How Americans Use Their Middle Names (Or Not!)

How do Americans use their middle names? It seems like an easy question, but it can get a little confusing.

I explained some of the rules in our Unlimited English lesson, Cultural English #457. (All of our Cultural English lessons include questions and answers about important expressions, idioms, and phrasal verbs in English.)

You can read the transcript below and listen to the audio file here:

“Our second question comes from Gary in China. Gary is confused about English names.

Well, many people are confused about English names, Gary, so don’t feel bad! He gives the example of a famous English author, Beatrix Potter. Her full name is Helen Beatrix Potter.

He wants to know if we should be calling her Helen Potter, or Beatrix Potter, or maybe her real name is  . . . Harry Potter? (No. I don’t think so!)

Well, the question has to do more generally with middle names and when they are used as first names.

Many Americans – maybe most Americans, I’m not sure – have a middle name, and that middle name goes on their official legal documents. My middle name is Lawrence; my full name is Jeffrey Lawrence McQuillan.

Now, some people don’t like their first name, and they may decide to use their middle name as their first name. Now, legally their name doesn’t change, typically, but in terms of how they like to be known at school or at their work can really depend on the name that the person decides to use.

Here in the land of Hollywood, a lot of actors and actresses change their names, and sometimes they decide to use their middle name as their first name.

You may have heard of someone called Brad Pitt. Well Brad Pitt’s real name is William Bradley Pitt. Brad is a short form of the name Bradley. He uses his middle name.

You may also know Jose Antonio Dominguez Banderas, but he really goes by the name Antonio Banderas.

And there is another actor, not my favorite, by the name of Ashton Kutcher. His real name is Christopher Ashton Kutcher, but he decided to drop the first name and just use his middle name as his first name!

There’s really no logic to this. It just depends on the person and whether he or she likes his or her first name. Some people use their first name, but just the initial.

So, instead of calling me Jeffrey Lawrence McQuillan, you could call me J. Lawrence McQuillan, or J-Law.”

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