Hey Miss Thang... or should I call you Sir Thang? Sir Miss Thang?
January 2, 2009 8:18 AM   Subscribe

Should you address a knighted person as "Sir," as opposed to his/her professional title?

Given this recent thread, I figure this is best place to ask:

Let's say* I'm sending an initial email to someone who is knighted, yet I'd normally address the person as "Dr Soandso", especially because we are emailing about our doctoral work-related things, so to speak -- should I be beginning my email "Sir Soandso" instead? or do you use both Sir and Dr?

Also, do people really address a knighted person as "Sir FirstName", like I've seen in some news articles? Because, if Sir and Dr are synonymous titles, it sounds more cutesy than professional to my ear. ("Hi Dr Bob!" for example)

I'm American, and like twoleftfeet in the aforementioned thread, I don't really know much about this knight business. In fact, I've never thought of seriously calling someone "Sir" until now, so it sounds funny to me. Oh, and the Sir-in-question right now is a British male, PhD if that makes any difference too.


*because I am
posted by NikitaNikita to Grab Bag (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
According to the UK Government, the correct form of address is "Sir Firstname". Typically, people who have been knighted tend to view this honour as "superseding" their academic honours and prefer to be addressed as "Sir xxx".
posted by techrep at 8:34 AM on January 2, 2009

I'll disagree slightly with techrep and say that the person's formal title would be 'Dr. Sir John Soandso', although you would probably use that form only when addressing a letter or introducing them at a function. In normal conversation, or in the body of an email, use 'Sir John'. When addressing them by their surname, it's 'Dr Soandso'.

Part of the oddness stems from the fact that when someone receives a title it becomes more usual to address them by 'Title Firstname' rather than 'Mr/Ms Lastname'.

Which you use would probably depend on the context in which you're dealing with the person; it may also depend on whether the person concerned actually uses the title (or indeed can use the title). There are lots of people with knighthoods who never use their title. The best approach is probably to start fairly formal and then emulate whatever form they themself use.

By the way, Sir and Dr are in no way synonymous.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 8:47 AM on January 2, 2009

Typically, people who have been knighted tend to view this honour as "superseding" their academic honours and prefer to be addressed as "Sir xxx".

I'd be fascinated to see any evidence that this is indeed typical. It will depend entirely on the person and the context. (For a movie-industry comparison, see Sir Ben Kingsley vs David Puttnam.) A serious insistence on being called Sir within the context of a relatively close and friendly relationship between otherwise professional equals, or between an academic and his PhD student, etc, would come off as enormously pompous in the UK today.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 8:49 AM on January 2, 2009

between professional equals
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 8:50 AM on January 2, 2009

In military use, the rank precedes the title, thus Major-General Sir John Anderson.

However, this whole area is a bloody minefield. Debrett's Correct Form is the absolute bible, and covers edge cases you wouldn't even think of.

In your case, Sir X is safest.
posted by bonaldi at 9:11 AM on January 2, 2009

According to British protocol, the addressing hierarchy is Orders of knighthood first, followed by decorations, medals, civil distinctions, academic degrees, fellowship in royal societies, and membership in religious orders. So your correspondant would be "Sir Dr. Soandso." When a person is made a Knight of the British Empire, the proper form of address "Sir" plus the person's Christian name.

According to Miss Manners, as an American citizen, you can use the British form of address as a courtesy, but in the U.S. the highest form of address is "Mr." and we do not typically acknowledge royalty or nobility.
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:15 AM on January 2, 2009

Dr Sir (or Prof Sir, or Adm Sir) is formally correct, but it really depends on context. I asked my father-in-law (a Dr Sir) this very question a few years ago, and his response was that he was a Dr first and a Sir when he wanted something!
posted by goo at 9:16 AM on January 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

And oops - on second thought Oriole Adams is right and I misremembered - formally it should be Sir Dr, the opposite of the order for the military (General Sir) but my f-i-l preferred it the other way. Context is still important though - if it was an academic (for eg) to whom I was writing to call upon their expertise, I'd use Dr only (well maybe Sir Dr for the first contact, but Dr only from then on).

It is always Sir (firstname), though, never Sir (surname).
posted by goo at 10:00 AM on January 2, 2009

Well, it is technically correct to refer to a K.B.E as Sir firstname, but this is in a professional context. As you say, you would normally address this person as Dr (as would I) so I don't see why this would be inappropriate. Dr. and Sir are not synonymous titles, and I would imagine that professionally this person would be fine with you addressing them as Dr. Secondly, the good thing about both titles is that you can chose whether to use their first name (Sir) or their last name (Dr), and I would think it more professional to go with the last name.
posted by ob at 11:07 AM on January 2, 2009

The best formal way to grasp this is as if "Sir Firstname" becomes the person's new first name. (Or to be more exact, the 'name he goes by'.) You don't put anything between the two elements, so any professional titles come first.

Generally, what seems to happen is that the professional title persists among the peer-group -- e.g. Professor Sir X Y goes by Professor Y when he's professoring, and Sir X in more general formal situations.

Miss Manners is somewhat idealistic, given the amount of title flinging that seems to go on in the US. Though sometimes I think the highest form of address in common parlance is 'Coach'.
posted by holgate at 11:17 AM on January 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also, many of the "Sirs" outside of the civil service are not KBEs. They're knights batchelor. The KBE is primarily associated with honorary knighthoods to citizens of countries that don't have HMQ as head of state.
posted by holgate at 11:24 AM on January 2, 2009

At some point L. Olivier was upgraded from knight to lord, but preferred to go by his first title Sir Laurence, rather than the new title Lord Olivier. FWIW.
posted by JimN2TAW at 6:04 PM on January 2, 2009

I encounter this regularly in my work-related correspondence, where I often have to field enquiries from senior academics.

Strict etiquette dictates that if you are writing to Prof Sir John Smith, the letter (or e-mail) should begin 'Dear Sir John'. In my experience, however -- and you won't find this in the etiquette manuals -- many academics prefer to be addressed by their professional titles in an academic context. If you are writing to ask a favour, then it's probably better to err on the side of formality, i.e. 'Dear Sir John', but if you are writing as one scholar to another, then I'd go for 'Dear Prof Smith'.

I don't think I've ever encountered an academic Sir who wasn't also a Prof, but in that case I'd consider that Sir takes precedence over Dr (you wouldn't use them both together; 'Dr Sir John Smith' would sound absurd), so I'd write to 'Dear Sir John'. And of course there are some old-school English academics who never did a PhD: e.g. Keith Thomas was plain 'Mr Thomas' until he became 'Prof Thomas' (and is now 'Sir Keith').

Ah, the complexities of English forms of address .. endless and fascinating.
posted by verstegan at 8:01 AM on January 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ah, the complexities of English forms of address .. endless and fascinating.

Assisted here by having 'best answers' that contradict each other...

posted by holgate at 12:11 PM on January 3, 2009

« Older Queenback to Greenback   |   Straight chicks digging lesbian erotica? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.