Two Whoppers Junior

Introduction

Recently on Twitter, Jonathon Owen (@ArrantPedantry), Mignon Fogarty (@GrammarGirl), and I discussed the matter of whether the suffix “Jr.” in names like Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. needs a preceding comma. This also applies to “Sr.,” “II,” “III,” and so on.

My counterparts noted that Chicago and other style manuals are now recommending that the comma be omitted. This is in keeping with the modern style, which favors simplicity and minimalism.

From an editorial perspective, then, if your house style follows Chicago, then you run such names straight: Thurston Howell III.

That’s easy, as it gives you a universal rule to apply in all cases. No thinking required, no research needed. Time is saved, and you get a consistent look in your publications. 

Nevertheless, I argue for the traditional rule, namely: “Make a reasonable attempt to accommodate the conventions by which people spell their own names.”

Rationale

One of the primary duties of the text editor is to ensure that names are spelled correctly. There can be no argument on this score. This is a baseline job function. Whenever there is doubt regarding the spelling of a name, it should be checked. Depending on the name in question, a quick Google can be sufficient. If you’ve been in correspondence with the person, you can consult his or her signature block. Sometimes a phone call is warranted and you verify the spelling directly with the individual or a member of his or her staff.

People will generally forgive a slight misquote, a typo, a small error in text. Most will not easily tolerate the misspelling of their own or others’ names. This is especially acute in academic publishing, where attribution and authorship have profound professional ramifications. A minute spent verifying the spelling of a name pays for itself when juxtaposed against lost time apologizing to an author or the expense of running a correction or reprinting a publication.

A matter of style

Returning to the comma at hand, it’s fair to ask whether there is a salient difference between “Louis Gossett Jr.” and “Louis Gossett, Jr.” The actor’s own website gives both versions in equal distribution. Here, I would be inclined to call Gossett’s publicist and ask if there’s a preference. It’s worth getting this right because a celebrity’s name is his or her brand. The comma might be considered an essential component of the entertainer’s marque. (Viz “Louis C.K.”)

If the publicist says, “It doesn’t matter,” then one can follow a style sheet preference and hew to Chicago or other with a good feeling. 

Points of order

Whence does this problem arise? If you are given a manuscript that is signed by the author, you have the preferred spelling at hand. In the very rare cases that a “Jr.” or “Sr.” is part of the name, the comma will be directly present or absent. 

If the person named is widely known, publishes, is active in social media, or involved in any combination of the above, a check is immediately possible and straightforward. There is no argument to be made here that a check is time-consuming or laborious. 

Triage 

In the aforementioned general rule, the key word is “reasonable.” The editor is not expected to spend an hour or more chasing down a comma. If the manuscript makes reference to a third party, cites an author, or similar, one can assume the author has done due diligence. The fallout from making an error here is small, as the person named is not likely to become aware of this citation.

The essential names to verify are those directly involved in the manuscript and those most likely to read it. As discussed, these names will be presented to you in text, and thus there is little need to check them. 

Typical problems

Should you be the author of a document, errors in nomenclature are most likely to arise where you are working from memory. Let’s say that you make reference to Britney Spears. Given the various common spellings of the first name (Britany, Brittanee, Brittaney, Brittani, Brittanie, Brittanni, Brittannie, Brittanny, Brittenee, Britteney, Brittenie, Britteny, etc.), unless you’re certain of the spelling it’s worth a quick check.

In your work with a manuscript, you’ll likely have a sense of the meticulousness of the author. Some will be known to you as trustworthy, and their citations of names can be lightly scrutinized. Sloppy, careless writers will need a closer eye on their work.

Complex names, such as those with Irish or Scottish origins, will present issues of “Mac” or “Mc,” “O’Connor” or “O’Conner,” etc., and should be checked. Same with the capitalization of “Von” and “Van,” which can go either way. Arabic and Farsi names have their own idiosyncrasies and usually need to be checked for capitalization and hyphenation.

Conclusion

In the line of normal work, you’ll encounter names like “John Smith” and “George Washington” and approve them on sight. Odd names like “Steve Buscemi” will be worth a check. Each name you encounter is a matter of judgement. You rely on your own expertise to determine whether a name requires verification. The calculus includes such matters as:

1. Familiarity to you

2. Importance of the person named

3. Idiosyncrasy of the name (e.g., e.e. cummings, Will.I.Am) 

4. Vitality to the text (cover, flyleaf, etc.)

You need not check every name, nor respect every peccadillo, but compared with other words, names carry significantly more weight and are worth more thought than can be embraced by a style sheet’s shotgun guidance. When not of particular importance, the “Jr.” comma can be determined by your house style. When the name is more critically invested in the text, follow the person’s individual preference.

This is not a common problem and generally does not place an undue burden on the editor.

As to the objection that this type of treatment might lead to worrisome inconsistencies, it is unlikely that the general reader would notice the presence or absence of the “Jr.” comma at all. It would probably only be noted by a copyeditor or the person in question named. The latter, arguably, would be highly appreciative of having his name rendered faithfully.

Language - usage - lexicography - culture - memes - all meet someplace. And that place appears to be my desk.

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