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Speaking initially

Soon after my return to The Sun, I noticed another editor’s corrections on the proof page of a story I had edited, supplying the middle initial C to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s name.

The fastidious concern (some would call it a fetish) that newspapers show for middle initials is easily explained. There are so many people with the same surname and given name that middle initials are useful for accurate identification. You don’t want to run a photo of James A. Smith with the obituary of James B. Smith.* Also, now that newspaper archives are electronic, the middle initial is helpful in defining searches.

That said, I can’t think that there are many other Stephanie Rawlings-Blakes in the Baltimore area who might be confused with the mayor, so the punctilious insertion of the middle initial in the first reference in every article looks supererogatory.**

The New York Times is famously careful with middle initials, and some years ago Slate inquired about the appearance in its pages of Monica S. Lewinsky. Allan M. Siegal, now retired as the paper’s standards editor, explained, Slate reported, that “the rule is to include the middle initial unless 1) the person doesn't have one; 2) doesn't commonly use one; 3) he or she complains to the NYT, or 4) including one would be ‘too stuffy.’ "

 Stuffy requires case-by-case judgment, but so does commonly use. There is, for example, Harry Truman’s middle initial. The S did not stand for anything, because his parents could not agree on which grandfather to name the boy after. You can still hear people discuss whether a period should be used. His own practice varied, though the period appears on his letterhead and in signatures. The Associated Press Stylebook says that he was once asked about the period and said he didn’t care, so for consistency the AP uses the period.

In my case, my driver’s license identifies me as John Early McIntyre. My byline is John E. McIntyre, which is also how I sign letters and checks (though omitting the period). I have credit cards that identify me simply as John McIntyre. And sometimes, for fun, I have identified myself as Jno. McIntyre, because my grandmother used that old-fashioned abbreviation.

Fred and Jacques, if the Reaper should harvest me today, “John Early McIntyre” would be fine, though “John E. McIntyre” would probably fit better in the obituary headline, and I could live with, so to speak, plain “John McIntyre.” Your choice. Probably someone on the copy desk will stick in the middle initial anyhow.

 

*I picked James Smith as an example because there are so damn many Jim Smiths out there that they have formed a society.

**From the Latin root erogare, “to spend,” supererogation meaning originally spending over and above, in English performing more than is required.

 

The blogware is declining to code my links today, so here they are:  

For the Jim Smith Society: http://www.jimsmithsociety.com/

For the Slate article: http://www.slate.com/id/1001971

For Harry Truman's initial: http://www.snopes.com/history/american/truman.asp

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:23 AM | | Comments (8)
        

Comments

At my hometown newspaper, The Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times, my first job, the rule for middle initials fits your second paragraph. Transport Topics Publishing Group, where I have worked for the past four years, removes middle initials as superfluous.

Honorifics may relate to the discussion. The Washington Times, where I worked for two weeks short of 10 years, insists on honorifics, to the point of adding Mrs. to every married woman's name, even if she uses her maiden name. For example, Geraldine Ferraro (her maiden name) is married to John Zaccaro. The Washington Times identifies her as Mrs. Ferraro.

I think that middle initials should always be supplied for non-famous people, if possible. You never know to whom it might matter. I have taken to using at least my middle initial, if not my full middle name, whenever I can, as there is (quite improbably) another lawyer in New York City with the same first and last name as me, and even our middle initials are not as different as would be ideal (mine is "W," his is "V."). And despite being strangers and unrelated to each other, we have some overlapping contacts. If one of us should ever be quoted in a newspaper, I would hope the middle initial would be used.

Not that I think I personally am hot stuff. Indeed, it is precisely because I am not that the middle initial is useful. My point is simply that a reporter cannot know to whom it might matter, so why not err on the side of distinguishing? Once in a while, without even having known it, you will have done a favor, at no cost.

As a cataloger, I wish that every author included a middle initial (at the very least!) Today I cataloged an obscure book of poems by one John Clarke. Anyone care to guess just how many John Clarkes have written books? It took some sleuthing, but I finally identified him as the one born in 1933.

On a personal level, I had a strong preference for no middle initial until I learned that another woman in Baltimore had the same first name and last name. I found out when the bill collectors started calling ME! I also learned that we use the same health care system, so I always give my middle initial there as well as birth date.

Roughly 20 years ago, the Virginian-Pilot had a drive to print every person's middle initial. I had a drive to have the 13 James S. Smiths in the local phone book included in a single photo, with the caption, "From left, James S. Smith." I was too stupid to think of doing a story about the difficulties that arise from multiple shared names. If I'd done the story, I might have pulled off the photo.

Regarding the mayor's name, claiming both a hyphenated last name and a middle initial seems greedy. I've always wondered what happens when a man with a hyphenated last name marries a woman with a hyphenated last name. What name do they share? Maybe they could just choose for a last name "Hyphen" or Hypenated." Harry Hyphen is a name people could remember.

The English find American initial fetishes very amusing. Don't forget first initials! My blog on the topic: http://bit.ly/bRYDkr

In your obituary you could be referred to as the late John Early.

My parents had a good friend who had no middle initial. As people seemed to expect one, he began to sign and refer to himself as John N.M.I. White. Excellent!

One R B Jones was a member of the U.S. Navy (which uses "None" rather than "NMI" as a substitute for a missing middle initial), and insisted that his initials were his name. So he became, for official purposes, R(only) B(only) Jones, which rapidly mutated into Ronly Bonly Jones....

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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