Excerpt From: GRAMMAR FOR PEOPLE WHO HATE RULES by Kathleen A. Watson

What Was John Wayne’s Maiden Name?

Legendary for his rugged masculinity, actor John Wayne was born Marion Robert Morrison. Can you imagine a reporter interviewing him and asking him what his maiden name was?

Consider Merriam-Webster’s definition of maiden name: a woman’s family name before she is married

According to dictionary.com, maiden name is: a woman’s surname before her marriage

Do those definitions not smack of the assumption — or at least the implication — that all women eventually marry?

We’re in the 21st century. There are better, more gender-neutral, more inclusive — or simply more accurate — terms: childhood name, original name, or my preference,
birth name.

Some sources suggest family name or father’s family name.

 Times change, maiden name persists
The outdated descriptor maiden name still is used in everyday conversations, by writers, and on forms both men and women complete for any number of official uses.

Consider this June 2015 headline in The New York Times:

Maiden Names, on the Rise Again

The article reports that roughly 20 percent of women retain their birth name after marrying, rather than legally becoming known by their husband’s family name. Another 10 percent or so hyphenate their name or legally change it while continuing to use their birth name professionally.

Political correctness and sexism aside, it makes sense to use the more inclusive and gender-neutral term birth name when inquiring about or referring to anyone’s original name. It can apply to men as well as to women — or to spouses of any union.

If you work in human resources or have forms in your company that request a maiden name, I hope you’ll encourage those who oversee that department to consider a more inclusive term.

Were he still around, I’ll bet John Wayne would concur.

√ Killer Quote: “Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say  too much.” — John Wayne


Writing and grammar expert Kathleen Watson, fondly known as The Ruthless Editor, has nearly three decades of experience in both corporate and academic worlds. She has taught business people how to fine-tune their communication style, college students how to strengthen their writing, and Ph.D. candidates how to polish their dissertations. Kathy also has experience as a fiction and nonfiction book copy editor, working with a mix of new and experienced authors.

In addition to writing her own book on grammar, she blogs at RuthlessEditor.com, sharing weekly tips on how to write to get the job you want, earn the promotion you’ve worked hard for, and artfully explain your best ideas.

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