False title

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A false, coined, fake, bogus or pseudo-title, also called a Time-style adjective and an anarthrous nominal premodifier, is a kind of appositive phrase before a noun; it resembles a title in not starting with an article but is not a title. An example is convicted bomber in "convicted bomber Timothy McVeigh".[1]

Some usage writers condemn this construction, but others defend it.


In "Professor Herbert Marcuse", "Professor" is a title, while in "famed New Left philosopher Herbert Marcuse",[2] "famed New Left philosopher" has the same syntax, including the lack of the at the beginning, but is not a title. The linguist Charles F. Meyer has stated that "pseudo-titles" differ from titles in providing a description rather than honoring the person (and that there are gray areas, such as "former Vice President Dan Quayle").[3]

"Anarthrous" means "lacking an article",[4] and "nominal" is used in the sense "of the nature of a noun".[5]


Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) says that the construction is "highly unlikely outside journalism".[2] Likewise The Columbia Guide to Standard American English classifies these constructions as "journalese".[6] British guides consider these constructions not only journalese but Americanisms[7][8] or at least less "embedded" in British English.[9]

The practice occurs as early as the late 19th century, as in "The culmination of the episode at Sheepshead Bay last week between Trainer William Walden and Reporter Mayhew, of the Herald,... seems to reflect little credit on Editor Bennett."[10] Some authors state that the practice began in or was popularized by Time magazine.[2][3][6][11][12] Like the example above, early examples in Time were capitalized: "Ruskin's famed friend, Painter Sir John Millais".[2] However, now they are usually in lower case.[13]

Meyer has compared the International Corpus of English with an earlier study to document the spread of the construction from American newspapers to those of other countries in the last two decades of the 20th century. In particular, during that time it became even more common in New Zealand and the Philippines than in the United States. He predicts that it is unlikely to appear in conversation.[3]

He notes that "pseudo-titles" (as he calls them) rarely contain a modifying phrase after the initial noun phrase, that is, forms such as "MILF Vice Chairman for Political Affairs Al-Hajj Murad Ebrahim" for the head of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are rare. Furthermore, they cannot begin with a genitive phrase; "Osias Baldivino, the bureau's litigation and prosecution division chief" cannot be changed to *"bureau's litigation and prosecution division chief Osias Baldivino" (though it can appear if "bureau's" is removed). He also cites Randolph Quirk's principle of "end-weight", which says that weightier parts of sentences are better placed at the end of sentences or smaller structures. Thus pseudo-titles, which by definition go at the beginning, tend to be short. He notes that pseudo-titles in New Zealand and Philippine newspapers are much more likely to exceed five words than those in the U.S and Britain.[3]


Theodore Bernstein, a usage writer, strongly deprecated these "coined titles". He gave an example of "a legitimate title... combined with an illegitimate one" in "Ohio Supreme Court Judge and former trial lawyer James Garfield", which he said was an inversion of the normal "James Garfield, Ohio Supreme Court Judge and former trial lawyer" that gained nothing but awkwardness. He cited the usual lower-casing of these phrases as evidence that those who write them realize they are not true titles.[11]

MWDEU suggests that the reason for the construction is that it identifies a person concisely. It also says that, contrary to the claims of some critics, it is perfectly comprehensible.[2] However, the journalism professor Roy Reed claimed that such a sentence as "This genteel look at New England life, with a formidable circulation of 1 million, warmly profiles Hartland Four Corners, Vt., resident George Seldes, 96," was "gibberish". He added that the phrase "right-wing spokesman Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson" was ambiguous, as the reader could not tell whether D'Aubuisson was the single spokesman for the Salvadoran right wing or one of many.[14]

In addition to placing the descriptive phrase after the name, "where it belongs", Reed suggested that if the phrase goes before the name, it should begin with a or the.[14] The usage writer Kenneth Bressler also recommends avoiding the construction and suggests additional ways of doing so.[15]

The only prescriptive comment in The Columbia Guide to Standard English is that these constructions "can be tiresome."[6]

R. L. Trask, a linguist, used the phrase "preposed appositive" for constructions such as "the Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould." In strong language, he recommended including the initial the (and employing such constructions sparingly anyway).[16]

Linguist Geoffrey Pullum addressed the subject in comments on the first sentence of The Da Vinci Code, which begins, "Renowned curator Jacques Saunière...." Pullum says that a sentence beginning with an "anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier" is "reasonable" in a newspaper,[17] and "It's not ungrammatical; it just has the wrong feel and style for a novel."[12]

Usage pundit William Safire stated that the "the" gives the title excessive emphasis and that it sounds funny to native speakers.[18]


  1. ^ Garner, Bryan A. (2003), Garner's Modern American Usage, Oxford University Press, USA, p. 789, ISBN 0-19-516191-2 
  2. ^ a b c d e Merriam-Webster, Incorporated (1994), Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (2nd ed.), p. 429, ISBN 0-87779-132-5, retrieved 2009-05-23 .
  3. ^ a b c d Meyer, Charles F. (2002), "Pseudo-titles in the Press Genre of Various Components of the International Corpus of English", in Reppen, Randi; Fitzmaurice, Susan M. ; Biber, Douglas, Using Corpora to Explore Linguistic Variation, John Benjamins Publishing Co., pp. 147–166, ISBN 90-272-2279-7, retrieved 2009-05-27 
  4. ^ American Heritage Dictionary, Houghton Mifflin, 2009, retrieved 2009-11-05 
  5. ^ Brown, Lesley, ed. (1993), New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (NSOED), Oxford University Press, p. 1932, ISBN 0-19-861271-0 
  6. ^ a b c Wilson, Kenneth G. (1993), The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, Columbia University Press, pp. 188–189, ISBN 978-0-231-06989-2, retrieved 2009-05-23 .
  7. ^ Research Tools: Style Guide, The Economist, 2009, retrieved 2009-05-24 
  8. ^ Peters, Pam (2004), The Cambridge Guide to English Usage, Cambridge University Press, p. 536, ISBN 0-521-62181-X .
  9. ^ Burchfield, R. W. (1996), The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, The Clarendon Press, p. 775, ISBN 0-19-869126-2 
  10. ^ "The Tipster" (June 20, 1893). "Paddock and Track". Town Topics, the Journal of Society 29 (26): 20. Retrieved 2012-11-24. 
  11. ^ a b Bernstein, Theodore M. (1965), The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage (2nd ed.), Simon and Schuster, p. 107, ISBN 0-684-82632-1, retrieved 2009-05-23 .
  12. ^ a b Pullum, Geoffrey (2004-11-07), Renowned Author Dan Brown Staggered Through His Formulaic Opening Sentence, Language Log, retrieved 2009-05-24 .
  13. ^ The University of Chicago Press (2003), The Chicago Manual of Style (Fifteenth ed.), p. 318, ISBN 0-226-10403-6 
  14. ^ a b Reed, Roy (1987-07-25), "Titles That Aren't Titles", The New York Times, retrieved 2009-05-23 . According to that site, a version of the article appeared in the New York Times, July 5, 1987, p. 31.
  15. ^ Bressler, Kenneth (2003), The Workplace Writing Manual: Tips Designed to Stick, Wm. S. Hein Publishing, p. 60, ISBN 0-8377-3033-3, retrieved 2009-05-24 .
  16. ^ Trask, R. L. (2005-05), Say What You Mean! A Troubleshooter's Guide to English Style and Usage, David R. Godine, Publisher, pp. 216–217, ISBN 1-56792-263-5, retrieved 2009-05-24  .
  17. ^ Pullum, Geoffrey (2004-05-01), The Dan Brown code, Language Log, retrieved 2009-05-24 .
  18. ^ Safire, William (2009-07-15), "On Language: Vogue-Word Watch", The New York Times, retrieved 2009-07-19 . According to that site, a version of the article appeared in the New York Times, July 19, 2009, p. MM14 of the New York edition.