Friday, March 5, 2010

The Perils of Misspelled Names

Having talked in my last post about the value of proofreading, I should note one thing that is often “corrected” where no correction is needed—the unusually spelled personal name. I should know. My last name is S-W-A-R-T-S with an s at each end, and if I had a dollar for everyone who’s written it as S-C-H-W-A-R-T-Z or S-W-A-R-T-Z or even S-C-H-W-A-R-Z, I could retire right now.

Hundreds of others have reason to curse the surname legacy of their paternal ancestors—or to wonder what their immediate ancestors were thinking on choosing a first name. Long, impossible-to-spell names are bad enough. Names that sound like bad jokes (as every Houstonian knows, Ima Hogg was a real person) quickly get old to live with. Names with obvious alternate spellings (“Is that K-A-T-H-E-R-I-N-E or C-A-T-H-E-R-I-N-E?”) can be a nuisance. But a name for which everyone thinks the spelling is obvious means a lifetime of policing everyone who writes it down—and still seeing it come out wrong half the time. It’s especially bad if the discrepancy comes near the end of the name; people usually stop listening to me spell out S-W-A-R-T-S after I pass the w.

Many people regard misspellings of their names not merely as annoying but as personally insulting—especially when those misspellings are attached to message responses, and the original communications were signed with the right spellings. Get an e-mail signed “Smyth” and reply to “Dear Mr. Smith,” and you effectively tell him you didn’t consider his message worth reading carefully. Even where it concerned a key element of his identity.

Get a name right, by contrast, and you make a favorable impression. Get a difficult name right, and you make an especially favorable impression (“What a relief to meet someone who doesn’t misspell my name!”). Dale Carnegie knew this well; his classic How to Win Friends and Influence People devotes a whole chapter to remembering names.

Which isn’t always easy, especially where multiple tiers of communication are involved. Many convention attendees carefully spell out their names (verbally or in writing) during the registration process, only to receive a badge with the wrong spelling upon arriving at the event. Usually, the person who actually took the registration wasn’t at fault. Despite computerized recordkeeping, many registrations still go through two or three levels of human beings. And often, one of those human beings transcribes a note or memo without looking carefully.

Worst of all, however, is the usually careful proofreader who sees the actual spelling clearly—and still writes down the wrong one. “It looks wrong, so it must be a typo” is the sort of “logical” thinking that infuriates those of us whose names vary from majority custom. So unless you know someone personally, always assume that a name is spelled exactly the way it’s written, no matter how ridiculous it looks to you. If the spelling really is wrong, at least you’ll have someone besides yourself to blame.

Remember that, or I’ll send you an e-mail with your name misspelled!

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