Letter to the Editor – Using First Names

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Dear Editor,

May I call you Brandon? Not really, but I’m trying to make a point here. While I enjoy reading your news reporting, and now your editorials, one feature of your writing style does annoy me. It’s the use of people’s first names.

Reading your editorial in the December 8 issue of the NG Times put a fine point on the discordance I feel with this style. In one sentence you describe K.-L. Wilson’s writing as “despicable”. A few sentences later, you refer to her as “Kerry-Lynne”. I’m feeling the whiplash. You and she are on a first-name basis?

Addressing someone by their first name is usually done in informal settings, or when two people know each other well. I strongly suspect that neither applies to the editorial published on December 8.

There are good reasons for using last names rather than first names in formal writing. First names suggest a state of familiarity, which I’m quite sure doesn’t exist between you and K.-L. Wilson; and a familiarity that you probably don’t have with most of the people referenced by their first name in your writings in the NG Times.

Furthermore, this appearance of familiarity may be interpreted by readers as indicating bias — you are on first-name basis with this person, so you must be on their side of whatever issue is being reported on.

At the receiving end of this familiarity, some people (and count me among them) would find it patronizing or even disrespectful. If my name were to appear in your writing, I would expect to be referred to as Maria Koller-Jones, or M. Koller-Jones, or simply as Koller-Jones throughout. Referring to me as Maria conveys an assumption that you and I are on a first-name basis, which is not so. Using a last name conveys respect and a social distance that is appropriate to the reporter-subject dynamic.

Using last names, also avoids falling into the trap of treating people differently depending on their station in life. At what position in the hierarchy would you choose to not use first names in your writing? Would Minister Clark be Steve? Would Premier Ford be Doug? Would Prime Minister Trudeau be Justin? Would President Biden be Joe? Would King Charles be Charles? I’d like to think that an office janitor and a company CEO would be addressed the same way in formal writing.

Also, first names are rarely that rare, raising the problem of distinguishing which John or Susan you’re referring to, especially when you are reporting on meetings where many voices are included in the reporting.

Hopefully, such a dilemma would not result in omissions or bias in the ensuing article, as one could be tempted to include the input of only one of the Johns or one of the Susans. With last names, and with the option of including an initial in front, this is extremely unlikely to be an issue.

For reasons of simplicity, to more accurately reflect the true nature of your relationship with the other person, and because it has been the norm in formal writing for centuries, I ask you to please consider using last names instead of first names. This feedback is offered because I am a firm believer in life-long learning and growth, and for no other purpose.

Sincerely,

Koller-Jones,  Sc., D.V.M.

 

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