Editors at Work: Don’t Let Names and Titles be a Reader Stop Sign

By Jack Limpert

Use a person’s first and last name the first time he or she is mentioned. On second reference, use only last name with no title. —AP Stylebook

As with a lot of writing rules, break it if it helps the reader. I often ran into the using-names-a-second-time problem while editing long magazine articles that quoted a fair number of people. The problem for the reader came when someone was quoted a second time using only the last name but the earlier mention was 500 or 1,000 words earlier. For example:

“Anyone who let their kid do that should be arrested,” Murphy said.

Stop sign: Who is Murphy? One of the cops quoted earlier? The child psychiatrist? A neighbor?

As the reader, you either look back, trying to find the earlier mention that told you who Murphy is. Or more likely you say to hell with it and skip ahead, losing some of the story’s train of thought.

When in doubt, the editor, in the role of first reader, should help the writer by identifying Murphy (the child psychiatrist) the second time and even a third time if it makes it easier for the reader to keep reading and understanding.

Comments

  1. And, don’t quote somebody by last name only without being really really sure that person is fully identified earlier in the article.

    Last week I read a long essay in the NY Times that near the end quoted an expert by last name only. I looked back up the article, couldn’t find the guy. I copied and pasted the whole article into my word processing program.. Not there. Either the writer messed up or the full name and source of expertise got edited out.

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