Analysing name variations

Name variations are common, even within families, and it is not unusual to find a name spelled differently in different sources. However, dismissing these variations too quickly may result in your family history becoming inaccurate. It is important to analyse name variations carefully and gather sufficient evidence for each conclusion.

Four main reasons for name variations

Lack of standardised spelling

The spelling of names has never really been standardised, by which I mean a common agreement to spell a name a certain way. Instead, we have common spellings, which may or may not be passed onto subsequent generations.

The spelling of names may vary between related family groups, between locations, change over time or even vary within a single family group.

For example, my maternal grandmother’s surname was Rusten, but the first arrival in Australia on that line spelled it as Rushton and different families have spelled it as Ruston and Rustin.

Nicknames, middle names and abbreviations

People may be known by names other than those given to them at birth. They may use this name all of the time, or just some of the time, or assume it at a certain point in their life. Or, they may be called different names by different people. Sources might record them by their given name or by their nickname, or by an abbreviation. If you are lucky, they will use abbreviations that are in common usage, but not always.

Accidental variations during source creation

Name variations commonly occur during the process of creating a source document. Errors can occur in all sources, including original sources. However, the likelihood of errors increases with derivative sources. Errors may involve minor spelling substitutions or more substantial alterations.

For example, my father’s 4x great grandfather, Patrick Dwyer, is often recorded in sources as Patrick Dyer and in an index to immigration records on Ancestry he is listed as Patrick Ayer.

These types of errors are particularly common when names of non-English origin are recorded by English speakers. (See Kate Bagnall’s article about Chinese names in Australia)

Deliberate changes

Deliberate changes are not as uncommon as you might expect. A person may change the spelling of a name, translate it or transform it, or adopt an entirely different name. Some cultures use different names in different circumstances, while others change the surname with each generation.

Some examples:

My maternal 4x great grandmother, Mary Ann Leonard, took on the surname of her stepfather Thomas Foran and became Mary Ann Foran.

My paternal great grandmother, Bertha Hawkins, took on the surname of her biological father and became Bertha Dixon.

My father’s name was changed from Barry Flanagan to Barry Hawkins when he was adopted.

My maternal great grandfather changed his name from James Hen to James Hend in the 1890s, when anti-Chinese sentiment was high in Australia.

Search strategies

There are many articles online about search strategies that deal with name variations, so I will just list the key strategies:

  • A Soundex search or wildcard search may pick up variations that are not found using an exact spelling search.
  • Try a surname-only search to avoid variations in first names.
  • Consult lists of common nicknames and abbreviations.
  • Use different repositories (indexes) and sources.
  • Search alphabetical lists to pick up variations you may not have considered, e.g. all surnames starting with Rus.
  • Try common variations, such as single letter, double letter, different vowels and misread letters. Consult spelling substitution lists.


Substantiating conclusions where name variations are involved can be quite a challenge, as they tend to be unpredictable and you will rarely a formal change of name document. I was lucky in two of the four examples I provided above, as the name changes were formally documented in government records.

So, how do you analyse name variations and reach reasonable conclusions that the person is the same or that two people are related, despite the variation?

It helps if you treat name variations as inconsistencies. The Genealogical Proof Standard requires that inconsistencies be resolved. Resolution in this case means establishing that the person is the same in each source and that the name variation is not evidence of a different identity.

Be careful of assumptions. Gather your evidence, rule out other explanations and verify your conclusions.

Record all variations in the name of the person that you are researching and record the name as it was spelled in each source. Of course, you will need to choose one name to be the primary name for your family tree. There is no rule guiding this choice. Perhaps the most common options are to use the name recorded on their birth record, their death record or the name the person used most often.

Analyse name variations using similar strategies that you would use to determine if two people with the same name were same person:

  • gather more sources and more evidence
  • identify the informant and consider how likely it was that their information was reliable
  • consider how the information was recorded
  • correlate the information using reliable sources
  • consider whether the person was in the right place at the right time, if they had the same occupation, were the same religion and so on
  • learn everything you can about the person, look for patterns and investigate any doubts you may have.

Most importantly, put the information into context and broaden your search. Use timelines, sources that record family groups (such as census documents) and apply the FFANs technique (Family, Friends, Associates and Neighbours).

If a name change is linked to an event or identifiable timeframe, find evidence of that event or sources from that time period to see if they explain the name change.

Finally, remember that source citations merely document where you obtained the information, such as how a name was spelled. They do not explain a name variation or provide evidence of identity. You will need additional documentation that sets out the evidence that you relied upon in reaching your conclusion that the person using the different name variations was indeed the same person.

More information

NSW State Archives Change of Name Guide

AIATSIS guide to indigenous names

Baxter, Carol, Help! Why Can’t I Find My Ancestor’s Surname, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.

Article on the Anglicisation of names

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