Terry's TMG Tips

Managing Unknown Names

This page had minor updates 28 Dec 2007

Version note: Applies to TMG 8 & 9

We often find individuals for whom we cannot determine both given and surnames. For example, it is common to find married women in sources showing given names, but not birth surname. And occasionally we want to record information for individuals for whom we know neither given or surnames. For example, we may learn the place of birth of an ancestor's mother, but not her name, and want to create an entry for the mother to record that fact. This article discusses methods for dealing with these unknown names in TMG.

Of course, in some cases a name can be inferred, in which case that should be used instead of using the techniques discussed here. For example, when working with a culture in which children took their father's surname, if you want to create an entry for someone's father you can simply enter the surname of the child.

This article does not deal with the other name entry issues, such as individuals in cultures that did not use surnames, royal and noble names, farm names, etc.

The Choice - Enter Your Own Term or Leave the Name Blank

In deciding how to enter unknown names in TMG you should consider the impact on two areas - how the name will be displayed on TMG screens, and how it will appear in reports. These two are somewhat independent because TMG allows for a separate control of how blank names are presented in reports.

There are basically two approaches. You can enter a term of your choice in place of the unknown name (say "Unknown" or "---?---") or you can simply leave the unknown name element blank. If you enter a term, that term is used in all TMG screens, including the Picklist, and in all reports. If you leave the name field empty, or blank, TMG supplies it's own terms on various screens and in reports:

Terry's Recommendation - Leave the Name Blank

While some like to enter their preferred term in place directly in the name field in order to control how they will appear in the Picklist, I do not recommend that approach. I find that I can deal with the blank names in the Picklist just fine, and find the flexibility of being able to globally control how names appear in reports much more useful. If you enter a term you like directly in name tags and later decide you would like a different term, you may have hundreds or perhaps thousands of tags to change. But if you leave the unknown names blank, you can change how all of them will appear in reports with a simple change to the report settings. You can even have them appear differently in different reports.

It is easy to leave either the given name or surname blank, but the Add Person routine insists that something be entered in one or the other. But you can edit the primary name tag as soon as the person is created to remove both names. So if both names are unknown, enter anything in one of the name fields on the Add Person screen, and then remove it after the person is created.

The Problem with the Default Value for Blank Names in Reports

Once you decide to leave unknown names blank, and let TMG manage how those names appear in reports, you may find that the default value used by TMG is not to your liking. In published genealogies I've seen, some use the term "Unknown" and others use various combinations of dash-like characters, question marks, and sometimes parenthesis. So at first blush, TMG's default of "(---?---)" seems fine.

The problem I find occurs when this value is used in a report sent to a word processor. My word processor allows line breaks between any of the characters in this string. So if the string falls at the end of a line of text, part of it may be on one line, and a part on the next, not an ideal arrangement. You could of course use the word processor's search and replace function to change the hyphens, but there is a way to permanently solve the problem – change the default string to one that the word processor will not separate at a line break.

One might think you could just change the string to use non-breaking hyphens. But apparently TMG does not allow for that. But I've found that my word processor (MS Word) does not allow breaks between underscore characters. So the string ___?___ will not be broken at the end of a line. But I prefer the "dashes" at mid height, like hyphens. The solution is to use superscript for the underscores, using TMG's superscript code. So I use the following string:


This produces two long dashes separated by a question mark in my reports, which I'm happy with. If you would like something different, you might experiment with other combinations and test how they work with your word processor.

Note that there are slight differences in how the embedded font codes are implemented between files for word processors and files sent directly to screen or printer. Therefore you may need to experiment to find the best solution for your favorite way of "printing" reports.

How to Customize the Way Blank Names Appear in Reports

If you want to change the existing string used in place of blank names in reports to the substitute suggested above, or any other value you like, the procedure is quite simple.

The Names tab of Options for most of the reports has a field labeled "Empty names text." Type in that field whatever text you want to use. You must enter this text in each different Report Definition, but once it is entered it is saved. Since each Report Definition is independent, you can use different text for different reports, should you want to.

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