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Is it enough to hold a contract as professor (be it a major university), to use this title in official communications?

What are the rules (also unwritten rules) in your country?

I am interested also in European and Asian countries, besides North Americans.

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  • 5
    I am also interested to know the rules in Germany.
    – Krebto
    Dec 22, 2021 at 11:32
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    Be warned that Germany, in particular, has no sense of humor with respect to use of academic titles. Misuse can be a criminal offense. See details in this answer: academia.stackexchange.com/a/180455/16183
    – Bob Brown
    Dec 22, 2021 at 18:09
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    I think this question can have too many answers. Hundreds, in fact...
    – einpoklum
    Dec 22, 2021 at 21:22
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    @einpoklum: That's absolutely right. For instance, in Mexico, profesor is the normal word for any teacher. What we would call a professor in the USA is called a catedrático in Mexico. Basically, there is no general answer to this question. Educational terms and habits are very different from system to system; you just have to see how it works in a given place.
    – jlawler
    Dec 22, 2021 at 23:35
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    @DetlevCM In Germany that‘s not the case. The job is "Hochschullehrer" and "Professor" is a title.
    – Dirk
    Dec 23, 2021 at 17:06

15 Answers 15

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I'm at a North American R1.

The water is a bit muddy because depending on context "Professor" can refer to different things:

  • a formal job title, specified in your employment contract (this will be something like "Assistant Professor," "Professor of Practice," "FancyPants McRichDonor Distinguished Professor of Chemistry," etc.);
  • a general class of employment ("person who teaches at a university");
  • an honorific used by students when addressing anybody who teaches in a university classroom. This usage is acceptable regardless of whether the teacher's job title includes "Professor" anywhere in it and regardless of whether or not the teacher holds a PhD.

There are no formal rules about what you can call yourself (in North America) but the standard practice is:

  • in formal communication (including letters of recommendation and anything else that's signed on university letterhead) you should use your exact, formal job title.
  • in informal communication to students, or anyone else who would be expected to address you with the "Professor" honorific, you can call yourself "Prof. Fabio."
  • informal communication to people outside of academia is a grey area. I would use my formal job title in an email signature; but would call myself "a professor at University of X" in the body of text if I teach classes at UofX, regardless of job title.
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    I held the official title of "Lecturer" while teaching and did not bother to correct students who chose to call me "Professor" when associated with my class. I never would use it myself, however. Dec 23, 2021 at 1:29
  • w.r.t. usage by students: Not just "university" classroom but also colleges (i.e., 4year program only, no graduate program). In fact, not just by students there, but also can be standard practice with the faculty themselves. Unless by saying "university" you were being inclusive of "higher" education and not excluding colleges?
    – davidbak
    Dec 23, 2021 at 19:00
  • @davidbak yes I mean all higher education. Not just places with a PhD program
    – user168715
    Dec 23, 2021 at 23:08
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    Especially with relatively new undergrads, it is highly likely that nobody has explained the system of academic titles and hierarchy to them and that it's just something they're expected to learn through osmosis. They may well not know the difference in titles of address between a grad student instructor, lecturer, or professor and may default to calling anyone in charge of a class "Professor" whether that's their title or not. Dec 24, 2021 at 3:46
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In Britain, when I applied for a new passport and gave my title as Professor, I was asked to provide evidence of entitlement, in my case a letter of appointment from my university. Without that formal letter from a recognized academic body my claim would have been refused. To claim title without formal appointment or recognition seems like fraudulent misrepresentation.

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    This is incorrect (or has changed). See the official guidance (assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/…), and especially "You must not: • ask a customer to give us evidence of their professional title • check the customer’s title with an appropriate body or online sources" Dec 23, 2021 at 9:33
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    Very, very few titles in the UK are protected. You can call yourself almost anything you like, providing you are not using the title fraudulently (q.v. Gillian McKeith) Dec 23, 2021 at 9:35
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    @MartinF In the UK, "Professor" doesn’t denote a qualification but an academic staff grade – the most senior one. So, in the UK, an academic whose title is "Dr" is someone who’s got a PhD, but hasn’t been promoted to the highest academic grade, while an academic whose title is "Professor" is someone who probably (but not necessarily) has a PhD, but who has been promoted to the highest grade on the university pay scale. professors.leeds.ac.uk/what-is-a-professor
    – MT0
    Dec 23, 2021 at 20:40
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    @JackAidley My experience was correct when I applied for a passport. Even now, the recent link says *You, the examiner, must make sure the personal details page and observation are correct if the customer has a professional title because they are a: • doctor • professor • actor • member of the armed forces • member of parliament" This "must make sure the details are correct". This seems to imply that incorrect details are not acceptable.
    – Anton
    Dec 23, 2021 at 20:41
  • @Anton The correctness concerns not the truthfulness of the information, but the exactitude of the information as it should appear on the passport and recorded in the database, as the instructions following that paragraph show. But claiming a title without any reasonable support may still be an offence, especially if there is an intent to mislead and generate undue benefits.
    – xngtng
    Dec 25, 2021 at 13:50
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In Germany, there are two possibilities to become a professor:

As a postdoc, you either

  1. work as an assistant professor for some years and then apply for a professorship, or

  2. write a professoral dissertation and apply for a professorship.

If you then are appointed, you are a professor.

So basically, yes, it is "enough" to hold a contract as a professor. But it is really difficult to get this contract. You need to master several steps - PhD thesis, postdoc, assistant professor or professoral dissertation. And even then, it is not sure you will ever get an appointment. There are many researchers who fulfil all qualifications, apply for one professorship after another and never get appointed.

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    The answer is not yet complete. "Außerplanmäßige Professuren" are missing as well as being awarded the title for holding something like a junior research group leader position, which enables the respective department to assign the title "professor" in some states. Also, junior professors on a tenure track can be awarded tenure, which also grants the "job title". To be nitpicky, most professors do not actually hold a contract as a professor, but are formally awarded the position. The contract signed is only for the resources of the professorship, but not the professorship itself.
    – DCTLib
    Dec 22, 2021 at 21:25
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    ...finally, the postdoc phase is optional, and in the case of a professorship in arts, even the habilitation or assistant professorship are optional (at least in some states) - there, demonstrated excellence in arts can be sufficient. Also, positions that are deemed equivalent to junior professorships (such as having been an Emmy Noether research group head) also count as qualifying.
    – DCTLib
    Dec 22, 2021 at 21:28
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    This answer is incorrect. Assistant professors (Juniorprofessoren) can definitively use the title "Professor" in some states. For example in Hamburg: "Juniorprofessorinnen und Juniorprofessoren führen während der Dauer ihres Dienstverhältnisses die akademische Bezeichnung „Professorin“ beziehungsweise „Professor“." Dec 23, 2021 at 8:56
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    Worth also noting: in Germany, unlike many other countries, you do not keep the title Professor after you retire. Dec 23, 2021 at 9:36
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    @JackAidley That doesn't seem to be universally true. The NHG law of lower saxony contains in §27: "Wer als Professorin oder Professor unbefristet beschäftigt war, darf den Titel auch nach dem Ausscheiden aus der Hochschule weiterführen". And that makes sense because of the sentence afterwards: "Die mit der Lehrbefugnis verbundenen Rechte bleiben bestehen." - so a retired professor is still allowed to do professorial teaching (if desired).
    – DCTLib
    Dec 23, 2021 at 11:47
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In the Czech Republic, a professor is only a person that was confirmed for the professor (prof.) degree by the Scientific Comittee of their university and received the degree from the President of the country. Or people that hold similar full professor degrees from other countries.

The holders of degrees equivalent to an associated or assistant professor can not use the "professor" title. Associate professors, after their habilitation, use the "docent" (doc.) title. Assistant professors are simply "doctors".

The whole system continues the traditions from the past Austria-Hungary.


Unrelated usage exists at "gymnasiums" - a specific type of secondary schools similar to grammar schools. They are selective and prepare mainly for further studies at universities. Here all teachers are called "professors" informally, regerdless whether they are doctors or not.

This is again an old tradition going back to the times of the Austrian empire or Astria-Hungary.


BTW although the role of the President of the country is mostly ceremonial, the current president is known for refusing to appoint several professors for various reasons. Those who tried to sue him do not have their title yet.

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  • This is the case in Poland, with one difference: a university can grant a docent the title of extraordinary professor (it's a local title that is temporary and facultative—it's tied to employment at that university). Those nominated by the Academy of Sciences and accepted byt the president are—somewhat counterintuitively—called ordinary professors. Dec 24, 2021 at 10:48
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    These terms (řádný profesor, mimořádný profesor) existed and were common in Bohemia as well, but in the times of the Austrian Empire (as positions, not degrees). I now confirmed that the extraordinary professor position actually exists in the current law as well, mainly for experts from other countries, but it is very rare and is not used as a title in full, as it used to be. Dec 24, 2021 at 11:27
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Britain

In Britain the title "Professor" is used only for select senior academics. Usually they are either heads of department or very senior researchers. To be a Professor you must have been appointed to a specific professorship (chair) by a university.

If you are a college or university level teacher then you are usually referred to as a "lecturer".

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  • It would be a serious social error for a student in the UK to call a lecturer "Professor" or "Prof" when they aren't a professor. Undergraduates usually address lecturers as "Sir", "Madam", or "Doctor <name>" if they need a form of address; doctoral students may get to use first names or other informal forms. Dec 25, 2021 at 18:12
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    A very serious social error. They would think you were American. Dec 25, 2021 at 18:27
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    Most universities have a mechanism to be promoted to professor rank without being appointed to a specific chair - for us its just a set of criteria to meet like any other promotion (although very tough criteria, that include external references etc). Also "lecturer" refers to researchers as well as teachers in the UK. Jan 8 at 12:11
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Australia: The norm here is that you only use the title "Professor" if you are a full professor (i.e., you have a Level E academic position at a university). Applicable titles here are:

  • Mister/Miss/Misses/Ms (Mr/Miss/Mrs/Ms) for an academic with no PhD at levels A-C (i.e. no special title compared to an ordinary person);
  • Doctor (Dr) for an academic with PhD at levels A-C, or any other person with PhD;
  • Associate Professor/Reader (Assoc Prof/Reader) for an academic at Level D; and
  • Professor (Prof) for an academic at Level E.

This classification is formalised in the federal government classification of academics in Australia (see e.g., Higher Education Academic Salaries Award 2002 (Cth). I am not aware of any specific rules on using these titles in correspondence. However, use of an inflated title (e.g., using "Prof" when you are not a full professor) would be misleading behaviour and could constitute a breach of academic honesty rules. In any case, if you were to use an inflated title here it would reflect badly on you.

(One thing that often happens in academia in Australia is that foreign academics/journals email you as "Professor" even though you are not a full professor and would not use the title yourself. This derives from the broader American use of the term. When this happens you have to decide whether to correct the person on the other end of the communication, but this can get monotonous, so many academics here just ignore the disparity and allow foreign academics/journals to incorrectly call them "Professor".)

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  • And note that many disciplines or possibly even a whole "school" wouldn't have a Professor at some universities. It's a very high rank indeed. Dec 23, 2021 at 5:22
  • Yes, that's possible. It's fairly rare but some smaller schools would not have a full professor.
    – Ben
    Dec 23, 2021 at 8:53
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    I stopped an Australian panel moderator from introducing me as Professor while I was still a young-looking student at a conference. I think he was just being nice to me and my supervisor, but I never raised the issue.
    – Bill Barth
    Dec 23, 2021 at 15:22
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    Yeah, that is annoying. It is not being nice to address you by a title you haven't earned; it's just awkward.
    – Ben
    Dec 23, 2021 at 23:08
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I'm from a regional US school with an almost split personality of small liberal arts undergrad and huge health sciences postgrad, and I've observed something here that I've never seen elsewhere: students call anyone with a PhD or MD "Dr", and everyone else "Prof." This bugs me greatly, in part because I did my time as a postdoc where I would have been ROASTED for calling myself Prof, and now I actually merit the title, I want to use it. I really don't feel it's appropriate when the lecturers get called Prof, especially if they don't have doctorates. I actually had one of my research students (!!) shyly tell me one time he just learned that I had a doctorate, and he thought that was really impressive - because he assumed I didn't since I signed my emails Prof instead of Dr.

My theory is that it's the med school's fault, that the MDs prefer Dr to Prof, and it's rubbed off on the rest of us. Don't know if this applies to other, similar universities, though.

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    I guess the stereotypically-German system of using both titles together, i.e. "Prof. Dr.", would make sense. The idea that one subsumes the other does seem context-dependent, and it sounds like you're in an area where the preference is non-uniform.
    – Nat
    Dec 23, 2021 at 3:10
  • @mim - Similar experience at a similar school, but without the med school. Ph.D. holders were called Doctor while those at tenure track without doctorate were called Professor. In spite of being a (full) Professor, I used to have my students call me Mr. Students often referred to Lecturers as Professor, but nobody corrected them, generally. In correspondence, say for reference letters, I would always use my actual rank at the time (Asst. Prof., Assoc. Prof., or Prof.). Dec 27, 2021 at 21:35
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France

The general rule is that the title of Professor is associated with a position of "University Professor", for which you are nominated by the President. So you have to have the required "technical" prerequisites (a special diploma, an agreement of a special national body, ...), and have a position ay a university (or equivalent).

Then of course it gets more complex, we French being the holders of the "how to make bureaucracy complicated" prize. This includes the "but there is always a way" sub-prize.

You then have medical doctors that award themselves the title of "Professor" if they are the head of a department in a hospital (no matter if they have any relationship with academia or not).

Finally you have teachers who are called "professors" like everywhere else in the world, except that we do have a "professor in a school" kid of affiliation, legally defined (you are part of a special corpus of administration)

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  • I think in school the title "prof." applies only starting from a certain level - perhaps, when they specialize in a subject; otherwise it is "maîtresse". Dec 23, 2021 at 13:49
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    @RogerVadim: it is Professeur des écoles, a regulated body within the French administration. In terms of casual naming, you have "maître/maîtresse" (the way you refer to someone usually in kindergarten or primary school - despite them being often Professeur des écoles), or "ensiegnant" (usually in an indirect form (votre enseignant sera absent lundi), or "professeur" (mid or high school). It heavily depends on regions and on schools. (EDIT: sorry - I did not realize you were French, so the info is for the others :))
    – WoJ
    Dec 23, 2021 at 14:03
  • Actually I am not French, but living in France - so your clarification is quite useful! Dec 23, 2021 at 14:13
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    When you say "nominated by the President" do you mean President of the university or something else (President of the State)?
    – davidbak
    Dec 23, 2021 at 18:58
  • @davidbak: by the French President (of the state)
    – WoJ
    Dec 23, 2021 at 19:46
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In the US I’d say that there’s no reason to care. Anybody who has had or has a university or other scholastic position position with “professor” in their official HR title is literally entitled to use that word in their formal address. But to what end? Ego inflation seems to be the only value. It might get you higher on a reservation list at a fancy restaurant, but those days seem mostly gone. Some grants are limited to academics within a few (1,2,3, etc) years of their PhD or postdoc, but I haven’t seen “professor” be a requirement, especially given the differences across the country in when that title starts being used (Assistant, Associate, etc?).

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Swedish usage:

A "professor" in Swedish is a title used for a person employed at university level with responsiblities for an area. To be hired as professor you need to have completed a PhD (or similar) and generally have to have a comprehensive portfolio of published papers (or similar).

The title as such is not protected in any way, so anyone may be free to use it without any legal consequences.

Other titels used when employed at university are:

"Docent" - requires you to a have higher scientific level above a PhD, generally at least four years after PhD.

"Lektor" - has a PhD.

"Adjunkt" - lower academic degree, often master.

"Doktorand" - employed to do PhD studies.

You might find postdocs as well.

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The UK

The traditional scheme of academic job titles in the UK was Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader, Professor. Nowadays many universities use the alternative scheme of Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Professor. However, the title "Professor" is still only used for full professors (who would be a professor in the traditional scheme) or emeritus professors (retired or semi-retired academics who were previously full professors).

Someone whose job title is "Associate Professor" would normally be referred to as "Doctor X" (assuming they have a doctoral degree; this may be accompanied by an additional title e.g. "the Reverend Doctor Y").

These are not official rules in any sense I know of, but merely the way things are done. In any case the person might not bother to use their academic title outside of an academic context.

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  • I'm not sure I'd say "most", although it is becoming more common. Jan 8 at 12:17
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If you are referring to yourself in any formal setting, use only titles that have been officially conferred. And qualify them as needed: associate professor, for example. In the US it is common to use the term informally for yourself in casual conversations and such.

For referring to others you can use the term in a more generic sense most places and in most situations as a synonym for a university faculty member. Some places are more formal (Germany, Austria) than others (US). US students do this pretty regularly, for example, to refer to their instructors.

If you have a title from one country/culture that isn't common in another, then you can give your official title, as given and suggest it is similar to a title from the place you are communicating with. But don't assume your translation is official in any way.

1

In the Netherlands, the title was reserved for those who had the academic rank of Hoogleraar. This is a top rank and equates to the UK ranks of Reader (Hoogleraar 2) or Professor (Hoogleraar 1). The lower ranks of docent (lecturer) universitair docent (university lecturer) and hoofddocent (senior lecturer) are translated as lecturer, assistant and associate professor. However, they are not entitled to call themselves "professor" or use the "Prof." title.

This appears to be changing. It was that only hoogleraars could promote Ph.D. students, which was the justification for restricting the title. Recent rules changes have meant that by special dispensation, some hoofddocenten ("associate professors"/senior lecturers) can have promotion rights. I have seen some of these using the Prof. title. I am unclear whether this is legal or not. The title Professor is protected under Dutch law, and it is fraud to use it if not entitled.

In Flanders, a similar rank system exists, but docenten (lecturers) of all grades can have promotion rights. If they do, then they can use the title Prof. However, they could not leave it unqualified when written in full without being fraudulent. Use of "Prof." is specific to whether the academic is allowed to by the (main) supervisor of Ph.D. students or not.

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Mainland China and Hong Kong (I didn't bother looking up Macau or Taiwan):


In mainland China:

Hou Yifan, the record holder for youngest female grandmaster, is said to be a 'professor' at Shenzhen university. But I doubt e has a PhD.

Therefore, in mainland China, you need not have a PhD to have the title of 'professor' unlike places like Hong Kong (ironic?) or some parts of the US where having a PhD is necessary but not sufficient to have the title of 'professor'.

According to several sources, Hou Yifan is indeed a 'full' professor, instead of assistant or associate professor. I'm unable to find a profile on shenzhen's website. Or even like a list of faculty members that includes h.


In Hong Kong:

I've checked all the maths departments in city university, chinese university, hong kong university of science and technology, hong kong university and The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and not a single person is professor or even assistant or associate professor without a PhD. Meanwhile there are many PhD holders who are merely 'instructor' or 'lecturer'.

At least last I checked in early 2021.

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In the Philippines:

Not entirely certain. Professor is often used colloquially to mean 'teaches at a university', but technically I've yet to see a faculty member's profile where the person is said to be 'professor' (without qualifier; see next) without a PhD.


In Cebu:

In the mathematics department of the university of san carlos in cebu (not to be confused with the university of south california, as the old joke goes), several faculty members (see for yourself) are considered 'assistant professor' without a PhD. None of the faculty members there appear to have a PhD, and no one is considered associate professor or (full) professor there.


In Manila (the capital):

I've yet to see an 'assistant professor' in, say, the mathematics departments of the university of the philippines or ateneo de manila university without a PhD though.


Edit to add:

In my experience, in the Philippines, any faculty with the position having the word "professor" (asst. prof., assoc. prof., prof.) may be called "Professor." In the past (in the Philippines), it was possible to be a professor even if you didn't have a doctoral degree. So it was more prestigious to be called "Doctor" (which requires having a doctoral degree) rather than "Professor." Usually the term "Professor" is used when the person does not have a doctoral degree. – Joel Reyes Noche

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    In my experience, in the Philippines, any faculty with the position having the word "professor" (asst. prof., assoc. prof., prof.) may be called "Professor." In the past (in the Philippines), it was possible to be a professor even if you didn't have a doctoral degree. So it was more prestigious to be called "Doctor" (which requires having a doctoral degree) rather than "Professor." Usually the term "Professor" is used when the person does not have a doctoral degree.
    – JRN
    Jan 8 at 6:10
  • @JoelReyesNoche colloquially yes, but officially?
    – BCLC
    Jan 9 at 13:28
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    I don't have official information. That's why I didn't answer the question and why I didn't edit your answer.
    – JRN
    Jan 10 at 2:21

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