8 Rules for Properly Recording Names in Genealogy

Family history
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When recording your genealogical data in charts, there are a few conventions to follow concerning names, dates, and places. While genealogy software programs and online family tree hubs usually have their own rules for entering names and formatting a tree—some may have specific fields for nicknames, alternate names, suffixes, maiden names, and more—many practices are standard.

This list gives the most common and basic rules for how to record names in genealogy. By following these simple rules, you can ensure that your genealogical data is clear and complete enough that it will not be misinterpreted by others.

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Record Names in Their Natural Order

Record names in their natural order—first, middle, last (surname). Using full names whenever possible makes lineage easier to trace. If a middle name is unknown, you may use an initial if you have one. Names should be written just as they would appear on a birth certificate or spoken aloud upon introduction, no commas necessary.

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Record Surnames in All Capital Letters

Most genealogists print surnames in all capital letters. This is technically a matter of preference and not correctness, but it is recommended either way. Capitalized last names provide easy scanning on pedigree charts, family group sheets, or published books and helps to distinguish the surname from the first and middle names. Ethan Luke JAMES makes reading a tree more simple than Ethan Luke James.

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Use Maiden Names for Women

Always enter a woman's maiden name (surname at birth) in parentheses if you have it. You may choose to either include or leave out a husband's surname, just make sure that you are consistent. When you do not know a female's maiden name, insert her first and middle name on the chart followed by empty parentheses (). For example, to record Mary Elizabeth, whose maiden name is unknown and who is married to John DEMPSEY, write Mary Elizabeth () or Mary Elizabeth () DEMPSEY.

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Record All Previous Names

In the event that a woman has had more than one husband, enter her first and middle name then her maiden name in parentheses, just as you normally would. You should then record the surnames of any previous husbands in the order of marriage. For a woman named Mary (middle name unknown) CARTER at birth who was married first to Jackson SMITH and then married William LANGLEY, record her name as follows: Mary (Carter) SMITH LANGLEY.

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Include Nicknames

If you know of a nickname that was commonly used for an ancestor, include it in quotes after the first given name. Do not use it in place of a given name and do not enclose it in parentheses. Parentheses between a given name and surname are usually only used to enclose maiden names and using them also for nicknames would cause confusion. If the nickname is a common one (i.e. Kim for Kimberly) it is not necessary to record it because only more unique nicknames need to be noted. If a woman named Rachel was often called Shelly, write her name as Rachel "Shelley" Lynn BROOK.

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Include Alternate Names

If a person is known by more than one name, perhaps due to adoption or a non-marital name change, include all alternate names in parentheses after the surname. Clarify this with an "a.k.a.", also known as, before the full alternate name so that anyone reading your chart understands that the following is an alternate name. An example of this would be William Tom LAKE (a.k.a. William Tom FRENCH). Note that the full alternate name must be recorded even when parts of the name are the same.

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Include Alternate Spellings of Names

Include alternate spellings when your ancestor's surname has changed the spelling of their over time. Possible reasons for tweaking a last name include illiteracy and name change upon immigration. It is often the case that ancestors who could not read or write spelled their last name phonetically (e.g. by sound), and this resulted in small changes between generations. Record the earliest usage of a surname first, followed by all later usages known. For example, write Michael Andrew HAIR/HIERS/HARES.

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Make Note of Peculiarities

Always write notes or use a notes field as needed when recording your family tree. Anything peculiar or potentially confusing should be explained in your record for clarity. For example, if you have a female ancestor whose birth name happened to be the same as her husband's surname, briefly note why you have entered the same last name twice for her. Otherwise, people may assume that you have made a mistake and misunderstand. 

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Powell, Kimberly. "8 Rules for Properly Recording Names in Genealogy." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/properly-record-names-in-genealogy-4083357. Powell, Kimberly. (2020, August 27). 8 Rules for Properly Recording Names in Genealogy. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/properly-record-names-in-genealogy-4083357 Powell, Kimberly. "8 Rules for Properly Recording Names in Genealogy." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/properly-record-names-in-genealogy-4083357 (accessed May 27, 2023).