TLDR: This question is about vocatives. Is there a rule to explain how to know whether you can drop a person’s name when addessing someone just by their title alone, or whether that form is expressly forbidden by some mystery grammar? I’m looking for some veiled grammatical explanation if there is one.

Consider how this group:

  • Senator Smith
  • Governor Smith
  • Minister Smith
  • Doctor Smith
  • Vicar Smith
  • Father Smith
  • Sheriff Smith
  • Judge Smith
  • Nurse Smith
  • Professor Smith

Contrasts with this group:

  • King Jones
  • President Jones
  • Pope Jones
  • Lord Jones
  • Chief Justice Jones
  • Speaker Jones

When it comes to how they’re directly addressed, with the Smiths you can drop the Smith part when you address them and it still sounds alright, albeit somewhat familiar of course:

  • Doctor Smith, the patient will see you now.
  • Doctor, the patient will see you now.


  • Senator Smith, your vote today is critical.
  • Senator, your vote today is critical.

But with the Joneses, you can’t seem to get away with that at all:

  • President Smith, the Republic will not long survive such good fortune.
  • *President, the Republic will not long survive such good fortune.
  • Mister President, the Republic will not long survive such good fortune.


  • King Smith, the peasants are revolting.
  • *King, the peasants are revolting.
  • Your Majesty, the peasants are revolting.

For whatever reason, the Joneses seem to demand more “little empty words” in direct address than the Smiths do: Why is that?

Some of the Joneses get a Mister/Madame like Mister Chief Justice or Madame Speaker, while others get fanciful indirect forms from days of old like My Lord or Your Majesty or Your Holiness, and all the rest.

In some cases, it feels like you can only drop the name if the remaining title still applies for you. So Tommy Smith can call his Uncle Smith just plain Uncle, but it doesn’t feel right for someone who isn’t his uncle to do so; he’s Tommy’s uncle, not your own.

Why does the grammar differ here?

  • What’s the rule for knowing whether can just drop the name and keep the title in vocative use?

  • Alternately phrased, what’s the rule for knowing whether you have to either add more words like Mister if you drop the name?

Are these all actually in the same word-class?

References consulted

  • Might it not just be that "ordinary people" rarely have reason to use words whose primary purpose is to identify and catch the attention of the addressee when they're in the company of kings, presidents, and popes? In days of yore, you could reasonably say You there, beggar!, but You there, king! smacks of lèse-majesté to me (and the king probably wouldn't like it too much either! :) Dec 19, 2016 at 16:17
  • 1
    There's no rule, just arbitrary choices for different honorifics, and you just have to learn them.
    – Barmar
    Dec 19, 2016 at 16:48
  • @FumbleFingers without exactly disagreeing with you, your explanation would make more sense if senator and governor were in the second list.
    – Chris H
    Dec 19, 2016 at 17:32
  • @Chris: Brits do actually say, for example, Yes, guv! Whatever you say! in colloquial contexts, but we don't have much reason to use senator, governor like that anyway. But I suggest these are much more "lowly" categories, in that each might include many people (whereas there's usually only one king, president, or pope in any given context). Dec 19, 2016 at 18:30
  • 1
    "Vicar Smith" is not a normal way of referring to a person. In the past, the vicar of a Church of England parish might have been addressed as "Vicar" or "Mr. Smith" ("Reverend Smith" is American usage.) Also, in more deferential times Lord Jones would have been addressed as "My lord". NB Kings and popes are known by their given name anyway, so the question doesn't apply . Dec 21, 2016 at 9:32

1 Answer 1


There is no grammatical rule, nor generic way of telling. Merely specific references.

I don’t recall Debrett’s Courtesy Titles but doubtless, it deals with styles of address such as Lord, Lady or The Hon, usually borne by the sons, daughters, daughters-in-law, brothers, sisters and sisters-in-law of peers, none of which appears in your list - with the possible exception of Lord Jones.

The correct forms for all the people, ranks, titles, styles or what-you-call them are explained in Debrett’s Correct Form, by the same publisher, and also in some editions of Webster’s Dictionary… (Mine’s in the loft so I can’t check, but it’s a huge one, like a church bible. I think it was printed before Merriam Webster came to be and even today, anyone in an office having anything to do with correspondence should keep one close to hand.)

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