Q&A #1: Pride or Preference – Is It OK to Lowercase a proper name on Request?

Who are youToday I received this cry for help from a fellow writer and editor who is so conscientious that he did his research before knocking on my virtual door this morning. A summary of his plight, and my opinion, follow (with his permission). Comments are welcome.


QUESTION

Pam,

Here’s another thorny question for my editorial guru.

I woke up at about 2:50 this morning with this lowercasing question rattling around my brain.

With one colleague’s opinion in mind, I remain reluctant to immediately comply with a request from two of our other colleagues to lowercase their names in our school’s publications.

Editorial conventions exist in order to ease communication, enhance consistency, and avoid confusion. That’s why it’s been our standard practice to initial-cap first and last names. And these days, when so much content is derived from databases and other online sources, it’s very difficult to make exceptions because of technical limitations that make it harder to comply with these requests—for example, LinkedIn and other social sites automatically put members’ names in initial caps in profiles. Even if this can be changed, the nonstandard request may be difficult for some sites to grant.

Two respected and reliable sources, however, differ somewhat in their advice about this matter:

— The NY Times and most other publications choose to go with convention.

— However, Chicago supports the opinion that we should respect people’s wishes and lowercase names if they wish. They advise rewriting so that such names don’t begin sentences.

Pen names, such as bell hooks, and stage names, such as k.d. lang, are usually immediately recognizable. But I’m not sure that what our colleagues are asking falls into either category . . . and maybe it doesn’t matter. However, I still see our problem as maintaining consistency and avoiding confusion in our publications. Suppose, for example, a recording engineer named Mike or Mic insisted on lowercasing his name—we would have a hard time keeping things straight when writing about his approach to setting up sound equipment.

I think we can encourage people to present their names as they wish in all personal communications, but I think we should abide by our decision to continue initial-capping in our institutional publications. But when I suggested this to one colleague, she responded:

Is it that my name cannot be lowercased because technology won’t allow it, or is it an editorial decision? If it’s the former, I understand. If it’s the latter, I think our preferences for how we represent ourselves should trump editing.

Ouch. Now I feel as if I’m in a power struggle. It’s not as if I don’t agree that people should present themselves as they wish, but, if they represent an institution or organization, I believe they should do so outside of office hours, so to speak.

Thoughts, dear colleague?

– r


Cary, Ralph, & Roz
Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, & Rosalind Russell in “His Girl Friday,” 1940.

ANSWER

Dear – r,

I have always believed that, friend to authors though editors may be, an editor’s primary responsibility is to the reader. Clarity is one of the BIG C’s of Expository Writing (which I will discuss at a later date).

Therefore, I tend to agree with you. The famous can stylize their names however they like with relative impunity. But for the not-so-famous, or just for the rest of us, this is harder to get away with—not only editorially, but technically, as you’ve already eloquently pointed out.

In personal use, such as invitations, correspondence, email addresses, signature lines, and whichever social media will let them, people should be permitted to style their names however they wish. In professional use, those who fly solo can also do whatever they like, especially in logos. But when employees are beholden to an organization, certain rules need to apply so that the institutional choir sings with one voice/One Voice/or ONE VOICE, as house style dictates.

If too much fur or too many feathers fly around your office as a result of imposing well-considered style guidelines, compromises can be sought. For example, in bylines, which stand apart from the text and are unlikely to cause confusion (perhaps just a momentary pause as readers decide whether the author is famous enough to lowercase his or her name), lowercasing might be generously permitted.

Or, using your earlier example, it might be an easy matter just to tell people what’s up, as in this entry from Wikipedia: “Kathryn Dawn Lang, known by her stage name ‘k.d. lang,’ is a Canadian pop and country singer-songwriter and occasional actress.” In your publication, you might consent to say: “Jane Peters, known professionally and personally as ‘janie peters,’ is one of our most successful alumnae.” However, if you have to notify HR that mic the guest speaker tripped over the mic during his talk and wants to file for workers’ comp or else sue sue the ceo for damages, this may present problems. . . .

Simpler still, you could just put the stylized name in parentheses and quotation marks, which is commonly done for nicknames: “In examining the issue at hand, Tobias Larkin (“tobias larkin”), director of Public Relations, says the goal was to dedicate the week to the matter of gender and racial equity, civil rights, socioeconomic class, environmental justice, and so forth.”

Such a compromise may or may not satisfy your colleagues, but a moderate approach ensures readability and allows readers to recognize a stylized name as a preference without actually stating it as such—which might start to sound like pride. If you simply acceded to your colleagues’ personal preferences without using an editorial device, such as one of the examples above, you would be doing your readers a disservice.

As far as the comment that technology limitations are understandable but that editorial decisions should give way to personal preferences, I would have to draw the line there. Flexibility is one thing; anarchy is another. Also, colleagues should not denigrate what you do for a living any more than you could (or would) deride their choice of how they stylize their names.

In brief, I would recommend retaining house style in most cases. But leave a little room for creative negotiation—as long as it doesn’t interfere with readability. If you get push-back, gently but firmly remind your colleagues that, no, personal preference does not trump editorial decision-making and that the latter is an essential part of your job—and your responsibility to your institution. Then chime in with a reminder about singing in one voice, which is part of institutional branding.

Hold firm to house rule, but consider a compromise that doesn’t interfere with what you offer your readership. Again, an editor is the reader’s advocate. That’s your job, and it needs to be respected.

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