Spelling names right

What a sad week with the loss of Senator Edward Kenedy. He dominated our political lives for the 47 years he served in the Senate. All the most important social legislation had his stamp on it. We will miss him.

Of course you noticed that I misspelled “Kennedy” in that first sentence. And as you read through the rest of the paragraph, you kept thinking about my mistake. By the end of it, you started to doubt my authority as a writer.

Nothing damages your credibility like misspelling a name. It sends editors into shock, and makes your readers wonder about the validity of everything else you’re saying.

My last name is spelled “F-R-Y,” not “FRY-E.” It irks me when people get it wrong, and makes me less interested in talking with them again. My name’s not as important as “K-E-N-N-E-D-Y,” but people who know me might wonder about writers who spell it wrong.

We also spell names right to differentiate people. Many years ago, an engineering honorary society at UC Berkeley sent out hundreds of letters inviting people to join. They were told to respond to Donald L. Fry, the president, and the letter gave his phone number. Unfortunately, my name, Donald K. Fry, came earlier in the phone book, and my number appeared in the letter. (My wife Joan told callers to put their invitation in a paper bag and scream like a chicken.)

If you write about Donald Zapolia Fry, the [fictional] serial rapist who’s just been arrested, I don’t want you to get that middle initial or name wrong.

How do you get names right? Better, how do you get my name right?

1. First of all, you ask me how I spell my name. Stupid, you think, until I reply, “F-R-Y, no E.” Same with “J-O-N S-M-Y-T-H-E.” Or “M-E-R-R-Y J-O-H-N-E-S.” If in doubt later, call the person, or send an e-mail. You’ll feel dopey, but you’ll get it right. Your source will regard you as careful and may thank you, as I will.

My friend Bill Adair, the most error-free journalist I know, asks people “to spell their name. Then, just to be sure I got it right, I show them how I wrote their name in my notebook and ask, ‘Is this right?'”

2. Phone directories are fairly reliable, depending on the size of the city. In my little town, Charlottesville with 40,000 souls, my wife and I are spelled correctly as “Donald & Joan Fry,” and there’s a “Donald J. Fry.” Sometimes the problem is deciding which person is the one you want; in one town in Massachusetts, half the population is named Pelletier. So call.

3. You request a business card and ask if everything on it’s correct. (Usually not).

4. You obtain their annual report, and (yes) ask if the spelling’s correct.

5. You can look them up on Google, which gets problematic. Searching for “Don Fry,” I come up eighth out of about 10,500,000 hits, among a slew of realtors, wrestlers, civic leaders, etc. “Don Frye” yielded about 699,000 hits, mostly for a famous street figher, with lots of photos. “Donald K. Fry” brought me up first out of about 683,000, but that’s my professional name as a medievalist, not as a writing coach, where I’m “Don Fry.” You might not connect the two without a bit of reading.

6. You could look up my blog, which you’re reading right now. Most blogs have a bio somewhere, and you would expect authors to get their own name right, wouldn’t you? Don’t assume it. Blogs can be sloppy.

7. If your publication has a file of previous stories (called a “clip file”), you can look up the spelling there. You should assume that the clips get it wrong. Conscientious organizations correct their clip files, but you can’t depend on it.

8. Your spell checker may not help you. (Actually mine caught “Kenedy.”) It will endorse “Fry” because that’s a word in its dictionary.

You can spell a name correctly, and then misspell it somewhere else in the same piece, so you compare them for consistency. Don’t forget to check names in photo captions, on maps and diagrams, and in back-of-the-book lists. At the Poynter Institute, I edited the annual catalogue, and one year, managed to misspell the name of a member of our advisory board four different ways in the apparatus.

[What kind of names have you struggled with?]

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Published in: on September 1, 2009 at 10:29 am  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. One of the first things I was told on my first job at a newspaper was to get a man’s name right because it was the only thing he owned. (The rule applied to women, also.)

    I am annoyed by the number of people who decide that I am Thomas R. Berner, not R Thomas Berner. Or just Thomas Berner. It’s more than annoying when the mistake is made on your airline card and then your name doesn’t match the one on your credit card and suddenly you can’t complete a transaction.

    Years ago a local radio guy told me a story. He couldn’t remember someone’s name so he casually asked him how to spell it.

    S-M-I-T-H came the reply.

    Hoisted on his own bad memory.

  2. Thanks, Tom. I’ve always called you “Tom.” Should I now call you “R Thomas” or “R Tom?”

    Thanks for the anecdote about the radio guy. It’s better to feel stupid getting it right than stupidly getting it wrong.

  3. When we’re drinking beer–well, probably red wine, given our ages–Tom is fine. But when making out a check, it’s R Thomas Berner. 🙂

    BTW, despite the simplicity of my surname, I am often called Brenner, even in New Mexico.


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