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Using Name Standardization in Genealogy Research

Using Name Standardization in Genealogy Research

This is the last installment of a three-part series. So far we have covered Dates and Locations and now we will tackle documenting personal names.

I saved this one for last because dates and locations are pretty straightforward but names can get complicated. There is no way I can cover every name issue you will run across so I encourage you to followup with the listed resource at the bottom of the page or seek out additional articles. First some general rules:

  • If you don't know a person's given name, leave it blank
  • Descriptors don't go in a given name field (infant, baby girl, child)
  • If all you have are initials for the given name there is a space between them. You record B. J. not B.J. UNLESS the person's name is just B J then no periods. You would only do this if the person was named B J at birth with those letters not standing in for anything
  • If there is a single initial it is followed by a period UNLESS the initial is the person's full given name
  • If I don't know a person's surname I enter [—?—] because that is a standard in published genealogy articles (the dashes are em dashes that you can make using the Windows shortcut ALT 0151)
  • You always record a woman using her maiden name. If you don't know her maiden then then you will record [—?—]
  • Record surnames in mixed case (Simmons) and not in all caps (SIMMONS). All caps were the standard years ago when books did not have indexes. It allowed you to scan a page just for surnames. In formal reports using the Register or Modified Register (NGSQ) numbering systems you will see some names in small caps. It helps the names stand out from the text. In a genealogy database program you will just enter mixed case
  • You do not generate AKAs unless you actually have a document that records that name 
  • Nicknames can be recorded like this, William "Bill" Perry Simmons to alert people that he was known as Bill

There are four common issues you will see with surnames; Patronymics, French-Canadian "dit" names, Asian names that are recorded in reverse, and Spanish names where two surnames are recorded (a form of patronymics).


Patronymics is a naming system where the surname changes with each generation by adding a prefix/suffix meaning "son of" or "daughter of." Many countries used this naming pattern though the exact pattern is different from country to country. You will enter the names correctly even though it will look like the children have different surnames. For example, a Danish father named Niels Hansen will have sons with the surname Nielsen (son of Niels) and his daughters will have the surname Nielsdatter (daughter of Niels). The FamilySearch Wiki has separate pages for each country that uses a patronymic naming system. If you would like more information, search for the word "patronymic" to get a list. 

Dit Names

French-Canadian dit names were used to differentiate people in the same community that had the same surname. It is basically an AKA that the person went by. You will enter the full surname plus the dit name in the surname field. For example, Rémy Thibault dit Charlevoix. You would enter Thibault dit Charlevoix in the surname field. Here is more information about Dit Names.

Some Asian Names

Some Asian countries put the surname first. I would use the given name field for the surname and the surname field for the given name so that any time you print, their name will appear as it would be said. In this case I feel it is a matter of respect. I wouldn't like my name printed everywhere as Simmons Michele. This means all of your children will have the same "given" name on the screen and different "surnames" but as long as you understand what is going on it will be fine. Chen Kenichi is a famous "Iron Chef." His surname is Chen. His father's name was Chen Kenmin.

Spanish Language Countries

In many Spanish counties people have two surnames, one from their father and one from their mother. When a woman marries, she will drop one of her surnames and add one of the husband's, usually with the word "de" between them. This really isn't so strange when you consider in the US we have a naming system where the wife drops her maiden name and takes on the husband's surname. For more information, see Traditional Hispanic Last Names and Spanish Naming Customs. I do not change the wife's name of record but rather put it as an AKA. Children will pick up a surname from their father and one from their mother to create a new double surname. I do record the children's surname correctly (they will all have the same double surname). Both surnames will go in the surname field. For example, María Ivanna Hernández Peña. Hernández Peña would go in the surname field.  Hernández is María's father's first surname and Peña is her mother's first surname. Some Spanish/Hispanic countries also practiced true patronymics (son of and daughter of).  For an example of this, read the first entry under the surnames heading in this essay on names in Mexico. 

I tried to cover the most common things you will encounter but there are many other things to consider with names, such as prefixes, suffixes, titles and peerage, farm names, clan names, tribal names, etc. There is just too much for one article but I hope you have enough information to enter most of the names you will come across.



Slawson, Mary H. Getting It Right, The Definitive Guide to Recording Family History Accurately. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Malloy Lithographing Incorporated, 2002.

Though I don't agree with everything in the book, Mary has done a good job addressing some of the unusual situations you will come across. The book does needs to be updated but it still presents solid information.


Michele Simmons Lewis, CG® is part of the Legacy Family Tree team at MyHeritage. She handles the enhancement suggestions that come in from our users as well as writing for Legacy News. You can usually find her hanging out on the Legacy User Group Facebook page answering questions and posting tips.


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A BIG name problem I have is all the spelling variations. My Berkebile (Berkepile, Berkeypile, Berkeybile, Berkebiel, etc.) family is a good example. Through a person's lifetime the name may be spelled many different ways. The parents and siblings also use multiple spelling variations. What is the main database name and what is an AKA. Some name variations for a person may be used only in one record. Any suggestions would be welcome.

Michele -

Thank you very much for an excellent series. It appears I am doing well and hopefully everyone else is as well. The only problem may be that you are preaching to the choir here. Thank you again.

At some point you are going to have to decide what you think the spelling actually was for that family group. Everything else goes in as an AKA. If you get more information down the line you can always swap out the names. This is actually a very common occurance. Sometimes the spellings are way off and it makes it a little bit easier. However, sometimes it is only a letter change. For example, in my husbands family you have Blackston and Blackstone. Part of the family spells their name with an E and part of the family doesn’t but those lines are all linked together. I have documents where the family members actually wrote their names themselves so I can see that it isn’t a mistake on the part of any document preparer. Over time I was able to narrow down who the person was that changed the name.

Thank you for the wonderful article. In the examples for unknown surname or maiden name, I'm assuming the brackets are NOT included, so the input would be —?— not [—?—], is that correct?

Thank you for verifying! (I hate assuming! Too many errors as it is :) )

Chris, I agree with most of your comments but I think that I am part of the choir and I picked up a few things that I wasn't aware of.


You may have addressed this before, but... What is the accepted method of recording the name Humphrey de Vielles or Joan of Arce?

I have seen the 'de Vielles' in the surname field and also in the title suffex field.

What's the accepted method?


The brackets ARE included. Any time a person adds something that isn't really there (explanatory notes, for example) you put them in square brackets.

When the suffix has actually been incorporated as part of the surname then it goes in the surname field. When you are talking about people before surnames (Joan of Arc) you will add the "of Arc" as a suffix because that isn't her surname.

I tried to input these unknown Given or Surnames into Legacy and afterwards, the warning says to just leave it blank and not to use ? or special characters.....? Perhaps this doesn't apply to Legacy...? Or perhaps you just enter it that way anyway?

Thanks much for your information...

Here is the information you need to that you don't get a Potential Problem.


Thank you for the information. I wanted to let you know the links don't work for Locations and Dates at the beginning of the article.

A common practice I have read and use myself for an unknown name is NN for the Latin nomen nescio.

I use NN for either the given name or the family name if one or the other is not known or a single NN if no part of the name is known.

Also, for names where multiple versions of the name are found, I attempt to use the earliest rendering of the name as the base name with all other variations being alternate names.

When there is a difference between the earliest civil record and the earliest religious or family record, I opt for the earliest religious of family-endorsed record as the base name.

I have fixed the links. Sometimes when the articles posts it knocks off the http: part of the URL for links. I haven't figured out why it does that.

The only problem you will have is if your readers don't know what NN means. Either way, just make sure that you use this term consistently. Legacy has a really nifty tool in the Publishing Center where you can add a page of Abbreviations so that your readers will know exactly what you mean.

Excellent articles.. Thanks much!

In Brazil two surnames are used and the mother's surname comes first, then the father's. Confusing when one has both Brazilian and Spanish members of the family.

I love how the Spanish do their surnames! (I guess Brazil does this too).

The Dutch present an interesting problem. My gr-grandfather was Yzack [Isaac] van den Bergh and was born in the Netherlands. Once they came to America the surname spelling became Vandenbergh instead of van den Bergh.

van den Bergh would be his birth same and Vandenbergh would be an AKA. If he had children after his immigration they will have the Vandenbergh surname as their primary name which is perfectly okay because you would have explained the name change in an event or in the notes.

Most of the things presented here make sense, but I have a question about the first two. If you follow those, how do you differentiate between cases where the first name is not known (i.e. you find a source stating that Margaret is the third daughter of John and Mary, but you don't know the names of the first two) vs when there is no first name (i.e. a child who died at birth and was never given a name). In the first case there is a name, but you just haven't found it, but in the second case there will never be a name to be found

Thank you for presenting an excellent article that helped me with a couple of naming convention issues. Another one to add to the list - Catholics (and maybe other religions) have a specific naming convention in baptism registries using Marie (or Mary) as the first name for females and Joseph as the first name of males followed by a middle name, then lastly, the actual first name of the person. For example, Marie Louise Jane Smith in a baptism registry is actually Jane Louise Marie Smith. For the male version - Joseph Mark John Smith is actually John Mark Joseph Smith.

Regarding this line:
"If I don't know a person's surname I enter [—?—] because that is a standard in published genealogy articles"

I use a similar format but use F or M or U or L vs. the "?" to help identify if first name is a person of Female, Male, or Unknown gender. And I use L to identify Last name. If starting today I would probably use S fur Surname instead of L.

Missing name for an unknown wife or daughter is [-F-] [-L-].
Missing name for an unknown husband or son is [-M-] [-L-].
Missing name for a child or spouse is [-U-] [-L-] if gender was unknown.
The U is changed to M/F once the gender is identified.

I have also used a number after F/M/U to designate the number of children not yet identified. If I know there are two boys and one girl I show [-F1-] [-L-], [-M2-] [-L-], [-M3-] [-L-].

As information is received I change the order of the numbers to reflect the probable birth order, using known siblings when assigning order. So [-U3-] [Anderson] represents a single unknown gender third child in the Anderson family, but I already have the info on siblings 1, 2, and 4.

You can certainly do this but it is non standard. If you send your file to someone else (or a report) or you upload to a website chances are people are not going to understand your system.

In genealogical reports the given name would just be left blank. The context will tell you male or female (daughter, son). HOWEVER there is a nifty trick that you can do in Legacy to add little notes to yourself that won't export in a report or in a gedcom. Other genealogy programs might have similar capabilities.

In Legacy you can put anything in double brackets [[ ]] (privacy brackets). For example, in the given name field you could put

[[died at birth, not named]]
[[2nd daughter of John and Mary, unknown name]]

etc. These are private notes just for you. HOWEVER if you think this information is pertinent to your readers you would instead records it in the NOTES.

"Daughter Margaret was named in the family Bible but there were two older siblings not listed that are assumed to have died at birth or shortly thereafter without having been named. At the Appling Cemetery there are two markers, for "Infant daughter of John and Mary Doe, 04 Aug 1850" and "Infant daughter of John and Mary Doe, 16 July 1852."

What does one do when the birth certificate says George John xxxxx and the baby went home and was called Americao Thomas xxxxx his whole life, even on to death? Four of the eight babies in this family had this happen...... thanks.

One thing I would do is look for an amended birth certificate in case the parents made it official. I would record the name on the birth certificate as the name of record and then a name change event. Very interesting that this happened to multiple children in this family.

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