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Surname vs. Title: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Published on December 4, 2023
A surname is a family name passed down through generations, while a title is a designation signifying status, position, or professional qualification.

Key Differences

A surname, often known as a family name, is typically inherited and used to identify members of a family. A title, in contrast, is a term used to denote a person's social or professional status or honor.
Surnames are used for personal identification and lineage tracing and are part of a person’s legal name. Titles, however, can be formal designations like 'Doctor' or 'Professor' or honorifics like 'Sir' or 'Lady,' reflecting the person's achievements or rank.
In many cultures, surnames are passed down from one generation to the next, either from the father's or mother's line. Titles are often bestowed based on a person's accomplishments, role in society, or by virtue of their occupation.
Surnames are a key component of a person's identity and are used in legal and official documents. Titles, conversely, can be transient, changing with a person’s job, societal role, or in recognition of their accomplishments.
Surnames remain relatively constant throughout a person's life, while titles may vary and can be accumulated, with individuals holding multiple titles for different roles or achievements.

Comparison Chart


A family name passed down through generations
A designation indicating status, position, or qualification


Identifies lineage and family heritage
Signifies social or professional status, honor


Inherited from parents and relatively constant
Bestowed or earned based on achievements or roles


Part of a person’s legal identity
Used as a prefix or suffix to denote respect, qualifications, or rank


Remains the same throughout life
Can change or be multiple based on roles or achievements

Surname and Title Definitions


A family name passed down from parents to children.
Her surname, Johnson, was the same as her father's.


A prefix or suffix added to someone's name to signify respect, status, or profession.
Dr. Smith was proud of her title, earned after years of study.


The last part of a person’s full name, identifying their family.
In many cultures, the surname is written last in the full name.


A designation used before a name to denote a specific role or honor.
Queen Elizabeth II held the title of the longest-reigning monarch.


A hereditary name common to all members of a family.
Their surname was unique to their region, reflecting their ancestry.


A word or phrase indicating a person’s social or official position.
The title of 'Captain' was given to him for his service in the navy.


The portion of a name that indicates family heritage.
The custom of taking a spouse's surname is common in many societies.


A form of address or courtesy denoting a person's rank or profession.
As a knight, he was addressed by the title 'Sir' before his name.


A name shared with family members, typically indicating lineage.
He traced his roots through the surname inherited from his ancestors.


A term indicating a person's rank, position, or achievement.
The title of 'Professor' was bestowed upon him after years of teaching.


A name shared in common to identify the members of a family, as distinguished from each member's given name. Also called family name, last name.


An identifying name given to a book, play, film, musical composition, or other work.


A nickname or epithet added to a person's name.


A general or descriptive heading, as of a book chapter.


Are surnames legally binding?

Surnames are legally recognized as part of a person's identity.

Can titles be earned?

Yes, titles like 'Doctor' or 'Professor' are earned through education or achievement.

What is the significance of a title in society?

Titles often indicate a person’s status, qualification, or honor in society.

How are surnames used in genealogy?

Surnames are crucial in genealogy for tracing family lineage and heritage.

What are post-nominal titles?

Post-nominal titles are designations placed after a person's name to indicate their qualifications, such as PhD or MD.

Is a surname always inherited?

Yes, a surname is typically inherited from one's parents.

Do surnames vary by culture?

Yes, surnames can vary widely across different cultures.

Do titles give legal privileges?

Some titles, especially in nobility, may confer legal privileges or social standing.

Can a person have multiple titles?

Yes, individuals can hold multiple titles for different achievements or roles.

Is a title always related to a profession?

Not always; titles can also signify nobility, academic achievement, or honorary status.

What is a double-barreled surname?

A double-barreled surname combines two family names, often linked by a hyphen.

Can a title be hereditary?

Yes, titles like those in nobility can be passed down through generations.

Are surnames important for legal documents?

Yes, surnames are important in legal documents for identification purposes.

Can surnames reveal ethnic background?

Surnames can sometimes indicate ethnic background or geographical origin.

What is an honorary title?

An honorary title is given as a mark of respect or recognition of achievement, not earned through the usual requirements.

Can titles be relinquished or removed?

Yes, titles can be relinquished voluntarily or removed by the awarding authority under certain circumstances.

Can surnames change over time?

Surnames generally remain constant, but can change due to marriage or legal name change.

How is a title used in formal address?

Titles are used as a form of respectful address, often preceding the name, like 'Mr.,' 'Ms.,' or 'Dr.'

Why do some women change their surname after marriage?

It’s a tradition in many cultures for women to take their husband's surname after marriage.

Do all cultures use surnames?

Most cultures use surnames, but the format and significance can vary.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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