Is It Correct to Say “Former President”?

Figuring out what to call the person who once ran your entire country is surprisingly tricky. After all, this is no small feat, and even if one is no longer in office, you want to address them with respect.

So, is the phrase “former president” appropriate?

Is It Correct to Say “Former President”?

It is correct to refer to an ex-president as “Former President (X)” when referring to them in the third person. E.g., “We are in correspondence with former President Barack Obama”. When addressing a former president directly, you can use the title they held before their presidency (Mr., Ms., Mrs., etc.)

Is It Correct to Say "Former President"?

It is generally accepted that, when referring to a former president of the United States, calling them “the former president” is correct. This explains why you might hear reporters and journalists using this phrasing:

  • Correct: Former President Jim Hopper was seen exiting the building shortly after the meeting had adjourned.

It has been suggested, however, that it would be rather disrespectful to call them “former president” to their face:

  • Incorrect: Thank you for meeting with us, Former President Buyers.

So how should you address a former president directly?

In recent years, a custom has developed whereby people refer to former presidents as “Mr. President” or “President (X)” despite them being no longer in office, as a gesture of respect. Some contemporary etiquette experts deem this tendency acceptable.

Other experts maintain that referring to former presidents by whatever their highest title was prior to their presidency is preferable, as there can only be one president in office at a time. For example, George Washington was addressed as “General Washington” after he had left office.

Here are a few further examples of this:

  • Chairman Harrington, former US president, addressed the public earlier today.
  • It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Clinton.

So, it’s clear that at least when addressing an ex-president in the third person, it’s correct to say “former president”. If this phrase doesn’t sit comfortably with you, for one reason or another, here are a few examples of what to say instead of “former president”:

Other Ways to Say “Former President”

Other ways to say “former president” could be “ex-president”, “president emeritus”, and “preceding president”. These synonyms are less popular than “former president” but could eventually catch on. They may be preferred by those who deem the term “president” as suitable for only the current leader.

1. Ex-president

Merriam-Webster defines “ex” as “one that formerly held a specified position or place”. It, therefore, makes perfect sense to refer to someone who used to hold the position of president as the “ex-president”.

Here are a few examples of how to use “ex-president” in a sentence:

  • I’ve decided to write my essay on ex-president Barack Obama since his policies have had lasting effects on the American economy.
  • Piers Morgan engaged in a dramatic interview with the ex-president last week Thursday.

2. President Emeritus

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “emeritus” as “no longer having a position, especially in a college or university, but keeping the title of the position”.

It has become a recent custom in America to maintain the title of “president” even once someone has left office, despite trepidation from many etiquette experts.

As such, it may be beneficial to employ the term, “president emeritus” instead, particularly when referring to a former president in the third person. 

The term “emeritus” is usually used in academic settings to refer to professors who have since retired. However, as English is an ever-developing language, we see no reason why this phrase cannot be used in politics as well.

Let’s see how this phrase might be used in a sentence:

  • President emeritus Bill Clinton once said that it’s about how you handle adversity, not how it affects you.
  • Barack Obama is the emeritus President of the United States.

3. Preceding President

Merriam-Webster defines “preceding” as “existing, coming, or occurring immediately before in time or place”.

As such, this alternative has only limited use, since it can only be used to refer to the president who was in office immediately before the current president.

Let’s see an example of how this phrase might be used:

  • President Biden will meet with Donald Trump a week from now to discuss the impacts of the preceding president’s Supreme Court appointments.
  • Preceding President Joseph Wheeler will be in the studio to discuss the new regime employed by President Creel.

4. Former Head of State

If you’re wondering how to say “former president” without having to use the word “president” itself, a good alternative is “former head of state”. “Head of State” is simply an alternate title bestowed on the president in the US.

This phrase can be used in a similar way to “former president”, except when addressing a president directly. After all, a president is not traditionally referred to as “Head of State (Name)”.

Nevertheless, when reporting on a former president or speaking about them in the third person, this phrase can be substituted with “former president” quite easily.

Here are a few examples of how the phrase “former head of state” could be used in a sentence:

  • The former head of state, Barack Obama, was seen entering Washington yesterday evening.
  • She is the former head of state, having sat in office from 2006 to 2010.