

Hope that helps, Carlyle, Asker of This Topic.
The Apple Lady

President Obama, smiling in front of the White House logo. Perhaps Mr. Obama doesn't care whether people call him "Mr. Obama" or "Obama" on second mentions.  "Barry" is probably going a bit too far -- in formal contexts, anyway.
(Photo from Zap2it)

The Protocol School of Washington's Honor & Respect: The Official Guide to Names, Titles, and Forms of Address, Governor and Senator
English Language & Usage, Addressing a former office-holder by that office's title
NPR Ombudsman, That's 'Mister' To You, Buddy, October 5, 2012
NPR Will Stop Referring To Obama As ‘Mr.’ On Second Reference To Avoid Appearance Of ‘Favoritism’ Media-ite, January 18, 2013
Emily Post, Addressing a Former President of the United States
Why so formal with the president? Chicago Tribune, August 8, 2012

1 comment:

  1. Now let's see if I can make this lesson stick when next I pick up the phone and there's a former governor on the other end!


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