John Larrysson's Column: How To Shorten A Name In English

It is common to shorten names in formal use. There are certain patterns that are followed. In English, names are written with individual names first, sometimes a middle name and ending with a surname. Family names are also called last names or surnames. For example: John Larrysson. John is the individual name. Larrysson is the surname1. The most common way to shorten a name is to skip the, less often used, middle name.

[audio 1]

When you write a person's name use the form of the name that person normally uses, even if it is non-standard. The 18th Canadian prime minister was named Martin Brian Mulroney. However he disliked the name Martin and introduced himself as Brian Mulroney. To write about Martin Mulroney would be confusing. 

As all Ming Pao readers know, Chinese names are written with the family name first. The order does not have to change when they are written in English, but less-worldly people often confuse which one is the family name. Let that be their problem and use the order you prefer.

[audio 2]

Names are often written with the middle name, or first and middle names, reduced to an initial. Examples include the famous authors Robert A. Heinlein instead of Robert Anson Heinlein and H.P. Lovecraft instead of Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

As an experiment, I once walked around several university departments reading the names on the doors to check this pattern. Most of them shorten both first and middle names to an initial. There was one major exception to the pattern. Female professors often keep their whole first name. 

Maybe gender pride makes female faculty not want to be mistaken for mere boys2. However I mentioned my observation to a professor of feminist literature, who promptly changed the name on her door plate to the usual initial. 

There are patterns to the shortening of names. Try to match them and not just chop off parts randomly. 

[audio 3]


1. Larrysson is a patronymic surname (i.e. from the father) meaning son of Larry.

2. Certainly the girls in the classes I have taught would be horrified to be mistaken for boys.

by John Larrysson [email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.


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