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Looking Beyond 'Your' Spelling

Surnames and places are subject spelling variation and error. Here are some tips to help aid your research.


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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Shelley Poblete
Word Count: 545 (approx.)
Labels: Census 
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No, they are not mine! Our name is spelt with an "E," the woman sitting beside me states to the Family History Centre volunteer, whose help she has just enlisted. This is a hindering mistake. Genealogy requires you to open your mind and examine different possibilities, and spelling is no exception.

It is not unusual to come across various spellings for a surname or place name. Illiteracy and transcription errors account for many of these variations. The uneducated would record names as they sounded (phonetically) i.e.; Tunnicliffe = Tonaclif, Tonnyclift, Dunaclif, Tanicliff. This particular name has at least a hundred spelling variations.

Where would we be without all those wonderful people who transcribe records for us? Unfortunately, the transcriptions are only as accurate as the person who transcribes them. Original records are often damaged, poor quality or illegible. Bear in mind originals were often written by candle light, as well as the fact paper and ink was expensive. A lot of information may have been cramped on to a sheet to conserve paper. It is no wonder transcribers have difficulty reading these records.

In addition to illiteracy and transcription errors, our ancestors often change the spelling of their name, intentionally. Often when our ancestors moved to another country they would change the spelling of their name to fit in with similar sounding names of that country.

"As a rule of thumb, all vowels are interchangeable and so are the consonants, Ingel, Engel, Angel could all be the same" (Potter Phillips, 2004, p.15). Wild cards searches and Soundex can be useful in this area, and both are simple to use.

Recently I took advantage of a seven-day trial offer on Although this is a great site it has its share of transcription errors. Wanting to download copies of the original census records to my computer I typed in my second great-grandparents names, Sarah and Samuel Tunnicliffe. I know they appear on all the census from 1871-1901, as I have come across them before via other research. I was unable to find this couple on two of the census. I tried different spellings with no luck. Then I remembered a little trick I had learned called a "Wild Card." This works by using an asterisks in place of a variable letter(s), i.e. Tunnicliffe = T*icliffe. You can try different variations with the asterisks to widen or narrow your search. I eventually found the census records I was looking for; one was under the spelling "Scarliff" and the other as "Sunecliff." Obviously the transcriber had difficulty reading those "T's"

Soundex simply requires you to type the name you are searching into the name field box and click on the Soundex button, which converts it to a Soundex code. Enter more information in the remaining field boxes to help narrow your search. You will get a list of names that sound alike or are spelled similarly, i.e. Bramley and Brambly. I have found Bramley children belonging to the same parents under both spellings.

Remember to keep an open mind and consider all spelling variations when searching for your ancestors. You will be far more likely to yield the results you are looking for.


Potter Philips, Donna. Begin With Assumptions, Family Chronicle Magazine. Vol.8, No.6 P.15. 2004. Toronto.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2007.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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