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  • Writer's pictureDevon Noel Lee

Stop Repeating Your Ancestor's Names in Family Histories

If you want to be a family history writer, sometimes you need to learn techniques found in newspaper articles.

This technique doesn’t have a name, but it is something newspaper writers and editors use instinctively. So I like to call it the “Newspaper Naming Technique.”

In short, the technique defines how you identify a person on their second reference. But it also involves identifying a person in any subsequent instance by utilizing name variations and biographical descriptors.

To help you understand this technique, look at this writing sample that doesn’t utilize this technique.

In 1940, Lewis worked at a chicken processing plant. A co-worker told Lewis that he was dating a gal called “Chicken.” Lewis didn’t believe the co-worker and said, “I’d like to meet her.”

The co-worker likely lived to regret the day he introduced Lewis to Chicken, also known as Louise.

Lewis and Louise quickly fell in love, and the co-worker soon sought a new girlfriend.

Reading this paragraph, you might think, “Where are your pronouns?”

In a previous video, I discussed not playing the pronoun game and leaving your reader confused about who you are referencing. However, I excluded the pronouns so we could discuss the newspaper naming technique.

But notice, I didn't fully identify the person on the first reference to them. Furthermore, I used the first name on the second and subsequent references.

This writing style makes your story incredibly dull.

Multiple Ways to Say a Name

The AP Style Guide and various newspapers define how they will reference a person after first using their name. In the following list, you will learn several ways to identify your ancestor by incorporating the commonly used newspaper techniques.

1. Use a Full Name

Use their full name the first time you identify the main of your family history. Then, when introducing additional family members, use their full names at the onset.

You may exclude the full name of friends, neighbors, or associations in your ancestor's story if you so desire. However, be intentional about this decision.

For example, if a genealogy FAN Club member is more family than not, you should include their full name in their introduction. On the other hand, if you mention someone equivalent to an acquaintance like the mailman, you don’t necessarily need to use their full name.

Here are some examples.

  • Lewis Sherman Brown

  • Honoré Philippe Bailly

  • Mary Louella Wood

2. Use a Given Name

Once you have used a relevant person's full name, you can then refer to them by their first given name if they prefer that name.

From the examples listed previously, notice now I can use their given names.

  • Lewis

  • Honoré

  • Mary

3. Title + Surname

Our ancestors often have many titles. Mr., Mrs., Miss, Captain, Major, Doctor, Uncle, Grandpa, and more are titles you can use to refer to persons in your story.

For instance, Mr. Brown, Grandma Wood, and Doctor Henshaw can help us know gender, relationships, and occupations at a glance.

Be careful because some of your ancestors might have titles for their given names. For instance, I researched Major James Townley and couldn't find a military service record. However, it turns out his family named this young man Major as his first name.

Do you have similar ancestors with titles as their given names?

4. Title + Given Name

Growing up in Texas (or any southern state), children often learned that you did not refer to an adult by their given name without a title. Fortunately, this technique works well when you want to show a less-formal relationship with a person.

Some examples include Ms. Penny, Sister Martha, and Uncle Wyatt.

5. Initials [+ Surname]

Sometimes our ancestors used their initials, which allows us to do so as well. I recommend this option only if you have documents referencing which initials they use. You do not always have to include a surname with initials. However, using initials and surnames provides more ways to mention an ancestor.

Here are some examples of using initials and surnames.

  • E. K. Gill

  • E. King Gill

  • E King

  • E K

6. Nickname [+ Surname]

No matter the source of a nickname, some of our ancestors had them. If they do, we can utilize them in our stories. Additionally, you do not always have to include the surname with the nickname, which gives you more naming possibilities. Here are a few examples you may encounter.

  • Bubba Jung

  • Chester the Elder

  • Mary Jane Thompson

You might be confused by the last one on the list. I have an ancestor that everyone on my side of the family knew as Mary Jane Thompson.

As it turns out, her brother called her Mary Jane when she was little because she loved wearing ‘Mary Jane’ shoes. The name stuck with family and friends. Her real name is Anne.

If you find an ancestor with such a confusing nickname, be sure to explain how they received the alias at least once in your story.

7. Surnames Only

This technique is used frequently in a variety of newspaper articles. The clearest example appears in the sports section.

Authors initially identify players by their first and last names, such as Dante Hall or Randy McGowan.

After that, the second reference typically only uses their surname, Hall or McGowan.

The technique works well with colleagues, team members, military units, fraternal groups, or similar 'bands of brothers.'

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Kick Identifiers Into Overdrive

Our ancestors are more than a name. Journalists are aware of this and frequently leverage descriptors in place of names.

Think again of sports news pieces. Perhaps you read about a football player named Dante Hall.

What position did he play?

The Dante Hall I am referencing played right back.

In many articles about Dante Hall, you will see the author switch to referencing him only by his position - right back.

"The right back carried the ball into the end zone to score the critical game wining touch down."

Notice how using descriptors of what Dante is or does can make your story more exciting and clear.

Start implementing this technique, and you will enhance your story dramatically and quickly.

Here are several examples of identifying your ancestor without using their name.

Occupation - the engineer, the plumber

"The engineer worked for Boeing in Washington State 20 years."

Position Title - director, dean, shift manager.

"The dean was well beloved by his co-workers for his organizational skills but disliked by students because he was aloof towards them."

Personality - haughty, charismatic, distraught.

"The distraught youth wanted an escape after his mother died."

Age - teenager, 32-year-old

"The 32 year-old married for the first time."

Appearance - gangly, ginger-haired, fair-skinned

"The gangly, ginger-haired girl tried to save her mangy dog from an abusive ruffian."

Relationship - cousin, neighbor, co-worker

"His neighbor sued Thomas for moving the disputed fence too far onto his property."

Apply The Newspaper Naming Technique

Notice all of the ways I referenced Lewis from the initial story.

In 1940, Lewis Sherman Brown [full name] worked at a chicken processing plant. The glasses-wearing, slender man [appearance] suspected a co-worker lied after declaring he was dating a gal called “Chicken.” The disbelieving [personality] twenty-two-year-old [age] called his friend’s [relationship] bluff by saying, “I’d like to meet her.”

Finally, his buddy [relationship] agreed to introduce Lew [given name/nickname] to a slender, 5’5” tall brunette [appearance] named Louise Eleanor Long [full name], affectionately known as Chicken [nickname].

Despite similar sounding names, Lew and Louise [given name] fell in love.

Leaving the abandoned co-worker to seek out a new girlfriend.

Do you see how much more enjoyable your story becomes when you do not always use a person’s name?

It doesn’t take much effort.

  • First, simply do a Find a Replace search on your draft.

  • Then, decide if you can afford to switch things up each time you see your ancestor's name.

Sure, you can use their given name more often than the other descriptors to ensure you have clarity in your writing. However, apply this newspaper naming technique and notice how quickly your story stops being boring.

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