“Dr. and Mr.” or “Mr. and Dr.”? Which is correct?

I recently received the following letter from a reader:

How do I address a letter to a husband and wife when the wife is a PhD and the husband is just Mr.? Would it be Mr. & Dr. or Dr. & Mr.?

The answer to the question is pretty straightforward: When using the wife’s professional title you would address the letter to: Dr. Jane Smith and Mr. Stanley Smith or Dr. Jane and Mr. Stanley Smith. The standard is to start with the higher titled person, male or female.

When a woman takes her husband’s name when they marry, she is addressed, using our example, as “Mrs. Stanley Smith.” Her husband is addressed as “Mr. Stanley Smith.” Since they both use “Stanley Smith” with their individual titles, it makes sense, when addressing them as a couple, to refer to them as “Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Smith.” The fact that the man’s title comes before the woman’s is a long-standing tradition (which, some people might argue, is not a good enough reason.)

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When the husband is the person with the title and the woman has taken his last name, then the envelope would be addressed: “Dr. and Mrs. Stanley Smith.” So, why don’t we write “Dr. and Mr. Jane Smith” when the woman has the Dr. title? Unless Stanley refers to himself as “Mr. Jane Smith,” this would not make sense.

In days past, women with professional titles didn’t use them in social situations, such as personal correspondence, social invitations and announcements. They used their social titles and were addressed as “Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Smith.” Today, many women retain their professional titles and use them in their personal lives as well. So, the next question is, would “Dr. and Mr. Stanley Smith” be correct, assuming Jane has taken Stanley’s last name? Not quite: Because Stanley is not a doctor, the title cannot be connected to his name.

Consequently, when it is the woman who has the title (doctor, reverend, judge) , the answer is to use both their names, starting with hers.

Today, many people and even organizations avoid these conundrums by dropping titles altogether. In that case the letter can be addressed either to Jane and Stanley Smith or to Stanley and Jane Smith. In the situation where the last names of a couple differ, take a similar approach, with or without titles: (Ms., Dr.) Jane Smith and (Mr.) Stanley Jones or (Mr., Dr.) Stanley Jones and (Ms.) Jane Smith. The names can appear on one line or, if there is not enough room, then on two lines.

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers’ questions in The Boston Sunday Globe’s weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of “The Etiquette Advantage in Business” and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book “Essential Manners For Men” was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of “Essential Manners for Couples,” “Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf,” and co-author of “A Wedding Like No Other.” Post is Emily Post’s great-grandson. His media appearances include “CBS Sunday Morning,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today,” ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and “Fox News.” Follow Post: @PeterLPost.

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