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