Wikipedia talk:Manual of Style/Biographies/Archive April 2005

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Enormous Defense of DW & Critique of WP

About a year ago I discovered Wikipedia, and while the concept was fascinating, after searching a number of names and coming up with what I considered a lack of effort by the person(s) creating the near useless articles, I didn?t bother to check back very often. In addition to this I found several articles that on the surface appeared well done but which were actually misleading and a promotion of the author?s agenda.

Curious, recently I tested Wikipedia again thinking that over time, as a building process, things might have improved. On this occasion, I first searched for Gustave Caillebotte, someone with a very high level of recognition in his field. There was nothing except one listing of his name in an article. Next, I searched an obscure female person known importantly to only a small following in the field, and primarily in England. I thought for certain that not only would I never find a proper article, but would most certainly find no article at all. To my surprise, not only did I discover a new biography on Nina Hamnett, but it had been set up on with a quasi-professional and attractive presentation and included a photo together with very relevant links to other people and things I was interested in reading about. Whoever did this article put a lot of time and effort into doing it right and I was impressed.

I searched other articles and found numerous where the same Wikipedia contributor had put a considerable effort into each one. Because my situation makes it now possible to occasionally contribute, seeing this type of quality endeavor I was keenly interested in doing my best. Hence, I found my way to this discussion page.

I work for a major magazine, the subsidiary of a major international publishing company. My employer, like all media companies, spends a fortune on page layout, constantly trying to keep one step ahead our competitors. Unfortunately, Wikipedia has very limited options and there is only so much that can be achieved. That is why I don't understand several of the comments above. Why would anyone so harshly criticize a contributor for making a suggestion on how to improve the biography format in Wikipedia? Worse, those individuals only criticized without spelling out any new alternatives. In deference to some, there seems to be certain contributions to this discussion page that are little more than shooting from the hip and have been made without any sound facts or reasoning. In my estimation, that attitude does this project a great deal of harm and I seriously doubt whoever is financing this intends this to be the way things are done. For myself, or any new visitor to Wikipedia, this is not going to encourage very many to contribute.

Contributor DW isn't telling others how he (or she) wants Wikipedia articles done. What is being said, is this is how readers in the general public of today want things done.

If I may suggest, perhaps those who don?t understand, they should look at any newspaper or magazine. Short, crisp, standout headings appear on every article in order to draw your interest and attention. In today?s intensely competitive climate, attracting and maintaining interest is a monumental task. And, contributor DW is right that the heading should not be "text overload."

As a reminder, this is the example Contributor DW gave, as seen on the discussion article:

  • Jane Doe (1870-1946), Painter

You will find professional layout people use no full dates and no lengthy, multiple descriptions of their occupation. Adding (Impressionist Painter) or ( Painter, Sculptor) is fine but no more.

Too much information on the opening line is not what is needed, getting the visitor's attention is. A perfect example of how long sentences can be not only tedious to read, but difficult to write is the opening of the biography for Janis Joplin. No editorial manager would ever allow this in a magazine, newspaper or encyclopedia.

Essentially, the reason all media uses short blurbs is because long headings became meaningless and readers/viewers will skip by. Readers scan headlines, researchers on the internet are no different. All ads and commercials too have a quick attention-getting blurb. As suggested by contributor DW, bolding that short blurb helps on a Wikipedia biography because trying to create fancy graphics, different fonts for text and text sizes, or multiple colors, and all the other eye-catching gimmicks every media source uses is not possible at Wikipedia. As part of writing this comment, I have looked at a number of pages on Wikipedia including those contributor DW has done. Given the limitations, the page is very well done. I note it has a picture of the subject, plus an all important example of his art. Too, the pictures are properly sized (although I might consider making Modigliani's photo a touch smaller) and equally as important they are well paced apart on the page and have been staggered to make the most attractive presentation possible. That does not mean it can't be improved upon by someone more knowledgeable, but the fact is, unless Wikipedia can hire full time layout artists, this article represents a excellent design and use of Wikipedia tools.

Remembering that the first line of any type of article must stand out and not be overloaded with text, the suggestion by contributor DW makes the most efficient use of the tools available at Wikipedia. That the heading line on Wikipedia biographies be limited to the person's recognizable common public name, their year dates, and principal occupation, always followed by a space, is easy to read quickly, short but clearly indicative of the article, efficient so that it does not waste time, and is precisely factual.

Next, because a biography is a life history, it must be set out in chronological order. People are born first, live a life, and die last. That is the sequence for a biography. Putting the complete death information before the person's life events is unacceptable form. We live before we die. All this means starting with the persons full name, full birth date and complete place of birth followed by short sentences and paragraphs. Long paragraphs are visually hard on the eyes and tedious for the mind. Why would anyone read an article such as that on Wikipedia, when there are a multitude of similar articles on the internet written in the fashion demanded by today's readers. The last lengthy sentence/paragraph died with James A. Michener. We live in a society today with a very short attention span. For evidence of this writing structure, pick up any of today's newspapers, magazines, novels, or professionally prepared biographies on the internet.

Too, I note that contributor DW seems to always make the effort to include the person?s burial site. Not only is this helpful information, it is a bonus and an attraction to bring researchers back to use this site because most encyclopedias or published biographies don?t include the burial site. It is worth noting that genealogy is second only to sex in the number of sites on the internet. Having the cemetery will increase Wikipedia?s traffic.

Also, from the comments above, some of the contributors to this discussion do not see the reasoning behind contributor DW's assertion that an NPOV on Wikipedia includes not making a judgment as to nationality. I shall attempt to do my best to explain and will stick to articles that contributor DW has indicated he created or edited. Amedeo Modigliani may well be Italian by birth, but a Wikipedia viewer gains nothing from a capricious designation of anyone. Nationality is a matter of pure interpretation and no one person on Wikipedia should be making that choice about others. Sometimes it is designated as where the person was born, in others it is where the person gained their fame to warrant being given a public biography. In Modigliani's case it may well, on the surface, do no harm to label him by birthplace but the reality could be quite different to an expert. However, leaving out the nationality designation eliminates the risk of a Wikipedia contributor being unaware of all the facts and hence posting a misleading or factually incorrect statement. But, by leaving out the nationality, it in no way invalidates or reduces the value and credibility of the Wikipedia article because the article provides the reader with all factual elements as to place of birth, places of other residency and the like. Put in a nationality and you gain nothing except risking harming this project . Examples of the nationality conundrum:

  • Amedeo Modigliani - his mother was born in France and in most countries that confers certain immigration and citizenship rights. Second, he worked all his adult life in France and made his reputation there. He did try to enlist in the French Army at the outbreak of the First World War. It is possible he was a French citizen and/or considered himself as French. Is everyone who posts an article on Wikipedia (or edits them) an expert in citizenship, and fully knowledgeable of all historic facts and data in precise detail on Modigliani's life. However, label him as French, and Wikipedia could upset a great many proud Italians. Why take the chance when a proper biography states all necessary facts about every important aspect of his life. The reason I use this example is because the opposite scenario exists with others. Example:
  • Mary Pickford - look at Microsoft Encarta. It currently states she is an American actor yet she was born and raised in Canada by Canadian parents, lived in Canada until a young lady, learned acting there and began a very successful career in Canada. Research every document from Canada, and she is proudly labeled as a great Canadian. As such, if Mary Pickford is an American because she worked in Hollywood for the better part of her life, then Amedeo Modigliani is could certainly be labeled as French.

A different example:

  • Marcel Duchamp - born in France, spent most of his life there but lived in the USA for a few years on two different occasions and actually took out American citizenship late in life which did not require him to surrender his French citizenship. However, he died in France, and in accordance with his written wishes, was buried in Rouen, France near his birthplace.

Question: Is Marcel Duchamp French or American? Does someone on Wikipedia have the right to decide that?


  • Jules Pascin: Born and raised in Bulgaria, lived and worked in France most of his life, but spent a few years in America where he became an American citizen. But, he returned to France to work for several years before dying there and being buried there.

Question: Is Jules Pascin 1) Bulgarian, 2) French or 3) American? And, does someone on Wikipedia have the right to decide which one he is? And if so, why does Wikipedia believe they have the right to decide that?


  • Audrey Hepburn: Born in Belgium, of an English father and a Dutch mother. From infancy she was raised by her Dutch mother in the Netherlands where she became a citizen and worked and attended school before moving to study and work in England under the British law that granted her British citizenship because of her father's birthright. She then went to work in America where she maintained a Hollywood home and was a major star while living in the USA for more than 25 years. But, at the same time, she also maintained a home in Switzerland where she went to relax between films. She retired to live permanently in Switzerland. It was her favorite place in the world and she died there and is buried there.

Question: Is Audrey Hepburn 1) Belgian, 2) Dutch, 3) English, 4) American, 5) Swiss? And, why does Wikipedia believe they have the right to decide that? And, why would giving her a nationality be relevant in an Encyclopedia when all the aforementioned facts are spelled out?

Members of the academic community are assessing this practice, asking themselves why insist on giving what is in reality no more than a subjective label to people when the biography provides precise details of this nature? Does it improve the quality of the biographical article in any manner whatsoever? One thing it does do, is upset a great many readers who translate the person's nationality differently.

For Wikipedia, the question becomes why can one person or a select few ban contributor DW on an open website because he strongly objected to the invalidity of the policy of a few particularly in light of that group's failure to even consider the apparent inconsistency such a policy creates. Yet, in the name of Wikipedia convention, a nationality designation is being absolutely insisted upon, so much so that the perpetuators of this policy keep deleting contributor DW's changes even after he explained the absurdity of it. And remember, for Wikipedia to be a valid source of information, this nationality designation must be applied uniformly.

What contributor DW is saying, is that a professional, well thought-out article should state the facts of birth, residency, death, citizenship changes, etc. without making an arbitrary judgment as to nationality. That way, no Wikipedia viewer, who might come from any country in the world, is upset. That, in my opinion, is not only proper, but good marketing. But then, perhaps the owner of this sight's mission is not to improve its profile and participation.

Today, I learned DW was banned at the request of the owner. When I read the attacks on him both here and elsewhere, I can understand the anger and frustration of someone who seems to actually care about helping make Wikipedia a successful place.

Jackie S.

REGARDING THE ABOVE - read below concerning 'Jackie' and who they really were.

I was looking at someone in the list of past edits and spotted 'Jackie S's by chance. It looked rather familiar for reasons I could not put my finger on, so I checked it. On Camembert's page some months ago User:Ron Davis was being his usual polite self. Someone criticised him and he responded . . . using Jackie Ss IP number. Now Davis rarely signed in using three ~s, preferring to hide behind anonymous IPs. Going by past standards, it is likely that having left a message using his Davis account, he as so often in the past left and came back by an IP (usually the same one), saw someone had criticised him and replied, forgetting he was 'outing' his secret IP by doing so. (There are other similarities I won't bother to mention!) So Jackie S was really user Ron Davis. And as was shown earlier on the wiki list, Ron Davis was really DW. So all that long long speech defending DW and saying how shabbily he had been treated (bla bla bla) was written by (surprise, surprise) DW. (Sometimes one ends up wondering whether some days, wiki consisted of nobody other than DW, in his various personæ, chatting to each other, Ron chatting to Olga who was chatting to Elliot who was chatting to Jacques who was chattng to Jackie who was chatting to Joe who was chatting to Sue who was chatting to Chuck who was chatting to Ron who was chatting to Olga who . . . aaaaagh! :-) FearÉIREANN
(I took the liberty of adding indent-markup to FearÉIREANN's contrib directly above.)
I know nothing of DW, but i note the sentence "But then, perhaps the owner of this sight's mission is not to improve its profile and participation." (Last one in next-to-last 'graph above Jackie S. sig.) I'm surprised someone with JS's background as claimed in 4th or 5th 'graph would use the confusing (tho grammatical) construction. Those who work with professional writers, and criticize writing, should be used to not writing things that will jar the ear of the pros. Thus they would almost without thinking come up with "... perhaps this sight's owner's mission is not ..." instead. This not only has fewer words, but gets "sight's" away from "mission is" and avoids the grammatical ambiguity. (As it stands, it could mean "the owner of the mission of this sight", and the reader has to search back for the other meaning, whose syntax is less natural.) IMO Jackie S lacks that ear of a publishing pro for clear prose that should jump out at us in a document that took such effort to compose.
I won't mention another obvious amateur writing mistake, waiting for JS to point it out if it was a slip of the pen. I'll be interested whether others will also pick up on it, before JS can. --Jerzy 23:54, 2003 Oct 20 (UTC)

Names with Family Name before Given Name

I have some proposal about the presentation of the person name in the article. To make less confusing the first name and the last name of Eastern figures, why don't we use the convension widely used in TV, for example. That is put the last name first with all upper case letter followed by comma and put the first name. The article should look like:

MATSUO, Basho (松尾 芭蕉) is a famous Japanese poet. bahabaha

-- Taku 21:06 Feb 20, 2003 (UTC)

[following contrib moved from below and marked up for indent by Jerzy 23:54, 2003 Oct 20 (UTC)]
With respect to non-western name ordering, I would suggest that the most correct approach is to give the name in the order of the subject's native language, and a redirect from the alternative ordering IF it is likely that users would search for the subject that way. For an example, see Miyazaki Hayao/Hayao Miyazaki. I don't think the MATSUO, Basho style is appropriate given that it is not used for western names (and editors have already been busy removing the surname caps from several of my entries), and while it makes it clear what the surname is it does not give any clues as to the important ordering information.
A further advantage of the "native order" approach is that it promotes cultural awareness, as a significant number of westerners don't realise there's anything but "givennames surname" ordering. It is just as important for wikipedia to enlighten as to be easy to search.
-- mib.
[following anon & undated contrib moved from below and marked up for indent by Jerzy 23:54, 2003 Oct 20 (UTC)]
Some discussion of Japanese names has been moved to Wikipedia:Manual of Style (Japan-related articles).


I read the lengthy essay of Jackie S. above, and I tend to agree with her in regard to the nationality. If we left out nationality except where there was absolutely no complication or doubt, we could have saved ourselves of, for example, the Copernicus debate, and maybe some others. I think nationality should be eliminated of required introductory elements, when it can and should be replaced by a description of relations with different countries.--AN 21:36 Feb 20, 2003 (UTC)

Casing of Names Beginning with Prepositions

Mic says that when referring to people surnamed "von" something, the "von" should remain all lower case, even at the begninning of a sentence. What do other people think? (See Helge von Koch.) -- Oliver P. 02:55 Mar 12, 2003 (UTC)

I know 'de' as in de Valera was always in lower case except at the start of sentences, when it could be De. I very much doubt that von remains in lower case (if I should be at all, and I have seen it as both 'Von' and 'von') at the start of a sentence. The beginning of a sentence should always be capitalised. So as far as I am concerned, Von is correct at the beginning of sentences. STÓD/ÉÍRE 03:03 Mar 12, 2003 (UTC)

The convention is to never capitalize a surname or title beginning with "von", or "af" for that matter, even when beginning a sentence. It is to my knowledge the only way to start a grammatically correct sentence without a capital letter. It is better to omit the prefix altogether rather than to capitalize it. / Mic 15:55 Mar 12, 2003 (UTC)
The most important thing about these problematic names is not to let the MoS keep us from using our common sense. Maybe someone has written in a grammar or style guide that you have to keep "von" lower case at the start of a sentence; there are plenty them out there, and no one has every been sent to jail for putting in a rule that everyone else thinks is absurd. If anyone takes this rule seriously enough to edit in
Maria was a young nun. von Trapp was an Austrian military officer.
then i'll be happy to accommodate them by editing it to
Maria was a young nun, and von Trapp was an Austrian military officer.
so we can both sleep OK at night. Case closed. --Jerzy 04:19, 2003 Oct 21 (UTC)

[ mib's contrib on oriental names moved up a section to "Names with Family Name before Given Name" by Jerzy 23:54, 2003 Oct 20 (UTC)]

Change of Name

How to deal with english name/original name, like in George Gamow? -- Looxix 00:49 Apr 27, 2003 (UTC)

[Anon reference to Japanese names &Wikipedia talk:Naming conventions (Japanese) moved up to section "Names with Family Name before Given Name" by Jerzy 23:54, 2003 Oct 20 (UTC)]

Social Titles / Honorifics

I notice that in some pages people are referred to, after the first stating of his or her name, by just his or her surname. I know that this is widely done in newspapers and so on, yet I do feel that it seems incredibly rude. As a hypothetical example, suppose that there is an article about Jane Smith. It might start as follows. Jane Smith was born in Anyville, USA in 1943 ... Fine. Yet later it might say something such as the following. Smith wrote a textbook on chemistry in the 1980s. I feel that it should say either "Jane Smith wrote a ...." or "Ms Smith wrote a ....". Is there a specific rule about this or is it just how some people write? Songwriter 10:58 6 Jul 2003 (UTC)

I don't think it's rude at all, and prefixing everyone with their titles (Ms, Mr) would sound very odd. Also, prefixes change over time, and how would we know if someone liked to be Miss or Ms? Obviously if someone has a more important title, (Dr, Sir), that should stay. I was taught to always use the full name first, "John Keats", and then to use the surname "Keats" from then on. This may just be the British style. CGS 11:23 6 Jul 2003 (UTC).
I think only the NYT and WSJ(?) uniformly add the social title anymore, and it sometimes sounds really odd - "...when Mr. Culkin entered the third grade...". Look closely at the books in your library that are less than 20 years old, you'll see very few of them using Mr. etc anymore.
Of the UK broadsheet newspapers, The Guardian and The Times both have their style guides online, and have roughly the same rule: on news pages they generally use "Mr" (etc.) except for dead people, convicted criminals, sportspeople and artists. On sports and arts pages they generally use surname alone. See: Guardian (under "Mr, Mrs, Miss, Ms"); Times (under "appellations"). I personally feel more comfortable using surname alone for encyclopedia articles, even when referring to (for example) living politicians. --rbrwr
The use of the last name without the social title (called an honorific, IIRC), seems to be rude in speech, but in writing it's quite acceptable. -Smack

I'm confused with what is written here. If His Royal Highness Prince Charles, Prince of Wales is mentioned in for the first time an article, should he then be called Windsor after that? Would the same be true for Queen Elizabeth II? --Philip Baird Shearer

Journalistic vs. Formal Style

This topic is causing much confusion and hard feelings (including mine) on the Talk: Terri Schiavo page. It appears that Wikipedia adopted what is refered to as American Journalistic Style, as opposed to Formal Style. The NYT, WSJ, Times and Organization of American Historians use Formal style. All endorse the use of "Ms." where the marital status or preference of the lady in question cannot be determined.

I personally find Journalistic Style to be offensive in the extreme, in regards to the Terri Schiavo case. Less so, in general. Ms. Schiavo was a person, not an object, and use of Formal Style would recognize her as such. I also believe that adoption of Formal Style would present a more professional face for Wikipedia. Finally, the non-American English-speaker will expect Formal Style. Please guide me in the best way to help Wikipedia adopt Formal Style.--ghost 07:53, 19 Apr 2005 (UTC)