With electronic transmission of contact infos (h/x/j/vCard, CardDAV, EAS etc.) it should be possible to store unambiguously the various parts of a person’s name and title as well as their gender and hence determine reliably the proper salutation on the phone, in an email or when meeting in person.

How can this clarity be assured on physical media, especially business cards? And should it? Do QR codes or URLs to electronic contact infos suffice? Are color for gender acceptable? Do people understand the convention of putting the family name in all-caps or small-caps?

Consider an international company with people from diverse places with different ideas about the format and structure of (their) names. The company is engaging activities around the globe and wants to adopt a single design for business cards. The main script is Roman and the internal language is English.

Business cards have several complimentary applications. They can be part of a communicative ritual, a reminder, a mini portfolio, an advertisement, a place for notes, a piece of art, a tool, a toy, a collectible … Some of these have equivalents on websites and intranets where About or Contact may show names, pictures, email and physical addresses, phone numbers etc. of individual people or teams/departments within a corporation. Most of this may also appear in the visible footer of an email, or in invisible headers.

Informative example cases

  • Russian patronymics often appear between given and family name and may be more important than the latter. This differs from other Slavic countries.
  • For Icelanders the given name allegedly is the only one that matters, the patronymic or matronymic surname is basically just there to comply with European conventions.
  • Some Middle Eastern cultures also have strong patronymic components (ibn/ben) that may or may not be considered essential.
  • In Hungarian names, the family name usually precedes the given name, i.e. the order is inverse to most of Europe (and the “Western” world).
  • Many East Asian names are similar to the Hungarian case, often with lots of people sharing the same family name, but additionally they are originally from a different script (where phonemic transcription may lose some meaning) and it’s now common to adopt an additional Western given or nick name, too, which goes in front.
  • In the US, middle names are common (and are often shortened to an initial), but they may be either another given name or another family name.
  • Especially upon marriage, people may not completely change their family name but add their spouse’s to it in one way or the other.
  • German people from former noble families may have parts of their family name look like translatable titles (e.g. Graf ‘count’), and they might be omitted in salutations.
  • Romance, Celtic and Germanic languages, at least, have some frequent prefixes to family names that are not important for collation and sometimes may be unnecessary when addressing people. They are also often written in unusual ways, e.g. with apostrophe (O’Neill), closely attached to the initial capital (McDonald), lowercase and separate (von Neumann).
  • The given names, especially Christian/baptismal names, throughout Europe and its former colonies follow a common tradition for a large part and most languages are distantly related, so people from this culture can often guess accurately from their name whether a person is male or female. Some names are ambiguous, though, and it fails completely for more foreign or unusual names.
  • In various cultures, people acquire nick names, pseudonyms or aliases that they’ll better respond to, even with strangers, than by any official name.
  • Their academic title, military rank or honorific may be important to some people, at least in certain contexts.
  • In queer theory, it recently is becoming more common to choose the pronouns one wants to be addressed with by others, which includes invented ones. This goes beyond the salutation issues for transsexuals (i.e. not the one people may assume at first) and a-/intersexuals (i.e. neither or both may be appropriate).
  • In some cultures, marital status still determines proper salutation, especially for women.
  • Some languages inflect names, others don’t. Many Slavic family names adopt an -a when applied to women, for instance.
  • The orthography of names is more complex and arbitrary than that of languages, they often retain ancient variants. This makes it even harder to assume the correct pronunciation.
  • Generational information like III or Jr. will probably be absent from business cards in most cases, unless parent and child work in the same company.
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    I did some work on the issue of names when preparing an ontology. It is quite a complex subject, and this is an excellent summary of the variations. For some contexts, it may also be worth considering pseudonyms (even business cards might have them, for example, stage names, religious names). Sadly, most of the standard name ontologies in existence (such as vCard) don't come anywhere near handling all the possible issues. Jan 12, 2016 at 13:05
  • 1
    related: UX to consider on a business card design
    – Crissov
    Jan 12, 2016 at 14:23
  • 1
    You might find this blog post interesting - Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names Jan 12, 2016 at 14:54
  • That's a great blogpost. I think the personal name ontology that I developed actually covered most of those. The author missed one false assumption: "people always have at least two components to their name, family name + given name" - which is also not true. Jan 12, 2016 at 16:14
  • Small refinement: Russian patronymic should always appear after given name. Full name can be written either Given_name Patronymic Family_name or Family_name Given_name Patronymic (more formal way).
    – citrin
    Sep 12, 2016 at 2:25

1 Answer 1


One possible simple solution for print would be to embolden the name by which the person would prefer to be addressed. That would solve the problem of given name and family name being displayed in a different order, and would cover most of the cases listed in your post.

An electronic version would require a much more detailed treatment, with some or all of the following components to the name.

  • Title
  • Given name
  • Known as
  • Middle name
  • Patronymic / matronymic
  • Family name prefix (e.g. Mc, O', Ni, von)
  • Family name
  • Maiden name
  • Name suffix (e.g. Junior, Senior)
  • Pseudonym
    • Stage name
    • Pen name
    • Name in religion

Some of these are available in existing ontologies, others are not.

Preferred pronouns would be a separate entry in the ontology.

  • nominative (he, she, they, e)
  • accusative (him, her, them, em)
  • genitive (his, hers, their, eir)
  • dative (him, her, them, em)

Existing ontologies cover some of these:

  • 1
    "One possible simple solution for print would be to embolden the name by which the person would prefer to be addressed". Effective! Jan 12, 2016 at 16:03
  • "embolden the name by which the person would prefer to be addressed" - with the (possibly incorrect) default assumption that a title such as "Mr." or "Ms." is supposed to be prepended? Jan 13, 2016 at 17:47
  • I hadn't made that assumption. I would put my preferred title in brackets after my name, e.g. Yvonne Aburrow (Ms) - unless that space was needed for qualifications, e.g. Ms Yvonne Aburrow, MA PGCE BSc(Hons) Jan 14, 2016 at 11:42

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