Q&A: Titled vs entitled

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we have a title case…

Q: Ugh, I’m so tired of seeing people write, “the book is entitled The Hobbit” when they should be writing, “the book is titled The Hobbit” – don’t you agree?

A: We have nothing against The Hobbit.

Q: No, I’m talking about using “entitled” instead of “titled” when naming things. Clearly “entitled” is incorrect.

A: Ah.

Q: Noooo… seriously?

A: Well, while many people just like you do get rankled by the use of “entitled” in naming something, it was actually the OG.

Q: OG?

A: Um, “original gangster” – it means it was the first. All the kids are saying it.

Q: Right. So “entitled” is older?

A: Well we didn’t say THAT. We said it was the first with that ‘name of a book’ definition. The verb “titled” is actually a little older – dating back to the start of the 14th century – but it was mostly concerned with giving people titles like the totally made up Sir Codpiece of Dunthrop or Baroness Frumpkin of Stepney-on-Tweed.

Q: Baroness Frumpkin sounds like a lovely lady.

A: Indeed. So while “title” was busy handing out fancy names to people, along comes the verb “entitle” in the late 14th century, specifically meaning “to give a title to a chapter, book, etc.”

Q: But I always associate “entitle” with giving someone something or a sense of privilege, as in “this voucher entitles me to a year’s free donuts” said the entitled stepchild.

A: Wow, that’s an impressive voucher. And yes, while both of those meanings are arguably more common today, they arrived much later.

Q: What about the entitled stepchild?

A: Well, that one isn’t a verb at all. The adjective “entitled” can curiously mean both having a legitimate claim to something, e.g. “you’re entitled to a refund”, as well as describing an unwarranted belief that something belongs to you. This latter kind of “entitlement culture” didn’t really appear until the late 1980s, causing “entitled” to become synonymous with “spoiled”.

Q: So, saying “entitled” to name a book isn’t actually wrong?

A: Nope – in fact, it was the dominant option until that entitlement nonsense muddied the waters in the late 20th century. These days however, saying “titled” is the preferred verb if you want to keep everyone happy. But “entitled” remains a perfectly legit synonym all the same.

Q: I prefer to use “titled” for naming things and “entitled” for having the right to things. 

A: That’s great, and you’re certainly entitled to that opinion. In fact, many style guides and publications, including The Economist use that same distinction. It’s true that “titled” has a narrower verb definition, whereas people can be “entitled to free childcare” or “entitled to 10 days sick leave” or “entitled to a jury of your peers” and so on.

Q: But I should stop telling people they’re wrong when they say, “the book is entitled The Hobbit”? 

A: Yeah, you should stop doing that. After all, you don’t want people thinking you’re some entitled language boffin…

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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