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.

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Take My Commas—Please

Most editors are probably familiar with the rule that commas should be used to set off nonrestrictive appositives and that no commas should be used around restrictive appositives. (In Chicago 16, it’s under 6.23.) A restrictive appositive specifies which of a group of possible referents you’re talking about, and it’s thus integral to the sentence. A nonrestrictive appositive simply provides extra information about the thing you’re talking about. Thus you would write My wife, Ruth, (because I only have one wife) but My cousin Steve (because I have multiple cousins, and one is named Steve). The first tells you that my wife’s name is Ruth, and the latter tells you which of my cousins I’m talking about.

Most editors are probably also familiar with the claim that if you leave out the commas after a phrase like “my wife”, the implication is that you’re a polygamist. In one of my editing classes, we would take a few minutes at the start of each class to share bloopers with the rest of the class. One time my professor shared the dedication of a book, which read something like “To my wife Cindy”. Obviously the lack of a comma implies that he must be a polygamist! Isn’t that funny? Everyone had a good laugh.

Except me, that is. I was vaguely annoyed by this alleged blooper, which required a willful misreading of the dedication. There was no real ambiguity here—only an imagined one. If the author had actually meant to imply that he was a polygamist, he would have written something like “To my third wife, Cindy”, though of course he could still write this if he were a serial monogamist.

Usually I find this insistence on commas a little exasperating, but in one instance the other day, the commas were actually wrong. A proofreader had corrected a caption which read “his wife Arete” to “his wife, Arete,” which probably seemed like a safe change to make but which was wrong in this instance—the man referred to in the caption had three wives concurrently. I stetted the change, but it got me thinking about fact-checking and the extent to which it’s an editor’s job to split hairs.

This issue came up repeatedly during a project I worked on last year. It was a large book with a great deal of biographical information in it, and I frequently came across phrases like “Hans’s daughter Ingrid”. Did Hans have more than one daughter, or was she his only daughter? Should it be “Hans’s daughter, Ingrid,” or “Hans’s daughter Ingrid”? And how was I to know?

Pretty quickly I realized just how ridiculous the whole endeavor was. I had neither the time nor the resources to look up World War II–era German citizens in a genealogical database, and I wasn’t about to bombard the author with dozens of requests for him to track down the information either. Ultimately, it was all pretty irrelevant. It simply made no difference to the reader. I decided we were safe just leaving the commas out of such constructions.

And, honestly, I think it’s even safer to leave the commas out when referring to one’s spouse. Polygamy is such a rarity in our culture that it’s usually highlighted in the text, with wording such as “John and Janet, one of his three wives”. Assuming that “my wife Ruth” implies that I have more than one wife is a deliberate flouting of the cooperative principle of communication. This insistence on a narrow, prescribed meaning over the obvious, intended meaning is a problem with many prescriptive rules, but, once again, that’s a topic for another day.

Please note, however, that I’m not saying that anything goes or that you can punctuate however you want as long as the meaning’s clear. In cases where it’s a safe assumption that there’s just one possible referent, or when it doesn’t really matter, the commas can sometimes seem a little fussy and superfluous.

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