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When I find a woman's married name and have not yet found her maiden name what is the best way to record her name? If I put nothing, I end up with many Jane or Mary names in my list and have no easy way to tell them apart. Should I put their married name in parenthesis to distinguish them or is there a better way?


The following list has been extracted from the responses provided below. You should read the complete answer to understand the full intent of each.

  • Add a year of birth to the name

  • Add the name and dates of the spouse

  • UNKNOWN (mar. name)

  • Put married name in parenthesis

  • Leave the surname blank

  • Married name in quotes or parenthesis with their first name

  • Use married name but add Mrs.

  • Use three underscores or ???

  • Use classical approaches of --?—or five underscores [I voted this the correct answer, but for now will personally use married name in parenthesis)

  • Use what works for you (some of the above solutions are in conflict with other solutions - but this one kind of covers them all)

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Because you refer to the problem as being able to distinguish between people in your names "list," it seems likely your question is software specific. Personal experience indicates that genealogical software features vary greatly as to lists and sorting options. Assuming your question is software specific, then your question would be more valuable if you include the software and version number. –  GeneJ Oct 13 '12 at 15:32
P.S. Know that there are publishing guidelines for entering missing names. At least some of these publishing guidelines are well enough recognized to be considered themselves as standardized practices. –  GeneJ Oct 13 '12 at 15:35
For a well written, fun look at the practice of entering "LNU" (last name unknown), see Myra Vanderpool Gromley CG, RootsWeb Review 27 Aug 2002, for "In search of the Wild LNUs." Her article begins, "A long time ago in a kingdom far away there lived a maiden ..." ftp.rootsweb.ancestry.com/pub/review/20030827.txt –  GeneJ Oct 13 '12 at 18:40
The summary of responses added to this question is very comprehensive. My comment (NOT criticism) is that clearly some suggestions conflict with others. –  Fortiter Nov 3 '12 at 12:48

11 Answers 11

up vote 4 down vote accepted

On top of other name complexities, it seems limiting to alter a name to make its entry in a list recognizable.* Given software has different limints, I hope some adding some classical approaches if of value.

Based on working with scholarly journals a few years back, there are some recognizable approaches to missing names.

  • Following NGSQ Style,[1] bracketed em-dashes surrounding a question mark or [--?--]
  • Following Register Style,[2] five underscores or _____

I know that if you leave the entry blank, some software will insert the appropriate symbolism for either; some software allows you to select or customize the symbolism.


[1] NGSQ Style or Quarterly Style refers to the style developed and used by editors of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

  • See current issues of the Quarterly for the most up to date information.
  • Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2000).
  • Joan F. Curran, Madilyn C. Crane, and John H. Wray, authors, edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills, Numbering Your Genealogy: Basic Systems, Complex Families, and International Kin, rev.ed. (Washington: NGS,2008).

[2] Register Style refers to the style developed and used by editors of The New England Historical and Genealogical Register.

  • See current issues of the Register for the most up to date information.
  • Board for Certification of Genealogists, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual (Orem, Utah: Ancestry Publishing, 2000).
  • Michael Leclerc and Henry Hoff, editors, Genealogical Writing in the 21st Century: A Guide to Register Style and More, 2nd ed. (Boston, Mass.: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 2006).

*Consider the likely event that one might actually want to use the genealogical information for some higher purpose that the database--create a family group sheet or basic narrative. I guess I see a circumstance where solving the problem with a list might finding and re-writing all those names.

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A lot will depend on the facilities of the software you are using. I use Family Historian, which allows me to customise the columns I see in a list, so I have added in the name and dates of the spouse to enable me to distinguish between the many Janes and Marys without recording misleading surnames.

An alternative approach might be to record a surname as \Married to JONES\, for example, which makes it clear that you're using a placeholder.

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This does not relate to women only.

In many places in the world, boys are named by their father/GF, and not always with a middle name: I, II, IV, Sr. Jr. etc.

Same for If I don't know the last name.

What I ended up doing was to add the year of birth to the name. It's not the best solution, but for men who do not have a maiden name it suits me.

So some trees for me look like:

  • John, 1890, Doe
  • John, 1912, Doe
  • John, 1915, Doe (can be a nephew or a 2nd child)
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I use the method that was suggested in the original question – “put their married name in parenthesis”. This associates the name to the spouse and the names in parenthesis are all listed together so it still identifies it as a “loose end”. It seems a quick and easy way to do it, and works great for my purposes.

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Are there some downsides to your method? –  GeneJ Oct 17 '12 at 18:46
IMHO the huge disadvantage in putting a women's married name in parentheses to distinguish it from her maiden name: that usage is the opposite of the newspaper convention of listing a woman with all her names with the maiden name in parens, e.g. Mary (MAIDEN) MURPHY SMITH JONES. Family Historian puts the surname in between // so theoretically one could enter "Mary / / Murphy Smith Jones" if the maiden name was unknown. But think how much easier it would be to record data, especially from newspaper obituaries, if the standard and software agreed with the newspaper convention. –  Jan Murphy Dec 3 '13 at 22:38

@ColeValleyGirl said:

A lot will depend on the facilities of the software you are using.

Very true. I use Gramps, which gives a list of "todo" based on missing information. Because of this, I'll tend to leave the surname blank in this case. For most (all?) output that I deal with, it's clear how "Mary" or "Jane" is related.

If your software provides a decent search, @Andrew's suggestion of a convention of UNKNOWN (mar. name) is helpful, because you can pull up a list of all of the UNKNOWN when you are looking for your loose ends.

Also, I think most software that I've used has provided a way to record multiple names: "birth name", "married name", etc. A 19th century woman who was widowed and then remarried would have had three surnames during her life; it should be possible to record all of these names.

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I use a variation of the husbands surname, by using

Jane /(Smith)/ 

The brackets show the surname is the married name, which makes it quick and easy to see them and groups them all at the top of my record list to remind me I need to sort them out. Like Cole Valley Girl, I use Family Historian and have the husband's surname in a column as well.

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I put their married name in quotes or parenthesis with their first name and leave the surname blank: Mary "Smith" (blank) Lot easier to figure out needed research in a list of names. Also, I see a lot UNK (Unknown) for surname.

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I've tended to use the variation of the convention you've suggested, of UNKNOWN (Married Name) as this allows at least a chance of identifying the right one.

Of course, if your package allows tables, as observed by @ColeValleyGirl then that helps too.

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As long as you use a convention that you understand, anything will work. If you're publishing your work (on the web) you may need to be more explicit. –  ColeValleyGirl Oct 10 '12 at 15:34

I personally leave the married name until I locate the surname. [Mrs. Mary J Smith] [Mary J JOHNSON] It's important to put the Mrs. on a ladies married name and it shows the researcher that they haven't located the surname. Further, in the event of a family member having a similar name it will be less likely to confuse the two subjects.

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I like to use use __ (3 underscores). Since that follows "Z" in the character order, most programs tend to put them at the end of the surname index.

But if you want it at the beginning, you might want to go with ???

Both are more than adequate placeholders for the surname, are easy to enter, and are obvious what they mean (that you don't know what the surname is) to readers.

You'll still end up being unable to tell two Mary's apart that way.

Some software automatically appends the birth and death dates into the name index, e.g.:

___, Mary (1843-1912)
___, Mary (1946-)

If your's does, then that usually is adequate to tell them apart and you might not have to do anything more.

But if your's doesn't, you might want to add the birth and death dates to the __ and then you'll get:

___ (1843-1922), Mary
___ (1946-), Mary

Which is interesting, because then your unknown surnames will not be sorted by first name anymore, but will be sorted by birth year.

In your reports, they'll appear acceptably as:

Mary ___ (1843-1922)
Mary ___ (1946-)

Alternatively, you can append the surname with where they were born or lived, e.g.

___ (England, London), Mary
___ (USA, New York, New York City), Mary

If you do that, I'd put them in reverse order (largest jurasdiction to smallest) so that they'll sort nicely.

But they'll be a bit more cumbersome in your reports:

Mary ___ (England, London)
Mary ___ (USA, New York, New York City)
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I use 5 underscores. What's the difference if you have 20 Mary__'s or 20 Mary Smith's. It depends on the size of your database. If you want to add a married name, I would put Mary (Mrs. Charles R. Jones)__.

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