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5 techniques to spell any name correctly, every time

(Jenna Sterner/NPR)

We need not impress upon you the importance of spelling proper nouns correctly — on digital and in scripts. While nothing can substitute for constant vigilance, you can lower your odds of scoring a correction with these techniques.

1. Use dynamic spell-check.

Nearly every text-centric software package has some form of dynamic spell-check, the function that underlines misspelled, ungrammatical or out-of-place words with a red squiggle. Word, Chrome and Google Docs possess this power, as do others.

Dynamic spell-check knows many common and/or celebrity names. If you spell “Kardashian” as “Kardashien,” it will tell you, though different programs have varying talents for name recognition.

When dynamic spell-check doesn’t know a name, you can use it to prevent misspellings in subsequent references. Spell the name correctly once and wait for the red squiggly line to appear beneath it. Then, right-click on the name and choose “Ignore,” “Ignore All,” “Add to Dictionary” or the equivalent. (The specific wording depends on the software.) The squiggly line will disappear. If you later misspell the name, the red line reappears, flagging your error.

Dynamic spell-check in Chrome.

Dynamic spell-check works its magic in Chrome for Mac.

 

Ignore name spelling in Microsoft Word.

Now Microsoft Word for Mac knows Mindy Kaling’s real name.

Dynamic spell-check is not omniscient. It will not flag the common German surname “Muller” as a misspelling, though “Mulller” will kindle its wrath.

If your software of choice is not dynamically spell-checking, you can likely turn it on in preferences. It will be called “check spelling as you type,” or something along that line.

2. Copy and paste EVERYTHING.

Copying and pasting a name from an official, primary source is a near-foolproof method of ensuring accuracy, especially when combined with dynamic spell-check. It also preserves diacritics — accents, umlauts, etc. This Memmo further explores the nuances of copy-paste.

Do this even with “easy” names. The day you trust your ability to spell “Jon Hamm” is the day you type “John Hamm.”

3. Do not trust Google.

Be careful when checking spellings by glancing at Google results. Here is why:

Normally, Google tells you when it has corrected your spelling, in the “Showing results for …” line.

Google shows a name spelling incorrectly.

But sometimes it does not. Here, one might think “Vivian Lee” is the correct spelling when Google fails to protest.

Google does not limit its spite to the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Google doesn't flag an incorrectly spelled name.

4. Learn a spelling alphabet.

When you read back a name’s spelling, don’t rely on your no-doubt immaculate enunciation to distinguish “d” from “p,” “f” from “s,” etc. Instead, use words that start with the letters of the name you are checking.

If you don’t want to struggle to generate vocabulary on the fly, take an hour to learn the NATO Phonetic Alphabet. “November Papa Romeo,” once it flows naturally, is less-painful than stumbling through “Uh … Neurosis … hmm … Parsimony … Ransomware?”

5. Doubt your instincts.

“Peirce Mill” looks like a bizarre misspelling. And indeed, it is a crime against the English language. Yet “Peirce” is correct when referring to this Washington, D.C., historic structure. If a spelling looks weird to you, check it before you “correct” it.


Holly J. Morris is the NPR Training team’s Writing and Reporting Specialist.