Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Weird punctuation with 'Jr.' Carl's Jr. Hockey.

Episode Summary

911. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we cover a bunch of interesting things about labels such as "Jr.," "Sr.," and "III." Plus, we look at the origin of the names Carl's Jr. and Ruth's Chris Steak house.

Episode Notes

911. In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we cover a bunch of interesting things about labels such as "Jr.," "Sr.," and "III." Plus, we look at the origin of the names Carl's Jr. and Ruth's Chris Steak house.

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References for the "Jr." segment
Garner, B. “Jr.; Sr.; III; Etc.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 4th edition. Oxford University Press. 2016. p.613-5.

“Holidays.” The Chicago Manual of Style Online, 17th edition. 8.89. The University of Chicago Press. (subscription required. accessed January 15, 2023).

“If John Smith Jr. asks for the period in Jr. to be omitted …” The Associated Press Stylebook, Ask the Editors. Sept. 06, 2018. (accessed January 15, 2023).

“Initials in personal names.” The Chicago Manual of Style Online, 17th edition. 10.12. The University of Chicago Press. (subscription required. accessed January 15, 2023).

“‘Jr.,’ ‘Sr.,’ and the like.” The Chicago Manual of Style Online, 17th edition. 6.43. The University of Chicago Press. (subscription required. accessed January 15, 2023).

“Martin Luther King Jr. Day,” AP Stylebook Online. Associated Press_._ (subscription required. accessed January 15, 2023).

“Names of holidays, etc.” U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual Online. 3.24. U.S. Government Printing Office. (accessed January 15, 2023).

Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I'm Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff. Today, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we’re going to talk all about the word “Jr.” — how to write it, and when to use it. Plus we’ll talk about how the burger joint Carl’s Jr. got its name, and then about Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. Because one thing leads to another!

In the United States, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the third Monday in January—at least that’s the common name for the occasion. According to the US Government Printing Office Style Manual, the official name of the holiday is Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.

But with either name, writers have to contend with that tricky “Jr.” on or near the end. Should you put a comma before it or not? You see it both ways. One reason is that the official name of the holiday includes a comma, but many of the major style guides omit the comma from the holiday name and say to omit commas before “Jr.” in names in general.

Do You Need a Comma Before 'Jr.'?

For example, the Associated Press says not to use a comma before designations such as “Jr.” and “Sr.” and specifically does not include a comma in the name Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The Chicago Manual of Style says the comma is not required before “Jr.” and also writes the holiday name without it. 

It’s still a style choice though. Garner’s Modern English Usage says both forms are correct, and has an interesting note saying that all the editions of The Elements of Style through 1972 called for a comma before “Jr.,” but then the 1979 edition changed and said not to use a comma because E.B. White became convinced that “Jr.” is restrictive rather than parenthetical.

One benefit of omitting the comma before “Jr.,” which usually means you use a comma after “Jr.” too in a sentence, is that it makes the possessive easier. Back in 2017, The New Yorker, which does use commas around “Jr.,” had a ridiculously awkward headline about “Donald Trump, Jr.,’s Love for Russian Dirt,” that actually wrote it “Trump Jr.,’s,” which they insisted was their style. It looked so bad!

But even if you don’t put the comma before the apostrophe like they did, it’s still ridiculously awkward. The Chicago Manual of Style also specifically recommends against making “Jr.” and “Sr.” possessive if you put the commas around them, suggesting that instead of writing something like ​​"John Doe, Sr.’s, speech," you should rephrase it to avoid the strange punctuation and write something like “the speech by John Doe, Sr.”

You Can Write 'III' or '3rd'

So now, what if someone is referred to as “the third,” you can use either the Roman numeral (III) or the Arabic numeral (3rd) after the name. (And I love that without any evidence at all, Garner’s Modern English Usage says the Roman numerals are more pretentious.) When you’re speaking the name, you say “the third,” but when you’re writing the name, you don’t include the word “the” before the numeral.

Labels Are Only Used With Full Names

“Jr.,” “Sr.,” “III,” and so on are used only when you’re writing someone’s full name. In publications, for example, you shouldn’t refer to “Bobby Jr.” or “Mr. Smith Sr.” unless you are quoting someone who referred to Bobby or Mr. Smith that way.

What to Do if Someone’s Nickname Is Junior

If a person uses “Junior” as a name, instead of abbreviating it, write it capitalized as a full word—just like a name or any other nickname.

Can a Woman Be a Junior?

And in case you were wondering, a woman can be a “Jr.” too. People don’t give their daughters “Jr.” names very often, maybe because if you’re into the whole family-name-legacy thing, it doesn’t work well with women because they often take their husband’s name when they get married, so then the name changes anyway.

But I did find a few examples. The designer Carolina Herrera named her daughter Carolina Herrera Jr., and first lady Anna Eleanor Roosevelt named her first daughter Anna Eleanor Roosevelt. Although it’s not clear to me that the younger Anna was ever referred to as “Jr.,” I did find court documents that referred to the mother as Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (Sr.). 

And a listener named Winnie told me that Rory on the ‘Gilmore Girls’ officially has the same name as her mom, but fan sites say they have different middle names, so I don’t think it counts. All three names—first, middle, and last—need to be identical for someone to be a “junior.” And that leads us into other interesting etiquette rules.

Other Etiquette Rules About 'Jr.,' 'Sr.,' and Other Labels

Garner’s has nearly three full columns reviewing the rules and etiquette that govern these labels, and in addition to the fact that the middle name needs to be the same too (which by the way, means that George W. Bush is not a Jr. since his father’s name was George H.W. Bush) there was a lot I didn’t previously know. 

First, traditionally, a father doesn’t go by “Sr.” Instead, he gets to just use his name, and then the son is supposed to be the one who gets a special call-out as “Jr.”

Second, once the father dies, again traditionally, the son drops the “Jr.” label and simply uses his name. In other words, Thurston Howell III would only be “the third” if his father and grandfather are alive. But as Garner notes, the traditional etiquette rules are often ignored these days. You should read the entire section of Garner’s if you have access to the book. It’s fascinating.

Why Publications Follow Styles Instead of Doing What People Want

So getting back to the commas, since it’s a style choice, what do you do if say, you’re following Associated Press style, which says not to use the comma, but the person you’re writing about asks you to use it because they use the comma in their own name? 

I’m not a very combative editor, so I’d do whatever the person wants, figuring it’s that person’s name, and if they feel strongly enough about it to ask, what do I care? But the Associated Press, which has more of an interest in upholding rules across a large organization, has guidance suggesting they would still leave out the comma. I was kind of surprised because they generally say to honor a person’s wishes about their own name. But, for example, an editor’s Q&A notes that they wouldn’t leave the period off “Jr” if someone requests it because it’s not their style to do so.

Many years ago, Jonathon Owen, an editor who blogs at Arrant Pedantry, made a compelling case about why people shouldn’t be allowed to insist on a comma when the style says to leave it out. His main point is that punctuation is different from spelling—that spelling can vary from name to name and is, in a way, the essence of the name, but that punctuation is just a formatting issue that should follow standard conventions. 

Bottom Line

Getting back to yesterday’s holiday, the general modern style is to write names such as “Martin Luther King Jr.” without the comma before “Jr.”—that’s what you’ll see in newspapers and on websites—but if you write for a government publication or website that follows USGPO style, you should include the comma before “Jr.” because that’s how that style guide does it.

It was definitely the style in the past to put a comma before” Jr.,” and that’s probably why the official name of the Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. includes a comma, but things have changed and current styles widely favor leaving out the comma.


Since we’re on the topic of “Jr.” and unusual punctuation, it reminded me of the odd name of a fast-food burger restaurant: Carl’s Jr.

Carl’s Jr.

As an undergrad, I knew two Italian exchange students who were confounded by “Carl’s Jr.” They had learned about how English apostrophes work, and "Carl’s Jr." just didn’t make any sense to them. They thought it had to be “Carlos Jr.” or that we were just messing with them.

The story is that there really was a Carl, and his name was Carl Karcher. In 1941, he opened a hot dog cart in Los Angeles with his wife Margaret, and within a few years they had a whole restaurant called Carl’s Drive-In Barbecue. Carl’s Jr. came into being in 1956 when they opened two smaller restaurants (one in Anaheim, California, and one in Brea, California), and they called them “Jr.” because they were smaller versions of the bigger drive-in barbecue. So just like a son who is a “Jr.” is maybe thought to be a little version of his father, or at least a chip off the old block, the two “Jr.” restaurants were smaller versions of the parent restaurant. The two new restaurants also had simpler menus, so the concept of “junior” in this case could also mean “simpler,” like how the game Boggle Junior is a simpler version of the regular Boggle game. But whether they were juniors because they were smaller or juniors because they were simpler (or both), they were called Carl’s junior restaurants. 

And since we’re talking about restaurant names, a listener named Mike wrote in asking what’s up with the apostrophe in “Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse”? It seems like a weird name, like it should be Ruth Chris’s Steakhouse.

Fortunately, the company has the story on its website, and after you hear it, it’ll make sense too.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House

There really was a Ruth, and her name was Ruth Fertel. In 1965, she bought a steak house in New Orleans called “Chris Steak House,” and she ran the restaurant for many years, turning it into a huge local success, at least according to the website. 

But in 1976 a kitchen fire destroyed the restaurant, and for some reason, the terms of the sale when she bought the restaurant wouldn’t let her open a new restaurant in another location with the name “Chris Steak House,” but she needed to move to stay in business after the fire. To get around the problem, she renamed it, putting her name in front. It was her steak house: Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Now it all makes sense, and Ruth’s Chris Steak House now has locations all over the world.

Finally, I have a familect story. 

"Hi, Mignon. My name is Eben, and I've been a fan of your show for a few years. The familect I wanted to offer was ‘hockey,’ like the sports game. My grandparents, now long departed, used to refer to hockey as, like, excrement. You know, for example, you know, a passing dog, ‘That dog hockeyed in my yard.’ And a little kid hearing it, you know, some 40 some years ago, you know, obviously, I could pick up contextually what it meant, and I remember when I was at school, or begin school age, using it and the other kids looking at me oddly, which I now know because they knew it as, you know, the game with, you know, sticks and pucks. But my grandparents from Texas refer to it as ‘hockey,’ you know, excrement, poop. So thank you again. Enjoy your podcast. Looking forward to many more. Thanks. Bye."

Thank you so much, that was so interesting to me because my dad called it “pucky,” which sounds really close to “hockey.” If something wasn’t true, he would say things like “That’s horse pucky.” 

Well, believe it or not, the Oxford English Dictionary actually lists “hockey” as a word for excrement, with the label North American slang (originally U.S. regional (chiefly south Midland)). Those regions are farther north than Texas, they include Oklahoma and Kansas, for example, BUT the Wikipedia entry says that some regions of Texas actually have more of a South Midland dialect instead of Southern dialect, so maybe that’s why your grandparents picked up the word, or maybe it had already spread farther than the OED first had it, since it specifically said it was originally from the South Midland region.

The first citation for “hockey” with that meaning in the OED is from “Transactions of the American Philological Association” in 1886, and it’s kind of fun because it says “Hockie is used in East Tennessee among little children.” So I guess it started with kids.

One possibility in the etymology section of the entry is that it came from the Scots word “cacky,” which goes back to at least the 1700s and was also used regionally in the U.S. That comes from “cack” which goes back all the way to the 1400s in English, but it comes directly from Latin. The OED labels it obsolete as a verb, but it looks like the noun “cack” may have had a resurgence in British slang to mean “bad, worthless, useless, rubbish” etc.

And, the OED also has “pucky,” which it says is also North American slang, although it doesn’t say anything about it being limited to a region. “Pucky” is also much newer, with the first citation being in just 1953. They think it could be a “humorous alteration of hockey,” or — get this — “perhaps after the alleged practice of playing ice hockey with a puck made of frozen horse dung.” Who knew you could find such things in the Oxford English Dictionary!

Thanks for the call. It was fun to look up the origin of your family’s saying and one of my dad’s words too.

If you want to share the story of your familect, a family dialect or a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL, and I might play it on the show. Be sure to tell me the story behind your word and call from a quiet place.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to my audio engineer Nathan Semes, and my editor, Adam Cecil, who says he is excited to do his taxes. Our ad operations specialist is Morgan Christianson, our marketing and publicity assistant is Davina Tomlin, our digital operations specialist is Holly Hutchings, and our intern is Kamryn Lacy.

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.