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.

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