July 15, 2014

Using a middle initial might be “priggish”… but how else do we find each other?


Wile-E-Coyotes-card1Wile E. Coyote is still en vogue. But initials are over, reports the New York Times.

We can forgive an extra initial if it belongs to a cartoon character, but it’s harder to remember when it’s a business partner or a colleague. Yesterday Penguin Random House introduced new email addresses for its burgeoning team. One problem: with over 10,000 employees across five continents, anyone with a common last name may have to use a middle initial.

Using a middle initial is all but necessary when we’re talking about SEO for authors or even publishing folks with common last names. Others choose to tag one on, whether they need it or not.

In the New York Times on Friday, Bruce Feiler talked about the mistake of using his middle initial when he published his first book at twenty-six. (Nicholas Kristof dropped his middle initial in his byline in January.) Feiler writes:

The middle initial is actually a relatively recent invention. Middle names first began to appear in Europe in the late Middle Ages, but they weren’t widely used until the 19th century, when populations boomed and people needed more names to distinguish themselves. Studies show that fewer than 5 percent of Americans born during the Revolutionary Era had middle names; by 1900, nearly every American had one.

…In general, the trend seems firmly and consistently against. Maybe the reason harks back to something one of the editors at Mad is reported to have said about Alfred E. Neuman. His middle initial stands for “enigma,” because no one will ever know what it is. These days, fewer people want to be an enigma.

Both Feiler and Kristof said they chose to add the initial early in their careers. It seemed polished and professional as they were starting out. Kristof now describes the extra letter as “a bit ostentatious, even priggish.”

They were onto something. As Thomas A. Jacobs reported for Pacific Standard earlier this year, people in “intellectual domains” are tempted to use an initial to gain credibility.

Though it seems like a cheap trick, limited data shows it’s pretty effective. Take a look at this study from Wijnaud A.P. Van Tilburg of the University of Southampton and Eric R. Igou of the University of Limerick:

The first featured 85 students from the University of Limerick, who were asked to read a short article describing Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and evaluate how well it was written. The author of the text was presented as David Clark, David F. Clark, David F.P. Clark, or David F.P.R. Clark.

The results: “David F. Clark” received higher marks than “David Clark,” with “David F.P.R. Clark” scoring even higher. “It seems that one middle initial is sufficient to produce the middle initials effect,” the researchers write.

We haven’t found any studies about whether authors who use initials get more favorable reviews. If you want your readers to feel you’re “a terrific friend” who you could call up on the phone whenever you felt like it (as Holden Caulfield famously did), you might steer clear of the middle initial.

If your last name’s Coyote and you’re at Random House, you might consider that extra E. If your name is “Smith,” forget it. Throw in as many letters as anybody can remember.


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.