Should you put a comma before Jr. or not? You see it both ways. Using a comma is an older style. Most modern style guides say it’s better to leave it out.
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 opens in a new windowUS Government Printing Office Style Manual, the official name of the holiday is “Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Writers have to contend with that tricky “Jr.” on the end of the name either way. Should you put a comma before it or not? You see it both ways. One reason is that the official name 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, 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.,’ ” which they insisted was their style.
But even if you don’t put the comma before the apostrophe, 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’
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 that the Roman numerals are more pretentious.)
When speaking a name, you say “the third,” but when writing a name, you don’t include the word “the” before the numeral.
- Thurston Howell III
- Thurston Howell 3rd
- John Kennedy Jr.
Labels are only used with full names
“Jr.,” Sr.,” “III,” and so on are only used 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 his 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 Jr.?
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.
I did find a few examples though. The designer Caroline Herrera named her daughter Caroline 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 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. 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.
The bottom line
In short, the general modern style is to write names such as “Martin Luther King Jr.” without the comma — that’s what you’ll see in private newspapers and 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.
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. this link (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.
this link (accessed January 15, 2023).
“Initials in personal names.” The Chicago Manual of Style Online, 17th edition. 10.12. The University of Chicago Press. Link to read more (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. this link (subscription required. accessed January 15, 2023).
“Martin Luther King Jr. Day,” AP Stylebook Online. Associated Press. this link (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. Click this link (accessed January 15, 2023).