An editor’s opinion about “Dr.” Biden

Since I spent my entire working life adhering to editorial usage guides, I want to weigh in (a little late) on the Joseph Epstein brouhaha.

If Epstein’s December 11 Wall Street Journal op-ed deriding Jill Biden’s use of “Dr.” hadn’t been so condescending, maybe the topic could have been discussed without consideration of gender.

Epstein addressed Biden, who has a doctorate in education (EdD), as “kiddo” and said that her use of Dr. “feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.” Uproar understandably ensued.

I think Epstein had a point that was buried beneath his sexist language. Usage guides for editors and writers reserve Dr. for people in healthcare fields.

The newspaper journalist’s usage guide, the Associated Press Stylebook, says Dr. belongs only before the names of medical doctors, dentists, optometrists, osteopaths, podiatrists, and veterinarians. 

Similarly, the Chicago Manual of Style, which is followed in the Northwestern University publications office from which I retired, does not use Dr. before the names of people with PhDs but does for medical doctors. 

Why should medical people be privileged and not those who have achieved the highest level in other professions? Longtime convention has associated the title “Dr.” with health fields. Following the convention avoids confusion. If you collapse on the sidewalk and a passerby shouts, “Is there a doctor around?,” you wouldn’t want a PhD in history to come to your aid.

I do not believe, however, that medical doctors, dentists, et al should be called Dr. outside their professional capacity. An MD ought to be Mr. or Ms. everywhere else, just like the rest of us. A social invitation to a DDS should be addressed to Mr. or Ms.

While following established editorial style, the in-house style guide in the publications office at Northwestern offers a solution so that doctors of philosophy, who are the great majority of university professors, and doctors of medicine are treated similarly in print. 

“To avoid offending people with PhDs, try to avoid using Dr. for MDs and DDSs,” the guide advises. “A way to do so is to identify a specialty after the name or use some other language that implies a medical degree (John Smith, an orthodontist; Mary Brown, a professor of pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine).”

In reality, I don’t remember any PhD whose nose was out of joint because he or she was not given the Dr. designation. It’s presumed that a university faculty member, especially one at an elite university like Northwestern, has a PhD. 

Jill Biden teaches at a community college, where PhDs are less common than at four-year universities, so maybe that’s a reason she likes to use Dr. I think she should be called what she wants, but I also think Dr. Biden sounds snobby and status conscious.

Many people who labored long and hard to earn PhDs disagree, as was clear in their rebuttal to Epstein. They feel they deserve recognition as doctors. People work as hard in other areas, though, without earning an honorific. Think of someone who starts a small business and puts in years of struggle before making a profit. Or a carpenter, an artist, a mechanic, or anyone else whose skills attest to years of experience.

Uproar over Epstein’s op-ed prompted Northwestern University, where Epstein lectured years ago, to put out a statement calling the essay “misogynistic”  and saying that “the designation of doctor is well deserved by anyone who has earned a PhD, an EdD, or an MD.” 

Yes, the statement contradicts the style guide I mentioned. Lowly publications editors do not dictate to the powers-that-be. Actually, I’m glad that the university defended Biden against Epstein’s chauvinism. The topic of who should use Dr. is appropriate for discussion, but Epstein ensured that the discussion would instead focus on his misogyny. 

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  • Thank you for a well-reasoned post, Marianne. You're right, it's violating the style guides, but it would be so easy to work around -- as in "The first lady of the U.S. has never had a Ph.D. before, but the president-elect's wife, Jill, holds one in education." Or maybe "The first lady usually has an office in the White House, but the new one also will have one at (Blank) Community College, where an unassuming office door reads "Dr. Jill Biden."

  • Thanks for commenting, Margaret. It would be easy to work around in stories, as you demonstrated, but I understand the issue is that she herself wants to be called Dr.

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    Hi again, Marianne! First things first ... I have a doctorate, in electronics and computer engineering. (Remember me, the Mac guy?) I avoid calling myself "Dr." except for emergency restaurant reservations (but seriously, it actually works!). While I am too modest or bashful to use it, but consider it an honor and compliment when *others* do so, usually within a professional context (conference, workshop, testimony, etc.). I have no problem with Jill Biden using it herself and consider the Epstein piece as yet another manufactured controversy. Even our little discussion here lends it a more attention than it ever deserved.

  • In reply to Gary Dare:

    Nice to hear from you again, Dr Dare. I was going to let you know that a maintenance man in my building asked if he could have my old computer. He thought he could reuse it. He promised to wipe the drive, and I trust him. thank you again for all the help you gave me, and I hope you keep reading, even when the topic is not particularly relevant to you

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    In reply to Marianne Goss:

    Great news on the old Mac! One site you might want to pass on (and make use of yourself) is which contains history and specs of every Apple Macintosh model ever released. Maximum memory that you can install, or latest operating system (macOS/OS X) that it can run. For a ten year-old Mac, I would recommend that its new owner install the latest version (a wild guess is 10.11, 12 or 13) which are free of charge since release 10.09 ... download it, burn a DVD and then reinstall from scratch - which will also reformat its hard drive and wipe out all the old information!

  • In reply to Gary Dare:

    thanks, Gary. I'll tell him.

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