English Usage Topics > Names and Titles

Names and Titles

This entry gives basic information about names and titles, and explains how you use them when talking or writing about people.
You also use a person's name or title when you talk or write to them. (See also the sections Addressing Someone, Letter Writing, and Emailing

Kinds of names

People in English-speaking countries have a first name (also called a given name), which is chosen by their parents, and a surname (also called a family name or last name), which is the last name of their parents or one of their parents.
Many people also have a middle name, which is also chosen by their parents. This name is not generally used in full, but the initial (first letter) is sometimes given, especially in the United States.
...the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Christians use the term Christian name to refer to the names they choose for their children. On official forms, the term first name or forename is used.
In the past, married women always used their husband's surname. Nowadays, some women continue to use their own surname after getting married.

Short forms

People often use an informal and usually shorter form of someone's first name, especially in conversation. Many names have traditional short forms. For example, if someone's first name is James, people may call him Jim or Jimmy.

Nicknames

Sometimes a person's friends invent a name for him or her, for example a name that describes them in some way, such as Lofty (meaning 'tall'). This kind of name is called a nickname.

Spelling

People's names begin with a capital letter.
...John Bacon.
...Jenny.
...Dr. Smith.
In names beginning with Mac, Mc, or O', the next letter is often a capital.
...Maggie McDonald.
... Mr Manus O'Riordan.
In Britain, some people's surnames consist of two names joined by a hyphen or written separately.
...John Heath-Stubbs.
...Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Initials

Someone's initials are the capital letters that begin their first name, middle name, and surname, or just their first name and middle name. For example, if someone's full name is 'Elizabeth Margaret White', you can say that her initials are EMW, or that her surname is 'White' and her initials are EM. Sometimes a dot is put after each initial: E.M.W.

Referring to someone

When you refer to someone, you use their first name if the person you are talking to knows who you mean.
John and I have discussed the situation.
Have you seen Sarah?
If you need to make it clear who you are referring to, or do not know them well, you usually use both their first name and their surname.
If Matthew Davis is unsatisfactory, I shall try Sam Billings.
You use their title and their surname if you do not know them as a friend and want to be polite. People also sometimes refer to people much older than themselves in this more polite way.
Mr Nichols can see you now.
We'd better not let Mrs Townsend know.
Information on titles is given later in this entry.
You don't generally use someone's title and full name in conversation. However, people are sometimes referred to in this way in broadcasting and formal writing.
The machine was developed by Professor Jonathan Allen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In general, you only use someone's initials and surname in writing, not in conversation. However, some well-known people (especially writers) are known by their initials rather than their first name, for example T.S. Eliot and J.G. Ballard.
You can refer to famous writers, composers, and artists using just their surname.
...the works of Shakespeare.

Referring to relatives

Nouns such as father, mum, grandpa, and granny, which refer to your parents or grandparents, are also used as names. When they are used as names, they are written with a capital letter.
Mum will be pleased.
You can stay with Grandma and Grandpa.

Referring to a family

You can refer to a family or a married couple with the same surname by using the and the plural form of that name.
...some friends of hers called the Hochstadts.

Using a determiner with names

When you use a person's name, you usually use it without a determiner. However, in formal or business situations, you can put a in front of someone's name when you do not know them or have not heard of them before.
You don't know a Mrs Burton-Cox, do you?
You can check that someone actually means a well-known person, or simply express surprise, using the /ðiː/ emphatically.
You actually met the George Harrison?

Titles

A person's title shows their social status or job.
You use a person's title and surname, or their title, first name, and surname, as explained above. The titles that are most commonly used are Mr for a man, Mrs for a married woman, and Miss for an unmarried woman. Ms /məz/ or /mɪz/ can be used for both married and unmarried women. The following titles are also used in front of someone's surname, or first name and surname:
  • Ambassador
  • Archbishop
  • Archdeacon
  • Baron
  • Baroness
  • Bishop
  • Canon
  • Cardinal
  • Congressman
  • Constable
  • Councillor
  • Doctor
  • Father
  • Governor
  • Imam
  • Inspector
  • Judge
  • Justice
  • Nurse
  • Police Constable
  • President
  • Professor
  • Rabbi
  • Representative
  • Senator
  • Superintendent
I was interviewed by Inspector Flint.
...representatives of President Anatolijs Gorbunovs of Latvia.
Titles showing rank in the armed forces, such as Captain and Sergeant, are also used in front of someone's surname, or first name and surname.
General Haven-Hurst wanted to know what you planned to do.
...his nephew and heir, Colonel Richard Airey.

Titles of relatives

The only words that are generally used in modern English in front of names when referring to relatives are Uncle, Aunt, Auntie, Great Uncle, and Great Aunt. You use them in front of the person's first name. People who have two living grandmothers or grandfathers may distinguish them by using a name after them.
...Aunt Jane.
She's named after my granny Kathryn.
Father is used as the title of a priest, Brother as the title of a monk, and Mother or Sister as the title of a nun, but these words are not used in front of the names of relatives.
Mother Teresa spent her life caring for the poor.
Sister Joseann is from a large Catholic family.

Titles before 'of'

A title can sometimes be followed by of to show what place, organization, or part of an organization the person with the title has authority over.
...the President of the United States.
...the Prince of Wales.
...the Bishop of Birmingham.
The following titles can be used after the and in front of of:
  • Archbishop
  • Bishop
  • Chief Constable
  • Countess
  • Dean
  • Duchess
  • Duke
  • Earl
  • Emperor
  • Empress
  • Governor
  • King
  • Marchioness
  • Marquis
  • Mayor
  • Mayoress
  • President
  • Prime Minister
  • Prince
  • Princess
  • Queen

Very formal titles

When you refer formally to someone important such as a king or queen, an ambassador, or a judge, you use a title consisting of a possessive determiner in front of a noun. For example, if you want to refer to the Queen, you can say Her Majesty the Queen or Her Majesty. The possessive determiner is usually spelled with a capital letter.
Her Majesty must do an enormous amount of travelling each year.
His Excellency is occupied.
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