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Miss Manners by Judith Martin, Nicholas Ivor Martin and Jacobina Martin

Correspondents Lost in a Sea of Honorifics

DEAR MISS MANNERS: How should you address the president and his wife in correspondence? Would the proper honorifics for correspondence with the current president and his wife be Mr. Joe and Dr. Jill Biden?

GENTLE READER: Perhaps you ask because of the kerfuffle about whether the title “doctor” should be used by doctors of philosophy. That should not be an issue in this case, because it is known that the lady in question does use it.

But there is a different, almost-forgotten rule that applies here. That is that the president of the United States is the preeminent person by that surname, as is the president’s spouse, and therefore their first names are not used.

Miss Manners realizes that this doesn’t make much sense, but then, tradition often doesn’t, and that is not always a disqualifying factor.

A silly example: In the 19th century, Caroline Astor, the wife of William Astor, was considered by some, most prominently herself, to be the leader of New York society. She therefore insisted upon being just “Mrs. Astor,” while others who had married into the family needed to specify which (lesser) Mrs. Astor they were -- that is to say, it was necessary for them to use their husbands’ full names.

Still following? And let’s not get sidetracked by the formal nomenclature of ladies, in which their own given names were not used, let alone their surnames of birth. It was accepted at the time.

Finally, the answer to your question:

“The President and Dr. Biden.”

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Please tell me the proper way of addressing an envelope to a Supreme Court justice and his or her spouse.

GENTLE READER: These questions did not arrive at the same time, but Miss Manners is gratified to know that citizens are addressing their government leaders respectfully, whatever it is that they intend to say.

Allowing for spousal titles or different surnames when applicable, Supreme Court justices and their spouses are addressed as:

“Justice Fairman and Mrs. Fairman” or “Justice Wisdom and Mr. Wisdom.”

DEAR MISS MANNERS: When a couple got married, she decided to hyphenate her maiden name and her husband’s last name.

Is it proper for the husband also to hyphenate his last name by taking her maiden name, i.e. her maiden/his last? Would this be legal on important papers? People are doing some strange things these days, and I can't keep up.

GENTLE READER: Don’t even try.

Recognizing the limitations of the 19th-century terms, “Mr. and Mrs.,” and delighted to see the return of the 16th-century term Ms., etiquette recklessly decreed that every lady could decide for herself; and, although it less often comes up, every gentlemen can decide his own name. That makes work for others, memorizing each individual’s preference, but Miss Manners thought people would be happy having the choice.

No such luck. They want to enforce their choices on others, and they take insult when someone fails to remember their particular choice.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: Why do you call your readers "gentle"?

GENTLE READER: In the hope that they will become so.

(Please send your questions to Miss Manners at her website, www.missmanners.com; to her email, dearmissmanners@gmail.com; or through postal mail to Miss Manners, Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106.)