Addressing Antecedent Authority: Proper titles for former presidents and ex-officials

by epi on December 31, 2012

Q: I’m unhappy when I hear former presidents and other ex-officials addressed as “Mister.”  Doesn’t this belittle their importance?  I was taught to address people with the highest title or position they’ve achieved in their career.

A: You’ve waded into the quagmire of what’s “proper” here, so bear with me.  When addressing a former president of the United States in a formal setting, the correct form is “Mr. Last Name.” (“President LastName” of “Mr. President” are terms reserved for the current head of state.)  This is true for other ex-officials, as well.  When talking about the person to a third party, on the other hand, it’s appropriate to say, “former president Last Name.”  This holds for introductions, as well: A current state governor is introduced as “former Governor Jim Bell.”  Now, let’s wade a bit deeper.  In an informal setting (such as a private lunch), it’s acceptable to use the title the ex-official held.  Here, you could refer to former president Jimmy Carter as either “President Carter” or “Mr. Carter.”  Finally, if the person you’re lunching with held more than one previous position — say, judge and ambassador — you’ll want to know which title he or she prefers.

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