In a work, when you introduce someone by their full name and later refer to them in a context which is not appropriate for a pronoun, do you use their first or last name?

Example: "Eli Whitney is credited with inventing the concept of interchangeable parts. [...] Out of this contract, (Eli or Whitney) developed a sample of guns which he then presented to the United States Congress"

  • In a work - as referring to a formal document like a book / report?
    – Jagmag
    Dec 14, 2010 at 7:09
  • I originally wrote "In an essay", since that is what I'm writing, but I figured it generalized to any written work. If not then perhaps I should change it back to essay?
    – Ricket
    Dec 14, 2010 at 7:27
  • I would think that it would be different depending on the kind of document being written. If the document is formal like an official report, i think using the last name is more common. however, if it is more informal, like an essay, i would say that using the first name would be fine. Though i would think that there is a cultural aspect to how formal what kind of document should be as well...
    – Jagmag
    Dec 14, 2010 at 7:39
  • the best are legal documents which usually have a clause like This agreement entered between Eli Whitney hereinafter referred to as the Guarantor and .... and then for the rest of the document, they will just refer to Eli Whitney as The Guarantor. Thats getting rid of the problem at the root itself :-)
    – Jagmag
    Dec 14, 2010 at 7:42

4 Answers 4


Generally, with names in the Western world that consist of a given name ("first name") and a surname, the surname is used for formal occasions, and the given name is used only in cases of familiarity. Thus in your sentence you'd say "Out of this contract, Whitney developed…".

You would use "Eli" only if you wanted it to appear informal and suggest that you were on a "first-name basis" with Mr. Whitney — knew him intimately — and possibly so was your audience. (E.g. you'd use it if you were toasting your friend "Eli" among an audience of his friends.)

Incidentally, when talking to people, there's a greater assumption of familiarity—you can use the given name in more occasions—in America than in Europe (and in younger people than in older), where using the given name indiscriminately can cause offence or irritate. In general, it's always safe to use the surname, until you're asked to use the given name.

[Caveat: These naming conventions, however, are far from universal. In China, for instance, it's customary to put the surname/family name first, and the given name later. It's the same way in some European countries, I think. Also, many Indian (especially South Indian) names do not have a surname, and consist of just a (given) name followed or preceded by an initial letter (or two) that stands for the given name of one's father (and possibly a town). Some people, forced by the demands of Western convention to have a surname, expand that letter and put their father's name as their last name, in which case if you used "Mr. [last name]", you'd be addressing their father.]

  • Note, though, that when addressing someone directly by family name, you should always use an honourific (Mr., Ms., Dr., etc.) unless you're their boss or close friends with them. For example, I could be called "Mr. Purdy" (in general) or "Master Purdy" (because I'm young), but only my closest friends call me just "Purdy", and anyone can refer to me casually as "Jon" or "Jonathan".
    – Jon Purdy
    Dec 14, 2010 at 9:52
  • @Jon: Good point. I guess that in decreasing order of formality, we have "Mr. [Jonathan] Purdy" > "Mr. Purdy" > "Purdy" > "Jonathan" > "Jon". I think "Purdy" is fine for essays, but "Mr. Purdy" is what one would say when addressing a person. Dec 14, 2010 at 11:02
  • @Rhodri: I think it would be helpful to make a distinction between oral and written situations. You are absolutely right in saying that calling "Jon 'Purdy without being very familiar or having some other odd special case, that would imply to me that he was my subordinate in some way. It can be quite insulting if used improperly." This is true not only in the US but also in several other English-speaking cultures. However, in written work, "Purdy" is preferred, as @ShreevatsaR already pointed out.
    – Jimi Oke
    Dec 14, 2010 at 15:27

@ShreevatsaR's comment about the level of formality/familiarity is pretty much right for Western names:

"Mr. [Jonathan] Purdy" > "Mr. Purdy" > "Purdy" > "Jonathan" > "Jon".

In an essay or book which recounts historical facts, as in the question, I'd suggest going with the last name. It's not too formal that it sounds stiff, not too personal that it sounds disrespectful. However, there are some cases where you should use the first name; such as a biography of the Wright brothers, since they share a last name it would be confusing to read "Wright handed the letter to Wright...".

In a novel or other similar work it's often the case that characters are referred to by their first names. However sometimes the author mixes and matches; this is one of the things that annoys me about the Malazan series. Most characters with first and last names are referred to by their last name, except a few who are referred to by their first names. Since all these names are unusual made-up names it's hard to remember sometimes if this is a first name or last name. So try to be consistent.

  • 1
    Note that the progression you list is correct for written works only. In spoken usage, an unadorned last name like Purdy falls dead last in the formality spectrum: even your own mother can't really use that unless she wants to insult you.
    – Marthaª
    Dec 14, 2010 at 16:44
  • 1
    @Martha: You're right that the rules are different for spoken. However I wouldn't say it's dead last. It depends on the circumstances. Dec 14, 2010 at 20:26
  • 3
    I have become an example!
    – Jon Purdy
    Dec 14, 2010 at 23:28
  • @Jon Purdy, now you just need to take the trash out, and you'll have become somebody as well. :)
    – Marthaª
    Dec 15, 2010 at 18:48
  • @Martha: Actually, that reminds me, I do need to do my trash and recycling. Thanks.
    – Jon Purdy
    Dec 15, 2010 at 19:44

If you're unsure of what's appropriate, using the full name when you need to refer to the name and he/she when you can should probably be polite. (Unless there are cultures where using the whole name is considered impolite).

If it's someone famous, you'd probably be safe using the name, title, or nickname/professional name/pseudonym they're usually known by. The musician Sting would be referred to as "Sting" since that's what he use, a monarch often is referred to by their title name and number and just the title when introduced in the text. If a person is known by a quite short name, such as Bill Gates it's probably best to refer to them as using the full name, if they're know'n by a longer name, especially if the "last name" (family name/place name/patronym etc.) is rather recognizable in it self, I'd use just the "last name".


If the work in question were a news article or an essay, I would use both the first name and last name of a person for every other reference after the first reference to the person. If I were to use a direct quotation in which a person referenced earlier is called by only his or her first name or last name, I would add the first name or last name to the direct quotation between brackets.

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