Foreign Words: Foreign articles in surnames

September 1, 2005: Issue 103

Foreign articles or prepositions as part of surnames (De Mille, Van Helsing, La Guardia) are confusing when it comes to capitalization. On first reference, follow the rules in Words into Type: Generally, capitalize those prepositions in the names of North Americans, unless the person in question has expressed a preference for lowercase. When the person prefers, lowercase the preposition when you use both first and last names.

correct: Designer Lynn von Kersting decorated this 1927 Beverly Hills home.

When you use the last name alone, however, capitalize the preposition.

incorrect: The decor reflects von Kersting’s singular talent.
correct: The decor reflects Von Kersting’s singular talent.

For more information on this topic than you could ever want, see Words into Type, “Part III: Copy-Editing Style,” under “Capitalization,” then “Proper Nouns and Adjectives.”

ON See other rules about capitalizing names.

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