Arrant Pedantry

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Names, Spelling, and Style

A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with Mededitor on Twitter about name spelling and style. It started with a tweet from Grammar Girl linking to an old post of hers on whether you need a comma before “Jr.” She notes that most style guides now leave out the commas. Mededitor opined that the owners of the names, not editors, should get to decide whether or not to use commas. In this follow-up post, Grammar Girl seems to come to the same conclusion:

However, Chicago also states that writers should make a reasonable effort to spell a name the way a person spells it himself or herself, and I presume that also applies to punctuation. In other words, you’re free to insist on the comma before “Jr.” in your own name.

I can see the appeal in this argument, but I have to disagree. As I argued on Twitter and in a comment on that second post, catering to authors’ preferences for commas around “Jr.” creates inconsistency in the text. And it wouldn’t just be authors themselves that we’d have to cater to; what about people mentioned or cited in the text? Should editors spend time tracking down every Jr. or III whose names appear in writing to ask whether they prefer to have their suffixes set off with commas?

Doing so could take enormous amounts of time, and in the end there’s no benefit to the reader (and possibly a detriment in the form of distracting inconsistency), only to some authors’ egos. Further, we’d have to create a style anyway and apply it to all those who had no preference or whose preferences could not be identified. Why pick an arbitrary style for some names and not others? Either the preference matters or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t matter, that’s what a style choice is for: to save us from wasting our time making countless minor decisions.

But I have a further reason for not wishing to defer to authors’ preferences. As I argued in that same comment, punctuation is not the same thing as spelling. There’s one right way to spell my name: Jonathon Owen. If you write my name Jonathan Owens, you’ve spelled it wrong. There’s no principled reason for spelling it one way or another; that’s just the way it is. But punctuation marks aren’t really part of someone’s name; they’re merely stylistic elements between or around the parts of people’s names to separate them, abbreviate them, or join them.

Punctuation around or in names, however, is often principled, though the principles of punctuation are prone to change over time. “Jr.” was traditionally set off by commas not because the commas were officially part of anyone’s name, but because it was considered parenthetic. As punctuation has become more streamlined, the requirement to set off this particular parenthetic with commas has been dropped by most style guides. And to be blunt, I think the desire of some authors to hang on to the commas is driven mostly by a desire to stick with whatever style they grew up with. It’s not much different from some people’s resistance to switching to one space between sentences.

In the course of the conversation with Mededitor, another point came up: periods after middle initials that don’t stand for anything. Some people insist that you shouldn’t use a period in those cases, because the period signals that the letter is an abbreviation, but The Chicago Manual of Style recommends using a period in all cases regardless. Again, it’s difficult for editors and proofreaders to check and enforce proper punctuation after an initial, and the result is a style that looks inconsistent to the readers. And again, individuals’ preferences are not always clear. Even one of the most famous individuals with only a middle initial, Harry S. Truman, wrote his name inconsistently, as the Harry S. Truman Library points out.

Yes, it’s true that editors can add a list of names to their style sheets to save some time, but checking every single name with an initial against a style sheet—and then looking them up if they’re not on the sheet—still takes time. And what’s the result? Names that occasionally look like they’re simply missing a period after the initial, because the reader will generally have no idea that there’s a reason behind the omission. The result is an error in most readers’ eyes, except for those few in the know.

The fundamental problem with making exceptions to general rules is that readers often has no idea that there are principled reasons behind the exceptions. If they see an apparent inconsistency and can’t quickly figure out a reason for it, then they’ve been needlessly distracted. Does the supposed good done by catering to some individuals’ preference for commas or periods around their names outweigh the harm done by presenting readers the appearance of sloppiness?

I don’t think it does, and this is why I agree with Chicago. I think it’s best—both for editors and for readers—to pick a rule and stick with it.

Update: Mededitor posted a response here, and I want to respond and clarify some points I made here. In that post he says, “I argue for the traditional rule, namely: ‘Make a reasonable attempt to accommodate the conventions by which people spell their own names.’” I want to make it clear that I’m also arguing for the traditional rule. I’m not saying that editors should not worry about the spelling of names. I simply disagree that commas and periods should be considered spelling.

With the exception of apostrophes and hyphens, punctuation is a matter of style, not spelling. The comma in Salt Lake City, Utah is not part of the spelling of the place name; it simply separates the two elements of the name, just as the now-deprecated comma before “Jr.” separates it from the given and family names. Note that the commas disappear if you use one element by itself, and other commas can appear in other contexts, such as when a name is inverted: “Jonathon Owen” becomes “Owen, Jonathon” in an index. This comma is also not part of the spelling of my name; it’s just a piece of punctuation. It’s a style choice.

And those style choices vary and change over time. In the UK, it’s standard practice to omit periods from abbreviations. Thus I’d be Jonathon R Owen in British style. The period in American style is not an element of my middle name that appears when it’s shortened—it’s a style choice that communicates something about my name. But the important thing is that it’s a choice. You can’t choose how to spell my name (though plenty of people have told me that I spell it wrong). But you can choose how to punctuate it to fit a given style.

13 Responses to Names, Spelling, and Style

  1. Brinestone says:

    What about apostrophes in names, like, say, M’Kayla? I’d say the owner of the name gets to dictate where the apostrophes go, as ridiculous as they might be. Or do apostrophes count as true spelling? Maybe they do; it’s incorrect to spell the possessive pronoun its with an apostrophe, for example. I see that as being different than a comma before Jr., though.

  2. Yes, I’d say that sort of apostrophe counts as part of the spelling of the name. Same with hyphens joining two names into one, like Mary-Kate. In both cases the punctuation marks are within the names, not surrounding or following them.

  3. GAC says:

    I think that in this time when most media is online and thus news stories can be edited after the fact, writers should generally follow a style rule for using the commas or use two exceptions:

    1) The named individual is known to prefer one way or the other.
    2) The named individual complains, at which point it is trivial to edit an on-line article.

    I’m very much in favor of people’s self-determination of their own names. We may think someone is silly about some convention they prefer for their own name, but it’s ultimately their name.

  4. I’m with you, Jonathon. Every journalism-oriented style guide I’ve worked with picks one convention and says to stick with it—there’s zero payoff to doing it as each source would like it, but that approach requires enormous effort. Journalism style guides also usually recommend just straight-up ignoring people’s preferences to include their middle initial (unless ignoring the preference could lead them to be confused with someone else) and to include titles conferred by degrees only when relevant. Readers don’t care and editors don’t need the aggro.

    GAC, I really, really disagree with your strategy. First, editing news stories after publication is considered skeazy because it often doesn’t leave a record, so if you made an error you can effectively cover it up. Most publications only retroactively edit news stories if there’s a major factual error. Some will tweak grammar and spelling after publication, but the idea is always to get everything right the first time.

    Second, as someone who fixes factual errors in online stories when sources complain, I’m here to tell you it’s not trivial. There’s always a flurry of emails involving the writer, the content editor, the copy editor (me), and possibly the source, confirming the new information and making sure we’re getting the phrasing right. I don’t just go into the story, change something, hit “publish” and go back to what I was doing in five minutes; I always wind up tracking an email chain over at least an hour, sometimes days. And we rarely edit stories after publication. It might take less time with a smaller change, like commas around a Jr., but that would be more than made up for by the fact that there’d be so many changes. I don’t have the time to make all those edits, and frankly I do not care how a source prefers their Jr. punctuated. Tell the person who prints your business cards; the rest of us have more important things to worry about.

  5. GAC says:

    Are you certain that there would really be that many changes? After all, I would presume that most people mentioned in these stories really wouldn’t care one way or the other, only real sticklers would bother (and I’d only really bother with requests from the person named) — and Jr. and Sr. don’t seem to be that common as name elements in the first place. And if you would have to go through an hour of emails just for a punctuation change, that would be a grossly antiquated system — copyeditors should have autonomy to make minor spelling and punctuation changes on their own. After all, people seem to change headlines enough that pointing to a weird headline on a blog basically requires a screenshot.

    Maybe it would be too much work to make these corrections. I don’t have any experience in journalism, so I don’t know about the organizational factors. But as I said before, I strongly prefer self-determination for names. Is it really that much more work to ask the comma question just as you would ask someone how to spell their name (when getting the information orally)?

  6. Erin Brenner says:

    I’d be tempted to let an author have their way in the byline, but then where do you draw the line? If I mention the author elsewhere, would I include the Jr. commas? Would I include them in a citation of the published work? I get dizzy just thinking about it.

    I agree with Jonathon (whose name causes me to pause before I type it) and Copy Curmudgeon. The commas are not part of the spelling of the name and are a style decision.

  7. GAC, the rules are different once a story has been published. Any change requires approval from our executive editor, which I think is reasonable. But even if I didn’t need approval for minor changes, it’s not like I get an email directly from the source when they complain about their name. The sources have no idea who I am. So instead they email the writer, or someone whose name is listed on the contact page, or our all-purpose email address, which is monitored by the editorial assistant. And whoever got that email passes it on to an editor, who may or may not work for the correct publication, and who then tries to figure out who is in charge of making these changes and whether they’re the kind of changes we’re allowed to make after publication. And only after all that has been sorted out do I get an email that I need to make a change. And then once I make it I have to email everyone back to say that it’s done and give the source a link to the updated article.

    Sure, Jr. and Sr. aren’t very common, but people luuuuuurve to tell you how to write stories—a shocking number of people want to be able to approve the content and even phrasing of articles before publication. Name issues alone include: Jr. and Sr. (whether to include and how to do commas), whether to include middle names, whether to use middle initials, whether to use periods with middle initials, when to use courtesy titles (Mr., Mrs., Ms) and which apply, whether to list academic degrees (no, we’re not listing your MBA), wanting to be called Dr. when they’re not an MD, and, more rarely, wanting to be known by a strange nickname or wanting to be referred to using unconventional pronouns. Even it were easy for a writer to ask about all those things, those preferences have to be recorded and tracked through every stage of editing, of which there are usually at least four. How do you communicate those preference to a proofreader, who only sees the stories on paper? You’d have to keep a style sheet just of everyone’s name preferences, and there are dozens of sources referred to in every issue. It’s impractical. Plus everyone’s preferences are all over the map, so it makes your copy look like a hot mess.

    It’s their name, but it’s our publication. We absolutely owe it to our sources to refer to them accurately, but we don’t have to bow to their every whim.

  8. JR says:

    A related issue is the possessive form of a name that ends in “s.” I believe the proper form is add ‘s even if it ends in s; thus, “the New York Times’s coverage” would be correct. But many people (and perhaps some reputable sources?) would just add an apostrophe by itself, with no additional s.

    What if your style rules call for adding ‘s but the entity whose name it is prefers just an apostrophe? I agree with the theme of this post that the style rules for punctuation should prevail over individual preference.

  9. Jan says:

    I’m with you Jon-whatsis. Create a standard and stick to it. I disagree with the Guardian Style Guide all the time, but I respect their consistency.

  10. GAC says:

    @JR: That’s an interesting conundrum. I would argue that the ‘s clitic is not part of the name at all — a fact that is backed up by linguistic facts, as ‘s does not attach to a noun itself, but an entire phrase (in linguistic terms, there is no “possessive form” of a noun, just a clitic that attaches to the noun phrase). However, there are languages that have actual case inflections on proper nouns.

    I wonder if there are Russians whose names follow an irregular case-marking paradigm? I’d doubt very many do, given how infrequent any given proper name is in conversation, but it would be interesting. Of course, it wouldn’t matter in English — We just take the citation form, and I probably wouldn’t accept a Russian insisting I apply Russian case marking in English.

    So, I suppose this leads to a conclusion: how you feel about the commas for the “Jr.” suffix are “part of the name”. I still feel that they are, but I understand that most here do not.

  11. GAC: Self-determination is great, and I have no problem with it. As I tried to make clear in the update, the question isn’t whether we should spell people’s names the way they prefer, but whether we should consider punctuation part of spelling. I believe that we should not.

    As Copy Curmudgeon points out, there are some serious problems with the publish-first, edit-later approach to publishing. Never mind that such a strategy doesn’t work at all with print media. I edit books and journals, so I don’t have the supposed luxury of fact-checking and editing after the deadline.

    Copy Curmudgeon, Erin Brenner, and Jan: Solidarity!

    JR: I’m with GAC on this one. The genitive ’s is not part of the name, but rather a little piece of grammar. Authors may have preferences, but they don’t get to dictate which form is used. Ultimately the publication decides on a standard form.

  12. GAC says:

    @Jonathon: I will have to say that I’ve really learned quite a bit from engaging in this discussion. I do see know how the edit-later approach can be problematic, at least for an organization (it would be much easier for a solitary blogger). I’m still not sure about simply calling the comma punctuation and thus not essentially part of the name, but I do understand the argument for setting a standard in this particular case.

  13. Thanks, GAC. I appreciate your contributions.

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