Aspiring journalist? Be anal about name spelling

My feature story appearing in the now defunct Prelude magazine. Photographer: Noah Ocran-Caesar

Years ago, a feature article I wrote for Word magazine appeared (without my knowledge) in a novice publication called Prelude. I’d expand further on the unethical practice of reprinting a writer’s work without her permission, but the magazine folded after one issue, so I’ll save my rant.  The feature profiled Carl Cassell, an artist and restaurant owner who invented a method to creating his art. I was already irked by Prelude’s brazen lift, so imagine how I burned over the misspelling of Cassell’s name in the title.


Really. On paper there is no excuse for a journalist misspelling a name. In practice it happens all the time, much to the shame of the reporter and managing editorsIn a good look at this pervasively bad phenomenon, Mallary Jean Tenore writes in  that despite how easy it is to confirm the proper spelling of a name, “we often fail to take this extra step.”

Never assume the spelling of a name

This advice applies to bloggers, tweeters and aspiring writers. Misspell a name once and watch your credibility as a writer lose weight.  Smith might be spelled Smyth, Ford might be Forde, and Poyce might be Powys.

Credible writers – bloggers, tweeters and authors – make the effort to spell names correctly.

In our shrinking world, we’re seeing diverse ethnicities and even newly-invented names. Going that extra step to learn proper spelling is a crucial part of a reporter’s job.

I’ll be the first to admit I have made the mistake.  One time my amateur self was ready to argue all day that Siobhan is every writer’s trap, and,  “doesn’t Chivonne make more sense?”  But there’s no excuse for getting it wrong.

Journalism programs worth their salt might go as far as my now retired, Ryerson professor, Don Gibb, did.

In his newsprint reporting course, he automatically failed any assignment that did not accurately identify its subjects.  A misspelled name is inaccurate. Might seem harsh, but the A-chasers checked and checked again.

Don’t just do a Google search. Websites can easily follow the wrong leader

  • Ask your interview subject for a business card. When it’s time for spell check, refer to it.
  • While recording, ask your subject to spell his/her name. Now you’ve got it on record.
  • Look up a name in Check multiple sources for the right spelling.
  • When in doubt, call your subject by phone.  Confirm by spelling it back aloud.

Remember, when checking with your source, “s” can sound like “f” and “t” sounds like “b,c,d,e, g,” etc. over the phone and in a recording.  You might come off as anal at the time, but try saying the phonetic alphabet to be sure. For going to that level of detail, you’ll be appreciated and respected.

What misspelled name  have you seen recently?  Where? And were you the culprit?

Penned by Saada STYLO © 2012:  S as in Sierra, A as in Alpha, A as in Alpha, D as in Delta, and A as in alpha.


2 thoughts on “Aspiring journalist? Be anal about name spelling

  1. All very true, although some mistakes derive from the unconcious assumption that one has seen the name in print when one has only heard it. One good antidote to this tendency of getting names wrong might be if people introducing speakers in panels and conferences would spell the name. This is rarely done, but also leads to the assumption it is spelled as heard.

    But the writer should always check names, as you say.

  2. You raise a good point about assumption, Anthony. Thank you for that. When I was in J-school, I wrote filmmaker Atom Egoyan’s name as I heard it. Big, embarrassing mistake. My unconscious assumption had me not even considering I could be wrong. Today, when adding a name to my copy, I mark, “(SP?) next to it. It’s my reminder not to assume and to confirm accordingly.

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