LINGUIST List 6.527

Sun 09 Apr 1995

Disc: Against Initialization

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  1. "James L. Fidelholtz", against initialization

Message 1: against initialization

Date: Tue, 4 Apr 1995 23:37:10 -against initialization
From: "James L. Fidelholtz" <>
Subject: against initialization

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This note is an attempt to argue against the widespread practice of
reducing authors' names in bibliographies to initials. Since
I am a library freak of long standing, I sometimes actually
try to look for references in articles I read; I also have
experience compiling several extensive bibliographies
intended to be as complete as possible. The immediate
impetus for this note was doing a translation into Spanish of
the excellent article 'Maturational constraints on language
development' by Michael H. Long for a book on
neurolinguistics that I am compiling.

The original article appears in _Studies in second language
acquisition_ 12.251-285, a leading journal in the field published by
Cambridge University Press (which, incidentally, is the world's oldest
publishing house).

 I will not talk about normal translation difficulties, but rather
will focus on the practice which Cambridge University Press, most
other European publishers, and an apparently growing number of
American publishers, journals, etc., (as well as some individuals,
apparently including Mike Long) have of reducing all names except the
surname to initials in the bibliography or list of references. (To
judge by some recent Cambridge University Press books, Cambridge only
encourages this practice, since some articles in those books do not
follow this practice.) This process I will refer to as
'initialization'. My purpose is to present strong arguments against
initialization, as well as against such arguments in favor of the
practice as have occurred to me, to urge others to complain to
publishers that maintain this outrageously elitist and
anti-intellectual practice, and to diligently and conscientiously seek
any decent arguments in favor of this practice, so they can be duly
demolished and this practice hopefully squelched before any other
publishers or individuals decide to hop on the bandwagon. I apologize
in advance to Mike and to Cambridge University Press for abusing their
patience and kindness, but, as will be seen, they have abused mine.
The apologies, however, are for singling them out when they are really
just two among a sea of offenders (and in the case of C. U. P., not
even the worst one), a sea which I hope to convince the reader is
worth parting. (In case you haven't figured it out yet, I'm a
lifelong quijotesque optimist.)

 I start from the premise that bibliographies for articles serve
several purposes, among them helping to specify the philosophical,
methodological and 'scientific' background of the author of the
article or book, as well as the immediate sources of the ideas
presented in the work. Another important purpose, however, is to
point the reader toward other related works in the area, in case they
would like to pursue similar ideas further, either in their reading or
their research. Having pursued such goals in the past, and looked up
references in large and medium libraries, I would like to point out
some of the pitfalls inherent in initialization. This practice is
pernicious, in that it often makes it difficult or impossible to find
a particular reference in a medium-sized or larger library, sometimes
especially causing a tremendous loss of time if the reference is NOT
there. The arguments in favor of this practice (I assume that the
principal one is that it tends to save space in the printing) are
wrong-headed, since such savings are exiguous and relative, on the one
hand; and on the other hand, it may make the occasional and inevitable
error unrecoverable.

 For example, an error like 'Long, Nichael' is almost self-
correcting, while 'Long, N.' would in many cases make it impossible to
find other references by the same author, or possibly even the
reference in question. In the article cited above, several real
examples occur: one author is given as 'Schmid, E.' I accidentally
discovered that the person's name is 'Beata', but one can imagine how
impossible it would have been to look up other articles by this
author, and even the article in question was made quite difficult to
encounter. Compare this impossibility to the relative ease if the
reference had been 'Schmid, Eeata', where the error would have been
easy to detect and correct in the proof stage. There is no earthly a
priori reason, however, to question 'Schmid, E.', barring very
specific knowledge of the person. The author of another collection is
given as 'A. Locke'. It turns out that the author is 'Andrew Lock'
(no 'e'), and that the title was somewhat butchered as well, thus
giving the reader several false trails to pursue. One author of an
article is given as 'S. Cohen'. In fact it turns out to be 'Edmund
S. Cohen'. I admit that my objections are on principle, and that I
did not expect to find so many examples of the bad effects that can
occur from this practice in one article. The facts, however, speak
for themselves.

 It appears to me that if saving space seems so important, it
would be preferable to eliminate completely all the references, rather
than give altered references which are often only any good to those
'elites' who already know the authors (and articles) in question.
This practice sometimes reaches almost unimaginable heights, as when
in certain admittedly informal texts an author, for example, who is
referred to in the bibliography as 'S. C. Oyama' is mentioned as 'Sue
Oyama', when the name she publishes under is 'Susan C. Oyama'. Now
this particular case in this field is unlikely to cause serious
problems, both because the author is well-known and frequently
referred to, and because the surname is relatively uncommon. But the
surname does not have to be Smith to be likely to cause problems,
since in a library of any size even names like J. Thompson, C. Hall,
E. Schmid or S. Cohen can make for unnecessary difficulties
(especially when, as in the last two cases, the initial or name is
erroneous). The use of nicknames in the text, even in very informal
texts, is a disservice to readers, as it will confuse them further,
and make the finding of references more difficult still, unless
precise uninitialized names are given in the bibliography.

 It is also important to clarify what I am not complaining about:
I do not propose to 'de-initialize' authors who use initials
professionally, whether to avoid sexist judgments as much as possible,
for example; because of personal taste; or for any other reason,
except in those cases where the surname is common and the first name
is known to the person making up the bibliography, in which case the
remainder of the name may be placed in square brackets. (I would, of
course, encourage such authors to use names instead of initials, so as
to receive the proper credit for their work, instead of some more
famous person with similar initials and the same surname receiving
credit for others' work.) What I do object to is placing impediments
in the way of those who may want to look up references. On this
point, if the motive for the objectionable practice is to save space,
then why does Cambridge U. Press, for example, seem to encourage
authors such as Long in the (I would say very beneficial) practice of
writing the page numbers completely (that is, '119-153' instead of
'119-53')? I claim this practice is also good, because it helps to
make the inevitable errors more likely to be self-correctable, and in
much the same way as the illustration above.

 If there are other supposedly good motives for initialization, I
would be pleased to hear about them, and will attempt to argue against
them. If no more such arguments are forthcoming, and publishers wish
to be taken seriously by researchers, they should stop this practice
as soon as possible.

 Since I feel so strongly on this point, I have taken the
(considerable) trouble of 'deinitializing' the authors of the article
I am translating, unless the author uses initials professionally. So
far, using obvious and available sources in a quite modest library (by
US standards), and with a good bit of help from some of the librarians
there, I have been able to deinitialize all but 28 of 254 references
initialized in the original article (some of them repeated). It can
be done, but it shouldn't have to be. The point is for the original
author to do everything in his power to make it easy for someone else
to come along and prove him wrong. (Hey! this is supposed to be
science we're doing here!) This includes making their search for
references as easy as possible.

 Send comments, counterarguments, etc. to me at, and if appropriate I'll publish a summary,
rebuttals, etc. in due course. Thank you for not initializing, and for
insisting that publishers not do it to you.

Jim Fidelholtz (James L. Fidelholtz)
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