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 unacceptable practice of reprinting a writer’s work without her permission, but the magazine folded after one issue so I’ll save that 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 their misspelling of Cassell’s name in the article’s heading.
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 editors. In a good look at this pervasively bad phenomenon, Mallary Jean Tenore writes in Poynter.org that despite how easy it is to confirm the proper spelling of a name, “we often fail to take this extra step.”
Never assume you know. Instead, assume the opposite.
This advice applies to bloggers, tweeters and anyone else writing for an audience. 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.
In our shrinking world, we’re meeting people from diverse ethnicities and we come across unfamiliar names. Going that extra step to learn the correct spelling is non-negotiable if you’re attempting to identify someone in writing.
I must admit I have made the mistake. One time, influenced by my amateur sensibilities, I was ready to argue all day that Siobhan is every writer’s trap, and, “doesn’t Chivonne make more sense?” There’s just no excuse for getting it wrong.
Journalism programs worth their salt might go as far as my former Ryerson professor, Don Gibb.
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 checking, refer to it.
- Ask to spell their names during your interview. Now you’ve got it on record.
- Google it but also check multiple sources for the right spelling.
- When in doubt, call your subject by phone. Confirm by spelling their name back to them aloud.
Remember, when checking with your source “s” can sound like “f” and “t” sounds like “b,c,d,e, g,” etc. You might come off as anal but try saying the phonetic alphabet to be sure. For going to that level of detail, you’ll be appreciated and respected. More importantly, you’ll be right.
Ever spell someone’s name wrong in writing you shared? What were you thinking at the time you made the mistake? What happened?
Saada STYLO © 2012: S as in Sierra, A as in Alpha, A as in Alpha, D as in Delta, and A as in alpha.