How to Identify People by Name

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How does one introduce a person in narrative nonfiction? What is the style for subsequent references to that person? It all depends on the circumstances of the person and of the content.

In biographical content, it is common to name someone on first reference by birth name, including middle name(s) and independent suffixes such as Sr. or III, but this formal version need not be used again, except in a rare circumstance I’ll mention below. Normally, however, the first and last name will suffice, unless a historical personage is generally identified otherwise, such as in the case of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

A biographical treatment, however, might begin with an anecdote from the subject’s youth or young adulthood, and this excerpt might identify the person at first and on second reference (this editorial term refers not just to the second instance but all subsequent mentions) with a diminutive — for example, Bobby in place of Robert — or a nickname. Then, once the anecdote is complete, the first reference to the main body of the text will formally identify the subject.

And what about second reference? An intimate portrait, or a portion referring to the subject’s childhood, might use the first name alone or a diminutive or a nickname. In most cases, however, the subject’s surname will be employed. Exceptions are figures with extended surnames who are known simply by a single element of that surname, such as Spanish artist Pablo Diego Ruiz y Picasso, popularly known as Pablo Picasso or even just Picasso, and French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, known to history as Talleyrand.

(These two men are among a small number of historical figures known simply by their last name, though their full names are generally used on first reference unless the person is not the primary subject of the text and is mentioned merely in passing: “Smith was no Picasso”; “Jones aspired to be the next Talleyrand.”)

When else should a full name be used after the first reference? If the person is being discussed as a type, or the writer is referring to the subject being self-referential, the full name — perhaps including middle name(s) and/or a suffix — is often applied: “Jones suggested it to Smith. . . . John James Smith was not the kind of person to ignore a challenge like that.”

What are the guidelines for when a person is mentioned occasionally? They can be only guidelines, rather than rules, because one must use one’s judgment depending on the length and organization of the content and on the frequency and placement of references to the person. For example, if a person is mentioned in only one chapter or at most a few sequential chapters of a book, the last name alone should suffice on second reference.

But if a person not central to the narrative reappears after an interval of a section or a chapter or more, the full name should be used to reacquaint readers with this person. If the person is mentioned only a handful of times throughout a long report or a book, full identification might be best on each occasion. The writer must decide based on the person’s familiarity and the person’s significance to the narrative. (Another consideration is the presence of other people sharing that person’s surname.)

Writers can also vary second reference by using personal pronouns and by judicious use of nicknames or epithets (for example, “the Wizard of Menlo Park,” for Thomas Edison). Other possibilities are occasional use of first and second initials, or even all initials, for those people popularly known by such appellations, such as JFK for John F. Kennedy.

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1 thought on “How to Identify People by Name”

  1. Allow me to share a funny story — an anecdote recalled by a local PBS talk show concerning the New York Times naming convention. It seems that the Times music reviewer, in days long gone, positively reviewed the debut “Bat Out of Hell” album by the performer Meat Loaf. In true Times style, the editor did not refer to Meat Loaf later in the article, but styled him “Mr. Loaf” to match the Times style book.

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