Below: A New Year, Decade, Millennium?

English Plus+ News, December 2000

How Do I Address Officials No Longer in Office?

A Post-Election Question

The three largest North American countries - the United States, Canada, and Mexico - recently all held elections. In each case some elected officials were no longer in office whether because they did not seek re-election or because they lost an attempt at re-election. Other high ranking officials will lose or have lost their positions because the elected official who appointed them is no longer in power.

We were asked a very good question by one of our customers. How do we address someone who held an office but is no longer in that office?

Standard Addressing Conventions

First, let us just briefly review standard address for a person in office. In a written address, as on an envelope, there are two recognized options. One is to address the person as Honorable or The Honorable. The other is to address the person by his or her title. So we could address a letter to The Honorable John Smith or Senator John Smith. It is also fine to address a letter to The Honorable Sen. [or Senator] John Smith.

In the United States, it is still fine to address the Senator as Mr. John Smith, although the office title on the envelope may help direct the letter more quickly.

For a salutation in a letter, we would generally write "Dear Senator Smith" or "Dear Mr. Senator." We would use the same manner of address in person, that is, "Senator Smith" or "Mr. Senator." While there is nothing "wrong" with calling him "Mr. Smith," it is usually seen as being a mite disrespectful, unless you know personally that the official prefers that means of address.

This pattern applies to most ranking officials such as mayors, elected legislators, governors, ministers, presidents, secretaries, and titles formed from these names like lieutenant governor, vice-president, or undersecretary.

When They are Voted Out...

What happens when they no longer hold the office?

Usually out of respect, we would still refer to them the same way. While we might refer to a retired Senator Smith as former Senator Smith or ex-Senator Smith, that would not be appropriate as an address - whether a direct personal address or address on a letter. It is perfectly acceptable and appropriate to continue to address him as "Senator Smith" or write him in care of "Senator John Smith." The term Honorable is usually reserved for those still in office.

For the salutation in a letter, it would still be fine to write "Dear Senator Smith." "Dear Mr. Senator" tends to suggest that he is still in office. There is usually nothing wrong with addressing him as "Dear Mr. Smith," but it is probably better to avoid it unless you know for sure that he does not mind. This is especially true after an election loss. Calling him "Mr. Smith" rather than "Senator Smith" might be calling more attention to his loss - and gloating is never good manners.

The Conclusion of the Matter

Clearly, if you have a personal relationship with the person and know the person's preferences, you may use whatever would be appropriate in your situation. If the senator is a personal friend, you may always start your letters with "Dear John." Sometimes officials will insist on it. But in most such situations, you may use the same appellations that you used when the person was in office, though it is probably best to avoid Honorable or Mr./Mrs./Miss/Ms. plus the title once the person is out of office.

For more on salutations and addresses to individuals of rank, including appropriate abbreviations, take a look at Grammar Slammer from English Plus+. Download a demo copy from It will help vanquish your language anguish.

A New Century...Millennium...Decade?

A Look at the Precise Terms

Most of us have heard some discussion about when the new century or millennium actually begins. The year 2000 was clearly a milestone year because of the change in number, but most people recognize that the centuries and millennia begin with the year ending in the number one.

The New Century Begins

This is easy enough to see. A century is a period of one hundred years. A millennium is a period of one thousand years. Whenever we count most things, we begin with the number one. Therefore, year 100 was the last year in the first century, and year 1000 was the last year in the first millennium. Similarly, year 2000 was the last year of both the twentieth century and the second millennium.

In everyday speech, however, we may refer to a different century than the calendar century. We obviously do that when we speak of anniversaries. The Unites States, celebrated two centuries of independence in 1976, for example. We also do that when we refer to calendar centuries. There is nothing wrong with referring to the 1800's, for example. Because you are labeling it by the written year number rather than the calendar century, most people would assume you mean the years from 1800 to 1899. That is still a century, but it is not quite the same as the nineteenth century.

The big celebrations a year ago commemorated the end of the 1900's if not the true end of the twentieth century. They were fun, regardless of when the next millennium really began.

Labeling Decades

In the late nineteenth century, people began to label decades as discrete units of time. The 1890's in the USA were often called the Gay Nineties. This has become common today. Again, in everyday speech when we refer to a calendar decade, we do mean the ten years which begin with the zero year. So the Roaring Twenties begin with 1920 and end with 1929.

Occasionally, though, we do see references to a particular decade of a particular century. Again, we start counting with one, not zero, so the first year of a particular decade in a century is slightly different. The third decade of the twentieth century begins with 1921 and ends with 1930. In everyday speech, however, we usually refer to the decades as beginning with the zero year since we identify them that way--twenties, thirties, forties, and so on.

The first decade of the 1900's was called the oughts, but the term ought or aught for zero is not as common any more. What are we calling the years 2000-2009? I hear oh (as in "Class of oh-one") as much as anything, but most people seem to just say "two thousand one" rather than "twenty oh-one." Perhaps the two thousands will refer to both the decade and the century. I do not hear twenty hundreds too often the way nineteen hundreds was used. As long as we are able to communicate clearly, the specific title is flexible. Isn't that just like so much of English vocabulary?

Just as an aside, it was December 1990 when the first computer program was released by English Plus+. So we have providing people with English answers for a decade. We hope to continue to serve people this way well into the new century - God willing, even well into the millennium!

We wish all our readers and customers the best for 2001.
May all your anguish be vanquished,
Your friends at English Plus+

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