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Overheard in GenForum: How to Enter Surnames with Different Spellings
by Rhonda R. McClure

Each week Rhonda answers a question from the GenForum message boards and gives her expert answer here. We'd love to hear anything you have to add. Go ahead and leave your comments on GenForum with the original message.

December 06, 2001
See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Q: I would like to know the proper way to enter surnames with multiple spellings. For example, take the name May which has two spellings. In the surname line of my genealogy program do I put May/Mey? Or do I put May(Mey)? Or do I only put May in the surname field and make a note that it is also spelled Mey in the note field? Would appreciate any advise. -- Ed

A: Before computers, this was never the big question that is has become of late. Before computers people did what they wanted to and didn't worry about a proper way to record surnames. Computers have brought with them some considerations when entering surnames into the family history database.

As such, we now have to stop and think about what we may be doing with our database. Often, deciding what the focus of the research is will have the most profound effect on name entry. So before you come up with a method, etched in stone, you may want to decide what you are recording the names in the database for.

Recording surname spelling depends on what you plan to do.

Understanding Computers

As genealogists, we are often used to doing things a certain way. When you add computers to the mix though, you sometimes have to alter how you do things or at the very least reconsider what will work the best. This is never more true than when it comes to spelling, especially surnames.

Computers are literal. We often joke that we are waiting for the computer that has a "DWIM" key (a Do What I Mean key), the fact is that the computer will do exactly what you tell it to do. Sometimes that turns out to be what we wanted, but more often than not it doesn't. When it doesn't we can usually trace the frustration back to how we entered the information we are now searching for.

Because computers are literal, if I tell the computer to search for Smith, then it will search only for that spelling. If I have entered people with the spelling of Smyth they will be ignored. In search engines online, this is often gotten around through the use of wild cards, but such an option is usually not available when running a search of your family history database.

If you suspect that you will be doing a lot of searching on surnames, then you will want to keep this computer limitation in mind and enter surnames accordingly. If your database is more for the printing of reports, then you may not need to worry about this computer limitation.

Two Schools of Thought

The computer aside, there are two schools of thought on surnames. One school leans toward being consistent in the spelling of a surname regardless of how it is spelled in the records where you find the individual. The other school of thought suggests that you should record the surnames as you find them in the records.

The thinking to those who want consistency is that you can show the relationships as well as be able to effectively search the database on your computer. Of course, as we have discovered in researching our family history, spelling doesn't count. The way these people get around this is to have a list of variant spellings they need to check when researching, but when they record the name in their database or on a given family group sheet or pedigree chart, they adhere to a standard spelling.

The other school of thought stems from trying to be as accurate as possible in the recording of the information. Spellings change, surnames are Anglicized, prefixes are dropped and more. By recording the spelling as it is found, they can see how the surname may have changed over a period of time, especially useful when working on immigrants.

The downside to this is what spelling do you take? In some research you may find a person's surname spelled three or four different ways in three or four different records. My rule of thumb here is to go with the spelling as I find it in the record closest to the birth of the individual. This may result in my changing the spelling in my database as my research progresses, especially if I am tracing a line back to the old country where the surname is now in the original language.

I prefer to record the surnames as I find them, just as I record given names as I find them. For instance if the census record, the first record I have of a person lists her name as Minnie, then she gets entered as Minnie. However, subsequent research may reveal that her birth name is Minerva. As I find records to support this then I will change the name. But I do not assume anything until I have a record to support the change.

Always Spelled That Way

From a computer standpoint, a consistent spelling seems the way to go to guarantee that you do find everyone in your database with the given surname. However, it also gives credence to the old myth that "our family always spelled the name this way." This is not true. Up until the 20th century, spelling was not a big deal. The name was spelled however the clerk recording it felt like spelling it. Ignoring people with a variant spelling is a dangerous habit to get into, and one that is avoided if you are recording the spelling of a surname as it appears in the record at hand.

If you do elect to keep a consistent spelling, you will want to be sure to have a list of variant spellings handy. Some researchers add it as a note for the person in their database. This is certainly an option and then you can decide whether or not to print out the variant spelling list when you are generating reports that you work from or share with others.

If you elect to go with the different spellings, you will need to remember to search for all variant spellings if you are running any kind of searches in your database to generate a report of some kind based on surname. This can be frustrating, and to many not worth the effort.

In Conclusion

In the end, you need to decide whether to make things easier in the computer or adhere to the premise that your data is completely supported by documentation. If the latter, then you will have many variant spellings for the surname based on the records found. If the former, you will have an easier time searching your database, but the resulting reports are a little misleading because they do not let other researchers know of the alternate spellings you have come across.

See Rhonda's Previous Columns

Rhonda R. McClure is a professional genealogist specializing in celebrity trees and computerized genealogy. She has been involved in online genealogy for fifteen years. She is the author of the award-winning The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Genealogy, now in its second edition. She is the author of four how-to guides on Family Tree Maker. In late 2001, she wrote The Genealogist's Computer Companion. She is a contributing editor to Biography Magazine with her "Celebrity Roots" column and a contributing writer to The History Channel Magazine. Her latest book is Finding Your Famous and Infamous Ancestors. She may be contacted at

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