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What Is a False Title?

J.E. Holloway
J.E. Holloway

In English usage, a false title is a description of an individual placed before their name as if it were a title. For instance, a news article about a new scientific discovery might describe the discoverer as "noted scientist Jane Smith." This is an example of a false title. This form of usage is not intended to deceive, but to present information in a few words.

The term 'false title' exists to point out the contrast between a description provided in this manner and an actual title. When an actual title appears in a sentence, it occurs before the name in the same way. For example, the same article might describe the discoverer as "Professor Jane Smith." which would be her real title. Custom places real titles in front of an individual's name, as in the cases of "Mr. Jones," "Reverend McGinty" or "President Lincoln." A false title is therefore essentially a description of an individual presented as if it were a title.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

Many within the journalistic community regard Time magazine as the originator or popularizer of this form of description. Consequently, another name for the false title is the "Time-style adjective." This type of description serves as a form of shorthand, identifying the role an individual plays in a story without distracting the reader with additional clauses.

The false title is a controversial element of writing style. Roy Reed, a former New York Times reporter, has described false titles as "deceptive, confusing, lazy, and embarrassing." These descriptors, however, remain common enough that novelists such as Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, have adopted the fashion in an attempt to give literary prose some of the immediacy of journalistic writing.

One variant of the false title is the addition of a definite article. For instance, instead of "noted scientist Jane Smith," a newspaper article might describe an individual as "the noted scientist Jane Smith." This usage typically occurs when the person being referred to is sufficiently well-known that the normal usage, which appears to be introducing the person, would seem redundant.

The journalistic use is not the only possible meaning of the phrase "false title." Claimants to aristocratic titles often take titles for themselves to which they are not entitled, or invent titles which never existed at all. This phrase can also be used to refer to them, but it is not a specific technical term as it is in journalism.

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