How do I correct address a person with maybe two last names or maybe not
September 6, 2018 1:34 PM   Subscribe

Sending out formal letters to people I don't know with names like Charles Nutter Butter, no hyphenation. Is it: Mr. Butter? Mr. Nutter Butter? Mr. Charles Nutter Butter?

AKA do I assume that the Nutter is a middle name even though who has a middle name like that. THANK YOU
posted by angrycat to Writing & Language (18 answers total)
Is Charles on Linkedin or facebook? Go snoop. Sure, the name on the profile will probably say "Charles Nutter Butter" and not help you at all, but if he's personalized the URL you might luck out and find something like charlesnbutter or cnbutter or cnutterbutter that could guide you.
posted by phunniemee at 1:38 PM on September 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

Do not perform unnecessary labor on behalf of people who eschew hyphens for stylistic purposes. You should confidently assume their last name is "Butter."
posted by prize bull octorok at 1:40 PM on September 6, 2018 [11 favorites]

"Dear Sir"?
posted by scolbath at 1:43 PM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

I run into this a lot with people in Mexico who traditionally can carry several family names. When in doubt I go with the last one.
posted by bitdamaged at 1:51 PM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Definitely google the name first, then second you could try asking anyone who knows them unless that would be weird. If all else fails, I don't see how you'd be penalized for referring to them as "Mr. Butter" given the lack of a hyphen.
posted by belau at 1:51 PM on September 6, 2018

Call people what they want to be called. There is no way Mr. Charles Nutter Butter would be inappropriate.
posted by sageleaf at 1:58 PM on September 6, 2018 [5 favorites]

I have friends that have combined their two surnames to make a double barrelled surname for their kids, without a hyphen.

They now regret the lack of hyphen as people generally assume the last half of the surname is the surname and ignore the first half.

Given most people take this route and the lack of hyphen is their doing and not anyone else's, you too can probably run with last name equals surname and even if it's wrong they'll at least be used to it.
posted by deadwax at 2:05 PM on September 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

For a formal letter, when it's not possible/appropriate to ask, use the full name, i.e. Dear Mr Charles Nutter Butter. Ignore any other advice. You don't want to get someone's name wrong on a formal letter. Their full name is not wrong.

I have a name like this. I don't "eschew hyphens for stylistic purposes" any more than a "John" spells his name with an "h". I eschew hyphens because it's my name. Here's how I'd rank the various ways people address me:
  1. Charles, or Mr Nutter Butter, i.e. guess correctly!
  2. ask me
  3. Mr Butter (This is the guess I'm advising you to make in general. In my case it's wrong, but it's the sin of omission)
  4. Charles Nutter (This is also wrong, but it's the sin of commission, which is worse than the sin of omission)
Upshot being, if you're unable to ask, go with the assumption that Charles is the first name, and Butter is the last name, and simply ignore the middle word. You'll either be right, or not make the worst possible mistake.

posted by caek at 2:13 PM on September 6, 2018 [14 favorites]

I run into this a lot with people in Mexico who traditionally can carry several family names. When in doubt I go with the last one.

For most people in Mexico, this would be wrong — in Spanish naming conventions, your first surname is the primary one. Andrés Manuel López Obrador is Mr. López or Mr. López Obrador, not Mr. Obrador. Only in rare cases is a Spanish-speaking person known by their second surname.

Which means, in answer to the OP's question, that it depends on where the person is from, and without knowing that you can't really be sure. Follow caek's advice and use their full name if you want a 100% safe option.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:22 PM on September 6, 2018 [23 favorites]

I feel like there's some unnecessary shade being cast in some answers. There are multiple cultures where multiple last names or surnames without hyphen are a thing (Latino/Hispanic culture has already been mentioned), as well as multiple reasons in U.S. culture why one might have more than one surname or regularly use both a middle name and a surname (e.g., a woman who uses her full married name with former last name as middle name, Jane OldSurnameasMiddle NewSurname, or a scholar with important family ties, John ImportantFamilyNameasMiddle Surname). Multiple first names and first names that derive from family names (e.g., Madison Grace Cooper or Ava Grace Cooper) are also increasingly common. So this isn't just people being precious or an affectation. That's how many people choose to identify themselves, and it has cultural and family meaning to them. Then there are practical considerations. How much effort you put into following up really to me would depend on the formality of this and how many names we're talking about here.

As someone journalist-adjacent, I'm definitely not with the camp that says this is too much work, unless perhaps you have a huge list of names to do this with and every single name is only represented with a single field in a spreadsheet or something (perhaps there's only a Name column, not First Name and Last Name columns).

If you have a reasonably small list of names, look them up—use LinkedIn, Facebook, real-estate or personal-property databases, etc., and find a way to confirm them. If it's not something that's secret before the person receives the letter and isn't too politically sensitive, call or email them and ask for confirmation. You can say it's for a listing or "We want to make sure it's correct for our database." That was always my go-to reason when I was fact-checking something and couldn't share exactly what someone might have been listed in.
posted by limeonaire at 2:28 PM on September 6, 2018 [10 favorites]

Count me as another vote saying: when in doubt use all the names for formal correspondence; you literally can’t be wronge or improper in that case, to my knowledge.

Also: the idea that you would personally ask each person is laughable in my experience, YMMV.
posted by SaltySalticid at 2:29 PM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm a gonna go with all the names. Thanks all!
posted by angrycat at 2:33 PM on September 6, 2018 [6 favorites]

I was once a Nutter Butter and preferred to be called Nutter Butter, though I wouldn't have been bent out of shape to be called Mrs. Butter, either, if that anecdata helps at all.
posted by all the light we cannot see at 2:45 PM on September 6, 2018

I have a name like this.

Sorry I came across flippantly, no offense intended! My experience has been that surname-sounding middle names usually are just middle names, that was my point.
posted by prize bull octorok at 3:06 PM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

do I assume that the Nutter is a middle name even though who has a middle name like that

Generally it's best to assume people's middle names are their middle names and not make fun of them for a name that they likely didn't even pick out themselves.

The most likely reason someone doesn't have a hyphen in their name is that their name has never had a hyphen in it, not that they have changed their name by removing the hyphen.

Generally, in the US, first names are first, the middle name is in the middle, last name is last. Other countries occasionally vary.
posted by yohko at 5:08 PM on September 6, 2018 [2 favorites]

Different cultures arranges surname/family names and given name differently. Some individuals may re-arrange their names differently in different scenarios too. Some surnames have multiple words, while some given-names also have multiple words. I concur with your decision: go with all the names.
posted by applesurf at 6:00 PM on September 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

Naming conventions vary horrifically, as previous answers indicate, across cultures. Family names may be first (most of East Asia and Hungary). Personal names may include a patronymic (some Slavic and Scandinavian countries). A family name may include both a maternal and paternal surname neither of which are optional and which are not hyphenated (parts of Latin America). And then there are people like Teller or U Thant or El Greco whose most commonly used names don't fit into a personal/family structure at all.

Unless you have a "family name" field in your data file on someone, addressing them by their full name and/or asking them is the safest thing to do with any name which is not unambiguously a personal name and a family name.
posted by jackbishop at 8:09 PM on September 6, 2018

I have a name like that. Nthing full name or ask them!
posted by peacheater at 2:57 AM on September 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

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