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Top 10 Tips for Finding Alternate Surname Spellings & Variations


Thinking 'out of the box' is often required when it comes to finding your ancestors in genealogical indexes and records. Many genealogists, both beginner and advanced, fail in the quest for their ancestors because they don't take the time to search for anything other than the obvious spelling variants. Don't let that happen to you! Get inspired when searching for alternative surname spellings with these ten tips.

1. Say the Surname Out Loud

Sound out the surname and then try to spell it phonetically. Ask friends and relatives to do the same, as different people may come up with different possibilities. Children are especially good at providing you with unbiased opinions since they tend to spell phonetically anyway. Use the Phonetic Substitutes Table at FamilySearch as a guide.

2. Add a Silent "H"

Surnames that begin with a vowel may be found with a silent 'H' added to the front. The silent 'H' also can often be found hiding after the initial consonant.

3. Look for Silent Letters

Other silent letters such as 'E' and 'Y' may also come and go from the spelling of a particular surname.
Example: MARK, MARKE

4. Try Different Vowels

Search for the name spelled with different vowels, especially when the surname begins with a vowel. This happens most often when the substitute vowel will yield a similar pronunciation.

5. Add or Remove an Ending "S"

Even if your family usually spells your surname with an ending 'S,' you should always look under the singular version, and vice-versa. Surnames with and without an ending "S" often have different Soundex codes, so it is important to try both names or use a wildcard in place of the ending "S," where allowed, even when using Soundex search.
Example: OWENS, OWEN

6. Watch for Letter Transpositions

Letter transpositions, especially common in transcribed records and compiled indexes, are another spelling error which may make it hard to find your ancestors. Look for transpositions that still create a recognizable surname.

7. Consider Possibly Typing Errors

Typos are a fact of life in almost any transcription. Search for the name with double letters added or deleted.

Try the name with dropped letters.
Example: KOTH, KOT

And don't forget about adjacent letters on the keyboard.
Example: JAPP, KAPP

8. Add or Remove Suffixes or Superlatives

Try adding or removing prefixes, suffixes and superlatives to the base surname to come up with new surname possibilities. If wildcard search is allowed, then search for the root name followed by the wildcard character.

9. Look for Commonly Misread Letters

Old handwriting is often a challenge to read. Use the Commonly Misread Letters Table at FamilySearch to find letters which were possibly substituted in the spelling of the name.

10. Did Your Ancestor Change His Name?

Think of ways your ancestor's name may have changed, and then look for his name under those spellings. If you suspect the name was anglicized, try using a dictionary to translate the surname back into the native language of your ancestor.

Changes and variations in surname spellings are of utmost importance to genealogists, as it is likely that many records are missed when only one form of the family surname is considered. Looking for records under these alternative surnames and spellings may help you to find records you have previously overlooked, and even lead you to new stories for your family tree.

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