Surname prefixes

Dutch surnames often have prefixes – de, van, van der, ter and so forth. And the custom is to alphabetize by the remainder, which is seen as the actual name. There’s something to be said for that: it stops half the phone book being listed under V.

Dutch also has rules about when to capitalize the prefix: at the start of a sentence (of course) or when the surname stands alone, without initials or forenames or a form of address. But English doesn’t have names with prefixes and so Dutch authors don’t know what to do with them and Dutch people get surprised when their names get alphabetized ‘wrongly’ abroad.

  • Let’s start by deflating the lie that the English-speaking world doesn’t have prefixes. There are all the Mac, Mc, O’, ap-, na- etc. names from the Celtic parts of the UK, and the prefixes from Afrikaans and Gaelic in South Africa and Ireland respectively. These are alphabetized as a whole, as written.
  • The English football team has had two Channel Islanders in recent times with French surnames: Graeme Le Saux and Matt Le Tissier. Both these were always capital L and alphabetized under L
  • Not alphabetizing that way could quickly get confusing for the Americans, Belgians and Afrikaners whose names are run together – Vanderbilt and the like.
  • And remember that anyone writing an IT system or whatever is going to be dealing with lots of foreign languages, not just Dutch. It may not be obvious what’s a prefix and what isn’t: van and de are obvious to most non-Dutch, but ter might not be. And while citing (Bilt, G. van der and Veld, P. in ‘t) might work, it can soon get confusing given that it then doesn’t work for e.g. “Veld, J. Huis in ‘t
  • Treating the prefix as anything other than part of the surname will get confusing when it’s a valid name – take Van Morrison and Den Watts, for example. I had no trouble Googling up a “Van Wilkinson” and a “Den Wilkinson” (a Vanessa and a Dennis respectively).
  • The Dutch approach of retaining the lowercase when there’s a forename or whatever present doesn’t look odd. In fact, writing Ludwig van Beethoven or Ruud van Nistelrooy with a capital V could look a bit weird. So you can just stick with the Dutch rules there. It can’t create confusion.
  • There are exceptions such as Beethoven who also are widely known without the van and would therefore go under B.

The various authoritative style guides differ on this one (so it’s another case where the customer is king: you go with their preferences). As far as I’m concerned, though, they’re over-thinking the problem: just look at what English speakers do with their own prefixes!

Prevalence: low. Turns up when people are creating lists of references and the like. And I had to choose which way to do it in the tag cloud in the Search page (where I went with the Dutch way because they’re about the only people who are going to be using it).
Frequency: low. But a thorny issue – I’ve brought this post forward because it turned up on one of the facebook groups.
Native: no. English-speaking translators and others who are familiar with these cultural issues will fret over them. Everyone else will just alphabetize as written, with capitals.

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

2 thoughts on “Surname prefixes

  1. Hi Mike,

    Don’t you mean “*without* initials or fornenames” in “Dutch also has rules about when to capitalize the prefix: at the start of a sentence (of course) or when the surname stands alone, with initials or forenames or a form of address.”?

    Kind regards, Els Hendriks.

    Op do 28 mei 2020 om 09:39 schreef Advanced Dunglish :

    > Mike Wilkinson posted: ” Dutch surnames often have prefixes – de, van, van > der, ter and so forth. And the custom is to alphabetize by the remainder, > which is seen as the actual name. There’s something to be said for that: it > stops half the phone book being listed under V. ” >

    Like

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