Have We Been Misspelling J.B. Pritzker's Name?

Feb 7, 2019

There is a mystery at the heart of Illinois government. Statehouse reporters have been in private discussions about it for weeks. After internal deliberations here at public radio, we thought it was finally time to go public.

The question has repercussions throughout state government. It has a role in every piece of legislation that will be signed into law in the coming years. Ultimately, it flows from the highest level of power in the land: the office of governor.

What we’re really talking about here is a relatively small matter. And I mean literally small — like a poppyseed. I'm talking about periods — the punctuation marks you would expect to come after initials. Major media organizations have been using those periods on the name of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker. But that's not how the governor has been spelling it — at least not lately — though his name has appeared with periods in the past, as when he ran for Congress in 1998.

Look, Illinois has big problems, from budget deficits to struggling human service agencies. But if reporters don’t get little details right, we know you’re going to wonder whether we’re getting the big stuff right, too.

So when it comes to the question of how to accurately write Pritzker’s name, I knew I had to go to the source. Gov. Pritzker spoke with me Wednesday in his private office in the east wing of the Capitol:

Mackey: “Typically the way we begin an interview with someone — not usually necessary in your case — but we say: ‘Can you say and spell your name and what you do?’”

Pritzker: (laughs) “JB Pritzker. I’m governor of the state of Illinois.”

Some of the ways in which Gov. J.B. Pritzker's name has appeared on official state documents and web sites. Everything is from the last two years except the congressional candidate filing from 1998 (bottom center).
Credit Brian Mackey / NPR Illinois

Mackey: “Now I notice you did not say J (period) B (period) Pritzker, and that is what a lot of newspapers say: The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times. Are there in fact no periods or periods in your first name or initials or whatever you want to call them?”

Pritzker: “Well, first of all I find it hilarious that this is even a conversation. But here’s the fact: my full name on my birth certificate — because I am named after my father’s two brothers, my uncles — their official first names were Jay, J-A-Y, and Robert, but of course Robert was known as Bob. So my name on my birth certificate is Jay Robert Pritzker. But immediately upon emerging from the womb, my parents, and my father in particular, nicknamed me ‘JB,’ because he didn’t want to offend either one of his older brothers by naming me Jay or Bob, and so JB was a way to honor both of them at the same time.”

Pritzker says “J.B.” is the only name he’s ever been called. But I still wanted to know when he decided to stop using periods. He says when he began his campaign for governor, his team presented him with a logo that did not include the punctuation, and that’s how he’s become known across the state.

Mackey: “So that started with the campaign. At some point you decide, OK, I’m going to sign official — signing laws of Illinois with just JB and no periods. Is that something you gave any thought to?”

'I can only tell you that it doesn't matter much to me.' - Gov. Pritzker

Pritzker: “Well let’s just start with the fact that when I sign my name — you’re getting into all kinds of complexity that I don’t think much about — but when I sign my name on documents, for many years, I mostly don’t stop to put a period, as you’re scribbling your name in your signature form, you don’t stop between letters, you’re just signing. By virtue of you asking this question, I’ve really had to rack my brain if I’ve ever even thought about the initials — the periods themselves — between them. I can only tell you that it doesn’t matter much to me.”

The punctuation may not matter much to the governor. But like I said earlier, details do matter to reporters.

Mackey: “I guess I don’t feel like I have a definitive answer though about whether to use periods in your name or not.”

Pritzker: “This will be one of the great mysteries of Illinois politics for hopefully many years.”

We could end the story there. But on matters of style, we need a decision.

Many of us rely on the Associated Press to settle these questions, so I emailed the corporate office in New York. Never heard back. Spokeswoman Lauren Easton wrote back after broadcast: “AP is considering how to handle the styling of the governor’s initials but hasn’t yet resolved it.” But the AP Stylebook says when someone uses initials instead of a first name, periods should be used:

The AP also has a history of adding a period to a name despite the bearer’s inconsistency on the matter: Harry S. Truman. (The AP is not alone on that — even Truman’s presidential library uses a period.)

So at least here at public radio, a governor named for men called Jay and Bob will remain J.B. Pritzker.

The Q&A portions of this story have been edited and condensed.