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Nov 16

It Couldn’t Be More Personal

During my childhood, my grandmother taught me little lessons. I learned how to fold and crease a sheet of paper over and over until it resembled the expanding membrane of an accordion but wasn’t constrained by the edges of a musical instrument. My creation could be waved in the air to blow away summer heat. Gramma also showed me a more advanced origami technique, although she never called it that, of creating a miniature upright piano. I’ve long forgotten those more complicated steps; however, I can still make a pretty good fan.

These memories came to me while editing an article for Deadwood Writers Voices. All I needed was to know whether to italicize or put quotation marks around a TV program’s title. Hoping to confirm my suspicion on the correct usage, I looked in The Chicago Manual of Style and was distracted by something else I came across first. The reference guide said, “The name of a living person should, wherever possible, correspond to that person’s own usage.” (CMOS, section 8.3)

How silly was that statement? It reminded me of those caution labels that are printed on coffee cups: “Careful! Contents may be hot!” When buying a cup of coffee, I certainly expect it to be, and hope it will be, hot. Regarding my own name, as a living person, shouldn’t I know better than anyone else what it is and how to spell it? Of course!

So why would CMOS bother to point out the obvious? I think the book’s editors and advisory board meant to impress upon writers the importance of spelling names correctly. But it’s not as cut and dry as it appears. For example, my grandmother ended her surname in an “i.” Her brother ended his in an “o.” Gramma’s sisters threw an extra “e” in the middle somewhere. I grew up never knowing how to correctly spell my ancestors’ last name. I’m sure they each had a convincing reason for why they did things the way they did, but I can only speculate. Maybe the ending depended upon gender: an “i” for females and “o” for males?

I’ve even thought that the difference in spellings could have had something to do with a mistake in documentation. Perhaps an official incorrectly recorded my great-grandfather’s name when Grandpa immigrated to the US from Italy. That mishap could have resulted in multiple versions of the family name surviving and competing with one another. I wish I could ask one of my living relatives but none know why there was confusion in the first place.

A lesson comes to mind for us conscientious writers: we should be watching for the unique or unconventional preferences of our subjects. For instance, friends of mine are named “Lesley” and “Sheri.” Not Leslie and not Sherry. To them, anything other than the way they spell their own names is just not correct. I’d feel the same if they addressed letters to me with “Kelli” or “Kellie.” It doesn’t look right, and to me, it doesn’t feel right.

During verbal conversations, accidents happen for sure, like when my husband calls me Kathy, his sister’s name, or when I yell to one of my sons and out stumbles his brother’s name instead. There’s also forgetting someone’s name altogether. Faulty utterances like these are common and easily forgivable. In fact, it’s rare for anyone I know to point out spoken errors at all. They seem to understand and just let them go.

There’s a higher expectation placed upon writers, however. When we commit thoughts to paper, we are responsible to verify the facts being presented, to pay attention to details. Very often, the records being created are permanent, and they’re always subject to public scrutiny. A simple mistake could jeopardize credibility with an audience. Misspellings, particularly of names, make it appear that we don’t know, care about, or respect our subjects well enough. At the very least, a person’s name, like Grandpa’s, should be documented precisely as he wishes (“to correspond to that person’s own usage”). It’s important to at least that one person.

16 comments

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  1. Kelly Bixby

    Following comments.

  2. Claire Murray

    Interesting piece, Kelly. I’d never thought of it that way before.

  3. Book Lover

    Can you imagine being a teacher calling attendance on the first day in a multicultural school? Very challenging.

    1. Kelly Bixby

      Book Lover, I remember watching a teacher on the first day of school. He called roll and individually asked each student how to pronounce his or her full name and by what first name each wanted to be addressed. Then he recorded the pronunciation and answers in his grade book. A little upfront effort made all the difference (and impressed me more than I realized at the time).

  4. Sue Remisiewicz

    I have a lot of patience when I can tell someone is making a considered effort to pronounce my name right. It’s the people who slam through it and add a ‘-ski’ at the end where one doesn’t exist that irritate me. It’s a matter of respect and, as you said, credibility that writers need to get names right.

    1. Kelly Bixby

      Sue, I just pulled my copy of Emily Post’s _Etiquette_ from 1945. She says, “Nearly all the faults or mistakes in conversation are caused by not thinking.” I guess that holds true today.

  5. Wendi

    Kelly, great writing. It’s thought provoking in a way that enlivens a conversation, as seen by the many replies. I’ve always wondered about why my parents used the i at the end of my name first name. I don’t remember my parents ever telling me why they did it or not or if I just forgot. Now I know. LOL! Once I got married and took my husband’s last name it was often missed pronounced. Since the e is on the end (Knape) and not the double p like one would expect, people say the name as nape instead of the expected nap. Now, my children are experiencing the mispronunciation. I wish more people would pay attention and realize after the billionth time that it’s not nape, it’s nap. Even then there’s still teasing. Oh, well, it’s just something they’ll deal with most of their lives as I and my husband have done.

    1. Kelly Bixby

      Hi Wendi! I’m glad the article spurred conversation and you were able to find out some new personal info. Regarding the mispronunciation of your last name, don’t you just, sometimes, want to distribute little cards with a correct pronunciation key on them? Better yet: let the media coverage surrounding your WIP-soon-to-be-bestseller straighten out all those repeat-offenders! It took the movie version of _Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone_ to settle the burning question among my friends and I on how to pronounce “Hermione.” I lost.

  6. phil rosette

    My father changed his last name when he came through Ellis Island because Italians were discriminated against at the time (1910 or so). He made the last vowel an E instead of I. His two brothers never forgave that and at family functions would always make fun of him by calling him by his last name only. But he got the last laugh. He was the only one of the three that went to college, or owned their own business. A lot these name variations come from origins similar to this, I suspect.

    1. Kelly Bixby

      Phil, I’m reminded that not all parents think about the meaning of a name before they bestow it upon their children. But if they spend any time researching, they’ll find that much history is wrapped up in one word. The little change your dad made to your family name was purposeful and reflected the negative sentiment during the 1900s. Can you imagine what might motivate you to alter something equally personal about yourself? Have you ever considered switching back to Rosetti? Sometimes, I think it would be comforting to use a pen name and skirt any controversy that could ever be associated with me. But I just can’t do it. I am who I am. (Where have you heard that before?) Thanks for sharing your story.

  7. Sue Jurczyszyn

    Hi Kelly – love your writing! This made me laugh and ponder why we picked the names that we did for our kids. When they asked me how we wanted to spell Brandon’s name at the hospital I was suddenly scared that I would pick the “wrong” way. I kept saying it over and over and BRANDON seemed to be the “only” way. We picked Haley’s spelling because it had the least amount of letters to go with our last name – which is a spelling lesson all in itself!! Matt’s last name is spelled wrong on his birth certificate! I guess his dad did not proof read it after 5 kids! Can’t wait to read your next piece!

    1. Kelly Bixby

      How funny, Sue! There’s so much pressure on us when we’re choosing baby names, isn’t there? And now, we couldn’t know Brandon and Haley as any others. I have to tell you that I take great pride in being able to pronounce your last name correctly. Rachel helped me with that at St. Tim’s. How ironic would it be if I’ve actually remembered it wrong and you’ve just never corrected me! Thank you so much for letting me know what you thought when you read my article. I’d like to hear more about the issues Matt and the family have faced because of that one, original, little misspelling…well, maybe it was a big misspelling.

  8. Yibbity

    After reading your piece, it made me think why I chose to end my daughter’s names with an “I”. Smiled, when I remember telling someone, if the girls received a gift with their name on it, it would have been made especially for them.

    1. Kelly Bixby

      Yibbity, that is a beautiful memory and I’m touched to know that my article helped you think of the very important decision you made when naming your girls. I’ve gotten to know one of your daughters and see that she is an incredibly unique woman, living up to the non-traditional spelling of her name.

  9. John McCarthy

    Rarely do I enjoy reading about grammar, least of all spelling. Kelly’s passion for the craft of structure is so compelling. I’m always amazed by her distinctive eye and voice on such topics. I’m wondering about spelling of those in my family. Thanks Kelly. Can’t wait until your next piece. What do you see as a major oversight by writers?

    1. Kelly Bixby

      John, your kind words are motivating. As you know, so much of ourselves is poured into our writing. It’s gratifying when other people, especially fellow writers, appreciate our work. Thank you. Regarding your question, there are probably many ways to answer, but here’s my opinion. Too often, writers ignore their intuition. We get a funny feeling or a nagging sensation that some part of our writing isn’t quite right. I’m not referring to grammar and punctuation, but rather to the way we’ve woven words together in trying to express our thoughts. We know there’s something off and we can’t identify exactly what it is. Something just sticks out and bothers us. This is when having someone else read our work-in-progress is helpful. Many times, I rely on family members and my editor to point out the issues and offer remedies. So, I advocate both listening to that little voice that says “this needs more work” and embracing the art of revision.

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