Journalism

How Do You Spell the Name of the Ukrainian President? It Depends.

123RF

If you read about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, you may see different spellings for the name of the Ukrainian president.

There seems to be a great deal of disagreement over the Ukrainian president. Not the man himself, but how you should spell his name.

If you could swear you’ve seen his first name spelled “Volodymyr” and “Vladmimir,” you’re not imagining things. You may have seen his last name spelled with a single Y, as “Zelensky,” or with two Ys, as “Zelenskyy.”

How can one person have so many different spellings of his name? More importantly, which one should you rely on?

Let’s take the last question first: You should use the spelling based on the writing style guide you follow. Journalists mostly use the Associated Press Stylebook, but many well-known agencies don’t. They set their own rules. As you’ll see in a moment, in a case like this, it can cause a lot of confusion — and inconsistency.

Why there’s so much disagreement

The correct way to spell the Ukrainian president’s last name requires you to type it in Cyrillic. You can see the spelling in the sub-headline of this article. Since this site doesn’t use the Cyrillic alphabet, I can’t even copy and paste. Doing so results in a line of question marks.

But the Cyrillic alphabet, coupled with the Ukrainian spelling happens to be where the problem begins.

You see, when you translate his name from the Cyrillic alphabet used in Ukraine to the Latin alphabet we use in America, that turns out to be no simple task.

The US Library of Congress Romanisation tables suggest a character-for-character rendering would produce “Zelenskyy.”

But Russian transliteration would change it to “Zelenskiy.”

Some media outlets have chosen to simply drop the last Y.

There’s one somewhat valid reason for the single-Y option: it’s the way more people will spell it when they search for news stories about him. The alternate spellings don’t turn up as many search results. So maybe you can hang your hat on that argument to spell his name as “Zelensky.”

Different media outlets do it differently. CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post prefer “Zelensky.” Fox News, MSNBC and the Associated Press use “Zelenskyy.” Reuters uses the Russian version, “Zelenskiy.”

So if you rely on more than a single media outlet — and you should — you probably have seen more than one variation.

Since I use the AP Stylebook in my real job, I follow AP Style, so the rare occasions I might write a story that mentions him by name, it has to be the double-Y version.

But there’s just one little problem worth mentioning.

At this point, there should be no debate about how to spell Zelenskyy’s name. That’s because he — or his office — specified the preferred spelling in the Latin alphabet. That happened shortly after his election in 2019.

The official spelling, his office announced, is Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

There you go. No Vladimir, No Zelenskiy. Two Ys.

I realize it’s not an apples-to-apples argument, but let’s consider this: When someone notifies a media outlet that his or her preferred pronoun is not the one that might be assumed, the media is quick to adopt the new gender identity. At this distance, the media refers to Caitlyn Jenner as that. For the most part, most media outlets rarely if ever refer to “Bruce” unless there is some important context to a specific story that requires it.

Otherwise, there’s no question that Jenner is a she and that her name is Caitlyn.

The Associated Press Stylebook specifies that journalists should use the person’s preferred pronouns whenever possible. It even embraced the “singular they,” although it did rightly add that it should be used sparingly and that there are often ways to write around it to avoid confusion for readers. But that’s an important distinction: “writing around” that pronoun isn’t an effort to refuse to use the preferred pronoun. It’s an attempt to avoid confusing the reader.

If the world’s media — all of it — would spell Zelenskyy’s name the way his office says is the preferred spelling, there would be no confusion. People would simply learn the right way to spell it and Google searches would eventually reflect that.

I don’t know why there’s controversy here. I don’t know why there’s disagreement from one outlet to the other.

If he says it’s Zelenskyy, that ought to be enough.

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

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