Research on referring to others by fullname or part of name
November 17, 2022 6:14 AM   Subscribe

Sometimes in conversation, people tend to refer to other people (not in the conversation) by full name, every time. Like saying "Ted Danson" several times instead of switching to "Ted" or "Danson". But sometimes we don't, e.g., "Biden". Is there research about patterns in who does this, which names get truncated vs. not, etc.? I have intuitions but would want to double-check. Would this be a linguistics thing, maybe interdisciplinary with sociology?
posted by brainwane to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
As a non-native English speaker i love this question and will read replies with great interest. It would also be interesting i think how this differs in the various English speaking countries.
posted by 15L06 at 7:27 AM on November 17, 2022

One might call it the “Liz Lemon effect”.
posted by LizardBreath at 7:28 AM on November 17, 2022

I'd say, it depends on many things (and there are no hard and fast rules), including:
-- Is the person personally known to the people in the conversation? In that case, there would be a natural switch to first name references, like "Ted."
-- If the person is not personally known to the group, and is a prominent person ("Biden," "Trump," etc.) there is usually a quick switch to surnames, or not even a first name in the first reference. But, quite often the use of the full name is helpful in adding emphasis to a statement: "Elon Musk always shoots from the hip."
-- Sometimes it depends on the length and complexity of the name: "Elon Musk shoots from the hip" is easy; "Catherine Zeta-Jones is, apparently, a very shy person" is harder; it would be fine on first introducing her as a subject into the conversation, but after that, "Zeta-Jones" would be more natural.
-- Some celebrities are just better known as their first name: "Bernie" is how most people (at least up here in Vermont) refer to Sen. Bernard Sanders. Nobody says Bernard, and very few say Sanders or Sen. Sanders.
-- Sometimes, a speaker in a conversation will use the first name of a prominent person in order to imply familiarity or friendship with them, whether or not they have it.

I think it is more sociology and psychology than liguistics.

Perhaps others can add more circumstances that would produce a lean toward first name, surname, or full name.
posted by beagle at 7:36 AM on November 17, 2022 [4 favorites]

Sort of OT, but journalists are used to second reference for a person. The NYT called Meat Loaf “ Mr Loaf” in the second paragraph.
IRL, most people don’t assume formal protocols like titles, except for Queen Elizabeth or Prince Charles, but it’s not likely any everyday person chatting at a party talking about Meghan Markle as “ The Duchess of Sussex.”
posted by Ideefixe at 7:42 AM on November 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

There’s also an age effect. For me and my friends, anyone we know from elementary gets a full name (Kevin Peters) but by high school, it’ll switch to just first names (plus a identifier if necessary like ‘Eastern Passage Kevin’).
posted by hydrobatidae at 7:46 AM on November 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

I think this is a thing that happens with short names/one that tends to just roll off the tongue. I have a long first and last name and nobody ever would call me by the full one. However, I used to know a lady at work who was (I'm making up a fake name, it didn't rhyme IRL) something like "Jenny Penny" and NOBODY ever just called her Jenny. It was always "Jenny Penny." Then again, I note that if you have a name like Jennifer, we need to come up with ways to ID you among all the other Jennifer's.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:31 AM on November 17, 2022 [1 favorite]

If the first name is common, I'm more likely to add their surname when talking about people I know.
posted by aniola at 8:39 AM on November 17, 2022 [2 favorites]

Whoops, I see now that you are looking for research, not speculation.
posted by aniola at 8:44 AM on November 17, 2022

Best answer: Would this be a linguistics thing, maybe interdisciplinary with sociology?

Sociolinguistics is a huge subfield of linguistics, as is pragmatics, and there's been a lot of work done on name usage conventions. Hopefully someone who actually knows something about this will be along (I think there are a few sociolinguists on Metafilter), but in the meantime taking a look at some research papers might help you narrow down some relevant search terms and researchers. I think you might also be able to send a question to Language Log and see what people there have to say (the posters are (generally?) linguists, the audience seems to be a mix of linguists and non-linguists).
posted by trig at 9:38 AM on November 17, 2022

Response by poster: Thank you, trig, particularly for confirming that this is, in fact, a sociolinguistics question. A Google Scholar search demonstrated that:
  • This sort of thing is literally discussed as the first example in An Introduction to Sociolinguistics by Janet Holmes, in Chapter One, "What Do Sociolinguists Study?"
  • A Sociolinguistics Studies study from 2012 on "When ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam’ Are Not: Address Terms and Reference Terms Students Use for Faculty in a Ghanaian University" (Doi : 10.1558/sols.v6i3.491) gives me the useful phrase "reference term":
    An address term is seen as a linguistic expression used by interactants to designate each other in a one-on-one dyadic relationship (Oyetade, 1995). It is thus used in the presence of the interactants, though this need not be face-to-face, given the availability of technology in the form of telephone, facsimile, or the internet. A reference term, on the other hand, is used to designate a human referent who is either present or not in a communicative encounter; it is usually nominative, rather than vocative. According to Dickey (1997), the linguistic item used to talk about a person in his/her absence (that is, reference term) is not always the same as the one used to address him/her in a one-on-one encounter (that is, address term). Several studies on naming practices in the sociolinguistics literature have focused on the following: a) either address terms (e.g. Brown & Ford, 1961) or reference terms (e.g. Egblewogbe, 1987; Hatakami, 1997) and b) both reference terms and address terms (e.g. Dickey, 1997). The present study belongs to the latter group.
  • "Dickey, 1997" -- referred to as the basic citation here and in at least one other paper I quickly found -- is Eleanor Dickey. 1997. Forms of address and terms of reference. Journal of linguistics, 33(2):255–274.
    This paper examines the relationship between the use of names and other words in address and in reference : how does the way that speaker A addresses B differ from the way that A refers to B, and what are the factors affecting this difference ?
  • Another interesting article for me to look up and read: "Personal Reference in English" by Gregory L. Murphy, in Language in Society, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Sep., 1988), pp. 317-349 (33 pages).
    Personal reference is the use of an expression to pick out a person, as in When did John eat the cookies? or Tell Dr. Elwood that I need to see him. This article explores the social factors involved in how speakers choose a referring expression in a given situation. Five experiments were conducted which presented speakers with scenarios and asked them how they would refer to a particular person in that situation.
  • Sociolinguists research why/how people use different reference terms across many languages, and in specific settings, e.g., "Linguistic Distance and the Dehumanization of Capital Defendants".
So the answer is: yes, there is plenty of research on this, and now I know more about where to look. Thank you!
posted by brainwane at 10:22 AM on November 17, 2022 [5 favorites]

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