Entering middle names - include in first name field or use middle name field?

+26 votes
First, credit for this question goes to Sir William Arbuthnot, who posted it as a comment on my profile.  I'm not sure why he picked me to ask, since I don't know a whole lot, but it seems like a very good question, so I'm putting it here.

My answer:

I have observed that when first and middle name are both in the first name field, it fouls up searching.  If someone's first name is "Mary Anne", when you put either Mary or Anne in first name, the hit list will not include Mary Anne.

If, however, Mary is in first name field and Anne is in middle name field, then the person will be on the hit list for a search of either Mary or Anne.
in Policy and Style by Gaile Connolly G2G Astronaut (1.0m points)
retagged by Keith Hathaway

5 Answers

+17 votes
Best answer
In my opinion we have 2 guiding principles for name fields: one is the facilitation of searches, the other is to follow the style guide suggesting to use the names as they would have been used in the time and place of our ancestors. I would like to discuss just the second principle for a bit.

The concept of a middle name is culture dependent. In many European countries farmers and laborers, and very often even craftsmen had one name. If somebody was given two or more given names it was a status symbol signifying nobility or wealth. One exception were names after particular saints: Joannes Baptista is John the Baptist; another the custom to name males Johannes plus something and females Maria plus something. In many francophone countries multiple given names are hyphenated. In cultures using patronymics there is often a period when last names were added and patronymics became quasi middle names.

In all these cases the "middle" name does not correspond to a modern middle name which WikiTree abbreviates to the initial only, and one could be justified in putting all these names in the first name field in order to render the profile as close as possible to the way it used to be at the time in question.

Searchability suffers, but if you look at the example given it is hard to get everything so that a search would be 100% successful. In my ancestry there are many Maria Annas who at various times in their life were also spelled Mariana or Marianna, variations that would not get cought by putting Maria and Anna in separate fields.
by Helmut Jungschaffer G2G6 Pilot (553k points)
selected by Foster Ockerman
Wonderful insights, Helmut!

I think we have enough name fields to ensure searchability, though, for many unusual cases.  In the example you used, we could put Maria as first name, Anna as middle name, Mariana as preferred name, and: "Marianna, Maria Anna" in nickname ,,,or whatever variety of these is appropriate - my point is that there are fields for all of them and all would produce hits when searched if they were entered this way.

Except that in Central Europe in 1700 nobody would have known what to do with a Maria A.

But in Central Europe in 1700, nobody would have used WikiTree either.  I would hope we are sufficiently sophisticated nowadays to understand that the "A." would not have had meaning back then.
It would be helpful if we could split the functions of "searchability" and "display."  

Searchability is basically instructions we give to the computer program to help us find something, and searchability should be as broad as possible.  If a person's first or last names were spelled several different ways in practice, all of them should go into the searchability process.  You should be able to search for Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer by searching for Rudolf, or Red, or Nosed, or Reindeer.  Or Rednosed, or Raindeer.

That's a very different function than display.  Display is what the viewer sees on the page.  It does not need to be tied to the searchability function or display the search fields.  Combining them as we do now leads to display headings like Cassius "Mohammed" Ali formerly Clay, which is a combination never seen in real life.

As I watch how people struggle trying to get the names they put in to display in some reasonable way, the root problem seems to me to be that we have linked searchability and display, and there is no technical reason I can think of that we need to.
What a great idea, Jack!  That would certainly solve almost - if not all - the name problems and the contortions we go through over them.

Come to think of it, better yet would be a change that doesn't require separate search and display fields ... just change the search algorithm to accept Boolean constructs in the fields we enter for names to find.  (that "just" is not trivial - it will take serious software development work to make it happen).

Boolean constructs are combinations of single or multiple words (delimited with quotes) and logical connectiors (and, or, not) with parentheses to control the order of logical operations. If you look at the advanced search in google, it will show you how to enter those.

Using Jack's example, you might want to searc for:   ("Rudolph" or ("red" and "nosed")) and "reindeer".
+20 votes
I always use middle name box!

by Roger Bates G2G6 Mach 3 (38.1k points)
Me too.
Me three

As Gaile pointed out above, the usefulness outweighs cultural norms in these circumstances. If it's important to note how a name was used in the ancestor's day, then a note could be made about that in the Biography section.
Me four, even when the person has several middle names and one is not a usual middle name, for example Gibson, but it is not a hyphenated surname either, e.g. John James Gibson Smith, where Gibson was a family surname probably on the maternal line.
+11 votes
If the name was intended to be the given name of the person as Helmut states in his answer then they should both be in the first name field, BUT for most of the profiles they should be placed in the proper sections.  The search function should be the secondary concern in this case.  I believe, based on personal experience, that most of the time when both names are found in the first name field on WikiTree it is because of a GEDCOM upload and the program that created the GEDCOM is not generating the names as WikiTree expects.
by Dale Byers G2G Astronaut (1.6m points)
I *still* want to have my cake and eat it!  With all the fields WikiTree has for names, there must be a way to handle everything that is true to place/time naming conventions and still is searchable to us information-age folks.

If "Maria Anna" belongs in first name field, we could put "Maria, Anna, Mariana, Marianna" all in nickname field and still preserver our search capabilities for all variations that someone might enter.

My problem is that if "Maria Anna" is in first name field, then a search on either Maria or Anna will not find her.  If that is her correct first name, then whoever is doing the searching should know that and enter it as the first name in the search!
It would appear that this can only be solved by Chris because to make the search work the way you want with all of the possible variations involved would mean re programming the search algorithm.
I don't think any software changes are needed - the fields are already there and are searched.  It's up to us to fill the fields with what we anticipate people will use for their searches.  We can chain together an (effectively) unlimited number of search words/phrases in the nickname field by using commas to separate them.  That should be enough to handle pretty much anything for search purposes - IF we use it, though.

The other fields involved here - proper, middle, and preferred - can be reserved for only what actually belongs there without regard to serving the needs of searching.
The problem Gaile is that if we just enter things the way we want to without giving thought to the Style rules and other guidelines on here everything will become a useless mess.  If I used modern stadards for some one from the middle ages then we violate the principles of using names and locations as they were used at the time.  Add to that the fact that you encourage chaining a lot of information together just to make the search perform the way you want it to would add a lot of confusing stuff to the profile that may not even apply and may give false results that could cause improper links and merges.  It is always best to err on the side of caution because one mistake cna cause a lot of mistakes and bad links later.
I'm fine with Helmut answer for his scenarion, but I think the 90% use case (at least for what I see) is gedcom crud related. The more actively maintained a profile is the more caution i tend show in making changes. I always split them when doing gedcom cleanup.
+8 votes

Does the hit list work if you put "Mary Anne" in the "Preferred Name:" field? (leaving the "Proper First Name:" as just Mary)

by Peter Whalen G2G6 Mach 2 (25.0k points)
Yes, that would get hits for searches on "Mary" and searches on "Mary Anne".  The problem is that the proper first name field is supposed to be for the legal first name, which in olden times would have been "Mary Anne" so it is technically not correct to put just "Mary" in there.  The preferred name field is supposed to be for a name that is not the original given name, but one that the person was known by during all (or a major part) of his/her life.
A related issue with the preferred name field is the unfortunate way a person's name displays when that person's middle name is their preferred name.

Suppose a man named Benjamin Franklin Smith was universally known by the name Franklin Smith during his lifetime. If you enter Benjamin as the first name, Franklin as the middle name, and Franklin as the preferred name, WikiTree will display the name as "Franklin F. Smith," which was not that man's name.
+3 votes
In my opinion this question resolves around searchability plus display. I think about these folk as Robert Louis Stevenson or whatever, regardless. Of whether they are known as Robert or Louis.  The second name distinguishes them from all the other Robert Stevensons. Equally if they are Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool (a British Prime Minister) it wouldn't cross my mind to think of him as other than 2nd Earl of Liverpool, besides the fact that there must be numerous Robert Jenkinsons.

I think both the second name and the title should stand out.
by William Arbuthnot of Kittybrewster G2G6 Pilot (173k points)

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