When is it appropriate to use an "expired" honorific to address or refer to a person?

In the U.S., former state governors are occasionally referred to as "Governor So-and-so", although they have not held that office for several years. I see this happening most often when the former governor is actively campaigning for a new office (usually U.S. President), and my impression is that it's done only by someone with an interest in the campaign (for or against) rather than a (relatively) neutral party like a newspaper.

Certainly this could be used as a jab: in a political campaign for high office, addressing one's opponent by a former title — lower than one's own — could imply that the opponent is not qualified for the new job. It could also be used the other way around, to remind listeners that a candidate one supports used to hold an important title.

I'm curious whether there are formal rules for this in the U.S., or at least style or journalist guidelines, for various offices. Are ambassadors, for example, entitled to some sort of emeritus honorific?

  • Actually, it drives me crazy when I see this -- "He's not a governor anymore, dammit!" -- so I'm trying to figure out if I should just let it go, or continue being a curmudgeon about it.
    – jscs
    Aug 20, 2012 at 20:17
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    How is this about the English language? Aug 20, 2012 at 20:23
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    Granted that I'm not a frequent user of this site -- I'm willing to accept that this is off-topic -- but «Questions on the following topics are welcomed here: -Word choice and usage» Similar questions: english.stackexchange.com/q/2743, english.stackexchange.com/q/53366, english.stackexchange.com/q/17978
    – jscs
    Aug 20, 2012 at 20:30
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    It's still a question about etiquette and use of titles, which I suggest would apply to speakers of any language, not anglophones or the English language in particular. Aug 20, 2012 at 20:43
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    I believe that it was frowned upon to call the late Diana, Princess of Wales "Princess Diana / Di", and the late Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother "Queen Elizabeth". There was quite a stir over here when the then President called Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, "Prime Minister Blair". It's English, it's about accepted constructions - but it does appear daft. Though precise word-forms can be very important - or why have websites such as this? Aug 23, 2012 at 18:06

3 Answers 3


I would agree that this is more of a question of protocol than language, but I suppose it is an example of how usage changes, and formal protocol and "polite" language deviate.

The traditional rule is that for offices held by a single person at a time (e.g. president, governor, mayor), a title should only be applied to the current office holder. If the office or rank is held concurrently by multiple people (e.g. judge, professor, and military ranks — although usually only for senior officers), the designation is retained for life.

Once out of office, the individual reverts to whichever title or honorific applied before he or she held office, although as a courtesy, "once an Honorable, always an Honorable." Thus, Governor Howard Dean of Vermont, "by the book," became upon retirement Dr. Howard Dean, and would be addressed as Dr. Dean, but might be introduced as The Honorable Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont. President Jimmy Carter became Mr. Carter (or even Lt. Carter, although ranks of retired military are usually applied only for senior officers). As far as I can tell from perusing other official governmental protocol guides, this remains the formal practice in the U.S.

In common practice, very high officials such as the U.S. president have been granted a "courtesy title" for many years now, and the "courtesy title" is trickling down. Living just outside Washington, I tend to blame commentators on 24-hour television news networks trying to secure interviews from former public officials by feeding their egos, and wish I could think of a more elegant phrase than "obsequiousness escalator" to label it.

Not a few columnists and bloggers have expressed indignation over the extension of courtesy titles, with more than a few indisposed to extend the courtesy to "Speaker" Newt Gingrich.

I'll add a quote from a U.S. Department of State diplomatic protocol guide

Over the years, and recently as well, there has been discussion about the use of the honorific title of Ambassador by former ambassadors, both those who remain active in the Foreign Service and those who are retired. For years, Department regulations have forbidden this usage unless actually in the job of ambassador or for those few who retired with the personal rank of career Ambassador.

For current employees, long-standing custom and practice, however, has established a clear tradition in the Department and in the Foreign Service that persons who have served a ambassador after Senate confirmation may continue to use the title after such service in appropriate communications with others, may be referred to in communications and conversations by the title of Ambassador, and may be introduced to public audiences by the title.

The Department has also clarified the use of the title for persons who have retired from the Foreign Service or left government service who served as ambassador after Senate confirmation. An amendment to the various regulations permits the use of the title, “Ambassador, Retired,” for all such persons.

  • I like the "obsequiousness elevator" phrase! Your answer contradicts tchrist's, but you have provided a reference, which seems fairly authoritative (although it's only four years old as far as I can tell). I don't suppose you have any other source?
    – jscs
    Aug 20, 2012 at 21:13
  • Hmm, that article you cite makes little sense. Yes, the Constitution says that the United States will not grant titles of nobility. But what does that have to do with continuing to use an office title after you leave? If "Speaker of the House" or "Presidient" is a title of nobility, then it is just as much a title of nobility when you hold the office as after you leave. If it was the intent of the writers of the Constitition that such office titles not be used, then why did they create them in that very same Constitution? Nothing in the Constitution says whether you should or should not ...
    – Jay
    Aug 20, 2012 at 21:26
  • ... continue to call someone by a title after he leaves office.
    – Jay
    Aug 20, 2012 at 21:27
  • @JoshCaswell I don't find our answers contradictory. We agree that titles apply to those who hold them, and the notion of mayors-for-life-in-name is a recent phenomenon. I did add some additional links.
    – choster
    Aug 20, 2012 at 21:39
  • tchrist says "only senators, governors, presidents, and officers in the armed forces" keep their titles, while your rule excludes the middle two -- they are "individual" offices -- and adds others, such as judges and ambassadors (and presumably U.S. Representatives). Thanks for the further documentation!
    – jscs
    Aug 20, 2012 at 21:43

In the United States, the formal rules are that only senators, governors, presidents, and officers in the armed forces retain their courtesy titles after leaving office.

Nobody else.

I heard the rule explained by legendary newsman, the late Daniel Schorr, on the air some years ago. I don't know whether it's in his books, of which I have only one. He used the Powell example specifically as to whether his title was General or Secretary upon leaving office. I'll try to find other sources later. I know that members of the US House of Representatives, like cabinet secretaries and ambassadors, are not supposed to be given their titles once they leave office, and that if they want one, they need to become a senator, governor, or president.

That means, for example, that Colin Powell's correct title is now General, not Secretary. That's because he retains his rank of general even afterwards, but secretary is not a rank and he is no longer deserving of the title.

Protocol does not require that you address former secretaries, representatives, ambassadors, or other functionaries by their former titles. Indeed, doing so was formerly considered a breach of protocol. An ex-ambassador is not Ambassador Anybody.

However, these days, no one pays attention to such niceties, which means that everybody pretty much gets called whatever. Just ask them how they wish to be addressed; that guarantees that you won't address them in a way contrary to their own preferences. Whether it bothers anybody else, well, that will always be true.

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    Does this mean that it is (or was) likewise a breach of protocol to not use the title for a former (e.g.) senator?
    – jscs
    Aug 20, 2012 at 20:37
  • @JoshCaswell Historically, yes, it has always been considered such. People don't stand on formality as much anymore though. Look at all the times people are addressed by their first name now, rather than by their title.
    – tchrist
    Aug 20, 2012 at 20:39
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    May I ask your source for these formal rules? Wikipedia and formsofaddress.info dispute this, but I don't know that either has any authority. . . In any case, I don't think that the persons you name "retain their courtesy titles" - I believe you mean that they retain their former titles as courtesy titles. Aug 20, 2012 at 21:14
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    choster's answer contradicts your rule, and links to a reference, although I'm not certain about its reliability. Do you know where the rule you've given might be written down?
    – jscs
    Aug 20, 2012 at 21:15
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    Since the rule came from Schorr, a journalist, it's quite possible that these rules are the rules that journalists use with interviewees that they want to honor. Aug 23, 2012 at 18:57

There may be a book of protocol somewhere that defines these things, but I don't know who would have the authority to officialy declare what is or is not proper. Americans have traditionally had little respect for authority on subjects like this. While some have said this question is off-topic because it is about protocol rather than language, I think that while in a European country this would be a matter to be resolved by appropriate authorities on protocol, in America this is a "conventional usage" language question.

And the conventional usage is: For day-to-day use, few former office holders expect people to use their old titles. They typically just go by "Mr" or "Mrs" or "Doctor". But if they're giving a speech or a press conference or otherwise appearing at a formal event, they will be introduced as "the former governor of Missouri" or "a retired colonel from the US Air Force", and then thereafter may be routinely referred to as "governor" or "colonel". I've heard of people who use an old title as basically a nickname for the rest of their lives -- like everyone meeting the old man says, "How are you today, Judge?" -- but I've never known such a person and I suspect it's rather rare.

I'm sure this depends on the ego of the person involved and the prestige of the office. I've never heard a former enlisted man insist that he be referred to as "Corporal Jones". You tend to have to make colonel or general to want to hold on to the title.

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